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The top 20 principles of Teaching & Learning

The top 20 principles of Teaching & Learning

7 min read
  • The science of learning

How do students think and learn? What motivates students? Are social contexts important to student learning? These questions are asked by teachers up and down the country. Fortunately, the answer to them may lie in existing psychological research.

All of these questions and more were answered by a team of psychologists who came up with the “Top 20 principles of teaching and learning”. Let’s take a closer look at what these principles are…

Top 20 principles of teaching & learning

How do students think and learn?

1. Student self-perception matters

Growth mindset is the belief that one’s intelligence, ability and performance can be improved. The opposite is a fixed mindset, which is the belief that a person’s talents are set in stone. Some benefits of having a growth mindset include:

  • Being more likely to seek out challenging tasks
  • Dealing well with negative feedback or failure
  • Performing better in cognitive and problem-solving tasks

Teachers can encourage students to develop a growth mindset by:

2. Baseline assessments

Learning consists of two things: adding to students’ existing knowledge (conceptual growth) or transforming their knowledge (conceptual change). From a baseline assessment, teachers can know whether they need to add information or change students’ misconceptions on that topic.

Teachers can therefore facilitate:

  • Conceptual growth by encouraging students to engage in meaningful interactions including reading and applying concepts.
  • Conceptual change by presenting students with information that proves that their misconceptions are incorrect.

3. Different influences on students’ knowledge

Students’ knowledge is not limited by their age, but through different contextual factors including:

  • Genetic factors
  • Prior knowledge in that topic
  • Interaction with more challenging material
  • Sociocultural context

Using baseline assessments is a good way to find out what level students are at. Some ways to develop students reasoning further include:

  • Encouraging students’ reasoning in areas they are familiar with
  • Presenting information that is challenging, yet achievable
  • Using mixed-ability grouping
  • Encouraging peer collaboration to help familiarise students with different cultures of the classroom

4. Learning is based on context

Learning is based on different contexts including subject-specific, individual tasks, social interactions and situational settings.

For learning to be effective, students need to transfer their knowledge across these contexts and situations, which does not happen automatically. Some ways to help facilitate this include:

  • Building on students’ strengths
  • Teaching a topic in multiple contexts
  • Comparing and contrasting different contexts
  • Focusing on the underlying contexts
  • Helping students apply their knowledge to the real world

5. Practice matters

Deliberate practice is key to transferring information from a student’s short-term memory, which has a very small capacity, to their long-term memory, which has a very large capacity. This type of practice involves attention, rehearsal and repetition over time. By taking part in deliberate practice, students:

  • Are more likely to remember the information in the long term
  • Can apply elements of knowledge automatically
  • Free up cognitive resources to learn more challenging topics
  • Transfer skills to new and complex problems
  • Are more motivated to learn

To encourage this, you can use tests, interleave practice and design tasks with students’ prior knowledge in mind.

6. The importance of feedback

Receiving regular, specific, explanatory and timely feedback on work is important for learning. It is most effective when students:

  • Are told about their strengths
  • Know what they can do in the future
  • Receive feedback in a timely manner
  • Address significant aspects of their work
  • Are praised in the right way

7. Self-regulatory skills help learning

Self-regulatory skills include attention and organisation, which help students learn the material. There are many ways to teach these skills which include instruction, modelling and supporting.

Some ways to enhance this include:

  • Presenting students with the goals of each lesson
  • Breaking down tasks for them
  • Giving them the opportunity to practice
  • Encouraging students to identify the short- and long-term consequences of their decisions

8. Creativity can be developed

Creativity allows students to identify problems, develop solutions and evaluate the effectiveness of these solutions. Creative thinking can be developed in different ways including:

  • Encouraging different strategies to answer the same question
  • Emphasising the value of diverse perspectives
  • Challenging enthusiasm for real-world problems
  • Modelling creativity
Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

What motivates students?

9. Intrinsic over extrinsic motivation

There are two main types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when an individual engages in the activity because they find it rewarding. Extrinsic motivation is when a person performs the behaviour for an external reward or to avoid punishment.

