Book Review: How Learning Works

post by whales · 2014-01-19T20:45:58.339Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 16 comments


    How Does Students' Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?
      Research consensus:
      Strategies for teachers:
    How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?
    What Factors Motivate Students to Learn?
    How Do Students Develop Mastery?
    What Kinds of Practice and Feedback Enhance Learning?
    Why Do Student Development and Course Climate Matter for Student Learning?
    How Do Students Become Self-Directed Learners?
    Applying the Seven Principles to Ourselves

As promised, I review and point-by-point summarize How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman (2010), hereafter HLW as I scratch in futility at the sprawling length of this post.


The authors aim to provide "a bridge between research and practice" for teaching and learning, very much in the spirit of Practical Advice Backed by Deep Theories. They concentrate on widely-supported results that are independent of subject matter and environment, so while the discussion is directed towards instructors in K-12 and college classrooms, there are also implications for essentially anyone in a teaching or learning role.

Let me restate that a little more strongly: any student, autodidact or not, would be well-served by internalizing the models and recommendations presented here. Teachers have even less of an excuse not to read the book, which is written very clearly and without sinking to punchy popularization. This is basic stuff, in the best possible way.

Sure, there are more sophisticated ideas out there; there exist subgenres of domain-specific research (especially for math and physics education); you can find diverse perspectives in homeschooling communities or in philosophy of education. There's even some controversy in the depths of the research on some of the points in this book (though for the most part the scope of disagreements is still contained within the boundaries drawn by the authors). But as far as most people need concern themselves, HLW is an earnest and accurate if not quite comprehensive account of What We Know about learning.

[I do wish there were a similar account of And How We Think We Know It, looking into common research techniques, metrics of learning outcomes, systematic errors to guard against, reliability of longitudinal studies, statistics about replicability and retractions, and so on, but this isn't it. The book lightly describes methods when it sees fit, and my scattered checks of unfamiliar studies leave me fairly confident that the research does in fact bear the claims the book makes.]

The book organizes research on teaching and learning into seven principles in order to "provide instructors with an understanding of student learning that can help them (a) see why certain teaching approaches are or are not supporting students ’ learning, (b) generate or refine teaching approaches and strategies that more effectively foster student learning in specific contexts, and (c) transfer and apply these principles to new courses." The principles are

  1. Students' prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and how they apply what they know.
  3. Students' motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students' learning.
  6. Students' current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Hopefully these ideas are not surprising to you. They are not meant to be; they stand mostly to organize diverse research findings into a coherent model (see principle #2). And if many of those research findings are old news to you as well, I also take that to be a point in favor of the book, and I trust that you will understand why.

Each chapter begins with two stories meant to illustrate the principle, a discussion of the principle itself, a discussion of the research related to that principle, and recommendations that take the principle into account. The chapters are interconnected but stand on their own. If you don't plan to teach, you might get most of your value from Chapters 4, 5, and 7. There's some fluff to the book, but not much. My summary, though long, leaves out the stories and examples, useful repetitions and rephrasings, detailed explanations, and specific recommendations, not to mention descriptions and citations of the relevant studies. I do not consider it a substitute for reading the book, which isn't really that long to begin with.

Before I summarize HLW, I'll make a couple brief comparisons. Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham (2009) looks pretty similar, down to the format in which chapter titles ask questions which are then answered by Principles of Learning, followed by a discussion of the principle, followed by recommendations for the classroom. It's written at a more popular level, with less discussion of actual research and lots more fluff. Only occasionally does it draw connections directly to a study, rather than use that as the chief mode of exposition (as in HLW). Each chapter does have a short annotated bibliography divided into less and more technical texts, which is nice. Willingham comes down strongly in favor of drilling and factual knowledge preceding skill. While that's something I've approvingly polemicized about at some length, it needs a mountain of caveats. In general he optimizes (explicitly, in fact) for counterintuitive punchiness, and it's not always clear how well-supported his advice really is. The organization and coverage feels haphazard to me, but where he hits on topics covered by HLW, he seems to agree.

The 25 Principles of Learning [pdf] from the University of Memphis learning group is a short document with a similar aim: a few sentences describing each principle, a couple sentences describing the implications, and a couple of references. It covers important points that HLW addresses only indirectly or that it inexplicably leaves out entirely (spaced repetition, testing, and generation effects, for example). It's worth looking over to fill in those gaps. But it's really "25 Important Findings on Learning": it doesn't give examples, offer very specific advice, or attempt to organize these principles into a causal model of learning. Consider them exercises for the reader.


1. How Does Students' Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?

Students link new ideas and information to what they already know. This can hinder learning in the case of inactive, insufficient, inappropriate, or inaccurate knowledge, but it can also be harnessed to enhance learning.

Research consensus:

Strategies for teachers:

2. How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?

Developing expertise requires rich connections between various facts, concepts, and procedures, organized around abstract principles and causal relationships. Although an expert does not necessarily build such knowledge networks explicitly or consciously, it is possible for a novice learner to deliberately organize knowledge into expert-style structures, improving learning, performance, and retention.



3. What Factors Motivate Students to Learn?

Students are motivated by the subjective value of a goal and by their expectancy of success. [You may be reminded of the Procrastination Equation, which also describes penalties for impulsiveness and delay.] Students may be guided by different goals, and recognizing this can help you foster their motivation.



4. How Do Students Develop Mastery?

Consider a driver changing lanes, making many small motions, visual checks, and mental evaluations fluently and automatically. An expert performs complex tasks with little conscious awareness of the complexity involved. To approach that level of mastery, a novice must not only learn the component skills, but also integrate the skills and know when to apply them.



5. What Kinds of Practice and Feedback Enhance Learning?

Practice is often misguided and feedback poorly timed, insufficient, or unfocused. To be effective, practice should be directed by goals and coupled with targeted feedback.



6. Why Do Student Development and Course Climate Matter for Student Learning?

People vary not just intellectually, but also socially and emotionally. Students' identities may be entangled with the course material and environment in complicated ways that often go unrecognized. A student's entire state—not just the intellect—interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning, for better or for worse. [When I saw this chapter title, I had a vague worry that it would seem out of place, a perfunctory nod to diversity studies or something. I'm still not entirely comfortable with parts of the treatment here, but the above premise is sound.]



7. How Do Students Become Self-Directed Learners?

As one progresses in academic and professional life, one takes progressively more responsibility for one's own learning. The jump between high school and college can be especially jarring in this regard. Metacognition, "the process of reflecting on and directing one's own thinking," becomes increasingly important, but falls outside the scope of most instruction. Still, to effectively direct their own learning, students must learn and practice an array of metacognitive skills.



Conclusion: Applying the Seven Principles to Ourselves

The authors turn their principles inward and discuss learning to teach. For the most part this is a restatement of the principles with no particularly new insights in their application to teaching, but there are interesting comments regarding the first few:


HLW has eight appendices on tools mentioned throughout the book, with a reiteration of their nature and utility, and most importantly, example checklists and worksheets. These are

These alone would have been an improvement over most teaching materials I grew up with.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by tanagrabeast · 2014-01-20T03:22:11.339Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This looks like a valuable book, and as a teacher I will probably read it soon. That said, at the high school level, it often feels like we are already swimming in "best practices" but being pushed under by crushing workloads. Better practices generally mean higher loads -- sometimes not in the long term, but always in the short term.

Think of it this way. When you have 180 students per day, anything you do that relates to individuals gets multiplied by 180. Did you design a killer rubric that lets you read and give useful feedback on a submitted paragraph in just one minute? You're amazing, but you will still need three solid hours to go through them all. And remember that this is on top of all of your other lesson planning and parent communication and extracurriculars and meetings and administrative paperwork etc etc.

And you have school again tomorrow.

In the same dangerous motion of not quitting after my first year, I privately swore to doggedly accumulate true effectiveness without sacrificing my personal life on the altar of public education. In the eyes of many, this makes me a bad person. How dare I draw boundaries around teaching as though it were just a job? Six years later, though, the tortoise is clearly winning this race. The corpses of the hares smolder by the side of the road; they were never as fast as they looked.

I will no doubt find some useful gems in this book, but they will be vastly outnumbered by the tears I shed for all of the great techniques I won't see any realistic way to implement.

Thank you for writing this review.

comment by MondSemmel · 2014-01-24T14:31:58.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Typos etc.:

(b) generate or redZne teaching approaches and strategies that more effectively foster student learning in specidZc contexts

You probably copied this quote out of a LaTeX document, and as a result, the stupid "fi" was copied incorrectly.

Also: In the paragraph beginning with "Expectancy of success is", did you want to put the part explaining the asterisk in a new line?

comment by TsviBT · 2014-01-20T00:40:58.899Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is awesome! Thank you for writing it.

comment by James_Miller · 2014-01-20T05:43:02.783Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although expected teaching quality can play a big role in their hiring decisions, most U.S. colleges do almost nothing to improve the teaching quality of their existing faculty. Is this a mistake, or would the returns to such efforts be low?

comment by zedzed · 2014-01-20T09:19:18.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm assuming you're asking whether efforts to make better instructors would be successful, rather than whether better instructors are significantly good. (Broad consensus to the latter is in the affirmative.)