Although students take part in learning for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, research suggests that when students are intrinsically motivated, they are likely to have:

Three top ways to encourage this in the classroom include:

  1. Using feedback rather than rewards or punishments when marking students’ work.
  2. Communicating external constraints, such as deadlines, in a way where students have more choices.
  3. Encouraging creativity and some level of surprise.

10. Mastery over performance goals

There are two main types of goals: mastery and performance goals. Students who have mastery goals aim to know the task in order to improve their own ability. However, students with performance goals are more focused on doing better than others and may avoid difficult tasks. It is therefore better to have mastery goals. Some ways to encourage this include:

  • Emphasising individual effort, their current progress and improvement when evaluating students’ work, rather than comparing them with others.
  • Delivering evaluations in private.
  • Encouraging students to view mistakes as opportunities to learn.

11. The importance of teachers’ expectations

Teachers’ expectations influence a student’s opportunity to learn, their motivation and academic performance.

If these expectations are too low, students might develop low self-esteem and feel unable to succeed. It is therefore important to replace these with high expectations, which will encourage students to work harder.

12. Set short-term, specific and challenging goals

Setting short-term, specific and moderately challenging goals can help improve students’ motivation and encourage them to become intermediate risk takers.

One way to do this is by keeping a record of goal progress and having both the student and their teachers check it constantly.

Why are social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional well-being important to student learning?

13. Students come from different cultures

Students come from different cultures and backgrounds that influence how they learn. Being aware of this can help teachers provide more effective teaching & learning interactions within the classroom.

Some ways to do this include relating the curriculum to students’ cultural backgrounds, developing a classroom culture based on shared values and establishing connections within your school’s community.

14. Importance of interpersonal relationships

Teacher-student and peer connection are two very important interactions that happen within a classroom. In order to support their development, teachers should provide a safe and secure environment, where everyone is clear about the values within the classroom. Collaboration and discussion within the classroom should also be encouraged.

Some ways to do this include:

  • Engaging in active listening
  • Developing an open mindset
  • Developing a sense of shared identity

15. Emotional well-being

Emotional well-being has a big influence on students’ learning and academic performance. To be emotionally healthy, students need to understand, express and regulate their own emotion as well as understanding others’. As the classroom climate can influence students’ sense of security, it is important that teachers facilitate emotional development by:

  • Modelling appropriate emotional expressions
  • Teaching emotion regulatory strategies
  • Prompting emotional understanding of others

How to manage your classroom

16. Expectations for the classroom

Appropriate social interactions and behaviours are best when taught at the beginning of the academic year and reinforced throughout. It is best to have proactive disciplinary strategies in place that aim to avoid behaviour problems before they occur.

17. Effective classroom management

An effective learning climate is based upon three main things:

  • Setting and communicating high expectations
  • Consistently nurturing positive relationships
  • Providing a high level of student support

How to assess students’ progress?

18. Formative and summative assessments

When starting a new topic, you can use formative assessments, in the form of a quiz or test to help students achieve current learning goals. Summative assessments however are used at the end of a topic or year in order to evaluate students’ progress.

19. Assessments

Reliable and valid tests help teachers make appropriate inferences about their students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. Tests are thought to be valid when they measure what you actually want to measure, and reliable when results consistently indicate students’ knowledge, skills and abilities.

Some ways to improve the quality of your assessments include:

  • Aligning assessments with what is taught
  • Using a suitable number, variety and type of question
  • Basing high-stakes decisions on multiple measures instead of one test

20. Interpreting assessments

Clear, appropriate and fair interpretations need to be made when evaluating assessment outcomes. Some useful questions to ask before interpreting assessment data include:

  • What was the assessment intended to measure?
  • What comparisons are the assessment data based on?
  • What is the criteria for cut-points or standards?

Final thoughts

Research is still exploring exactly how we learn and what factors impact it. But evidence suggest there are some sound principles and guidelines that will help. The twenty teaching and learning principles listed here offer just that. They aren’t set in stone, and no doubt in years to come may be tweaked, but for now these potentially offer a firm foundation for future learning.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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