And to that question, I don't know, but I'm doubtful. I recall watching a Bill Gates talk where he cited some stats that basically said that, after 3 years (K-12) teachers stop improving. This could be more or less pronounced in college. Going one way, having higher competence (from having advanced degrees) might mean that professors are more open to the idea that they might not actually be any good at teaching what they understand so well, and are open to suggestions (something of an reverse Dunning-Kruger effect). Going the other way, their great expertise in their fields may make them less predisposed to non-experts in the field telling them what to do (ie. math professors not wanting their math instruction informed by impure scientists who don't know a lick of math.)

My experience with professors favors the latter. The overall attitude is very much something like "We're the top of the field and this is how we got there, so that's how you're going to get there." There are, of course, exceptions--one professor, who I know personally, thanked me for pointing him towards Anki--but overall, I'm pessimistic that taking steps to improve teaching quality will produce returns.

Of course, if we were a bit clever, we'd go up a level and figure out effective ways of making professors better instructors. That would have good returns.

comment by MondSemmel · 2014-01-24T14:30:25.607Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for writing this summary! You must have put a lot of effort into this.

I'm not a teacher, so I don't know whether I'll every use any of this, though. That said, I have younger siblings - maybe some of these ideas can help me explain stuff to them better.

It covers important points that HLW addresses only indirectly or that it inexplicably leaves out entirely (spaced repetition, testing, and generation effects, for example).


comment by Qianyi Yu (qianyi-yu) · 2018-05-28T14:52:04.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

hello. Can I get the name of the writer please. I need to reference this review.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-01-20T15:22:42.176Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, there are more sophisticated ideas out there; there exist subgenres of domain-specific research (especially for math and physics education);

Would you have references for good sources on math education?

comment by whales · 2014-01-20T21:20:25.632Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't, unfortunately. If I were looking for something similar to How Learning Works, I might start with a few books like (1, 2, 3) if I could find them in a library or elsewhere to skim. You might also have better luck than I did looking for useful edited volumes/handbooks and review papers. There seems to be a lot of navel-gazing in the math education research community; you might even be better off just reading Pólya.

If anyone has a good answer to this question, I'm also very interested.

comment by Metus · 2014-01-21T07:38:25.601Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am also interested in those exact two fields.

comment by jazmt · 2014-01-20T02:20:38.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you familiar with Doug Lemov's "Teach like a champion"? If so how does is compare with "How Learning Works"?

comment by tanagrabeast · 2014-01-20T17:54:38.232Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I skimmed through Teach Like a Champion when it was first released, largely on the strength of the New York Times article about it. My take on it closely echoes this fair and critical Amazon review.

In summary, Champion can show new teachers a lot of low-hanging fruit -- valuable techniques veterans like myself already use but remember figuring out the hard way. In particular, Champion shines a light on hard-to-explain non-verbal concepts that good teachers don't always realize they've mastered and wouldn't think to tell newbies about. I expect that a new teacher will get more immediate mileage out of Champion than from How Learning Works. Veteran teachers, though, are more likely to be unimpressed and notice some real blind spots in Champion. For example, the linked review's discussion of SSR (sustained silent reading) vs. "popcorn" reading is, in my own experience, spot on.

I will make a note to revisit this comparison when I have read HLW.

comment by whales · 2014-01-20T20:14:52.182Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm just now skimming it. It looks orthogonal to HLW, which talks about models of learning and general strategies. Lemov seems to focus more on the mechanics of elementary- and middle-school classroom management. He apparently found a number of exceptionally effective teachers, observed them closely, and extracted common activities and techniques. I'm not in a position to evaluate that sort of thing, but tanagrabeast's take sounds reasonable.

comment by Emile · 2014-01-21T22:28:11.694Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks a lot for writing this! 58 new cards added to my Anki deck! I'll probably read some bits of the book once I have digested them a little (especially chapters 4, 5 and 7).

Silly question, what exactly is meant by "rubric"? Is it just highlighting part of a text in bold (or in color)?

comment by jazmt · 2014-01-22T03:47:18.908Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A rubric is a tool for assessment. It identifies criterion for evaluating work by identifying the categories of achievement and the measurements of levels of achievement in each category. This seems like a basic summary with examples:

comment by Emile · 2014-01-22T12:21:47.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, that's useful, I didn't know there was a word for that!