How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman, 2010, John Wiley & Sons)

Reviewed by Frank Hassebrock, Department of Psychology; Director, Center for Learning and Teaching, Denison University

How can college faculty from a first-year professor to an experienced veteran take specific actions to improve their teaching and enhance student learning? One suggestion is to read How Learning Works, which provides readers with a wide range of pedagogical strategies and practices that are based upon research evidence from a comprehensive selection of scholarship on the science of learning. The authors organize the book into chapters that focus on seven general principles of learning that have emerged primarily over the past 30 years from research in cognitive, developmental, and social psychology. Through clear descriptions of these principles and their underlying theoretical models and research, the book helps faculty and educators understand how student learning is dependent upon knowledge acquisition and organization, motivation and expectations, deliberate practice and targeted feedback, the development of cognitive and intellectual skills, social and emotional aspects of the learning situation, and the development of self-regulation and metacognitive skills.

Each chapter begins with two brief stories about learning situations that many faculty will recognize as familiar and authentic teaching experiences. The stories are connected to the chapter’s learning principle and the first half of each chapter introduces the relevant research and related concepts and theoretical models. The second half of each chapter provides specific examples of 15 to 20 strategies that faculty can adopt or modify in their teaching or use as learning activities, projects, and assignments with respect to the principle. The authors emphasize that the learning principles and the applications apply across disciplines.

At Denison, we have used How Learning Works over the past five years in three separate faculty development programs.

(1) The book’s clear and accessible presentation of evidence-based research on learning and many relevant applications to a wide variety of teaching situations make it an excellent choice for a faculty reading group. Over the course of one semester, we had a group of 10 faculty (from all ranks and disciplinary divisions) come together every other week for breakfast in one of the student dining rooms. Each meeting generated a rich discussion and sharing of teaching experiences, tips, and collegial support. The Provost’s office paid for copies of the book and the breakfasts.

(2) Four years ago, two of us developed and led a First-Year Faculty Learning and Teaching Seminar and chose this book to be the centerpiece of our readings and discussions. We met each month over the entire academic year and used each chapter as a resource and prompt for all participants to share teaching experiences and challenges in a supportive mentoring relationship. We are now in the fourth year of offering this seminar for new faculty. Please contact Frank Hassebrock ( for copies of the syllabus and discussion agendas.

(3) Each chapter’s two stories function as short and hypothetical cases of learning and teaching situations that can be used in a faculty development workshop. For example, a few years ago the Provost’s office organized a two-day workshop (Camp Denison) held at the end of the academic year that consisted of concurrent sessions covering a wide range of topics on pedagogy, learning, curriculum, and student development. Two of us developed a 60-minute session on “How Learning Works” and we asked the faculty participants to read a selection of these stories that covered most of the seven learning principles. We formed small groups and asked the participants to discuss how they would “advise” the hypothetical professor in each story to address the relevant teaching situation. As the groups then took turns sharing their advice with all of the session participants, we introduced and briefly explained the relevant learning principle.

A Resource for Faculty Development

How Learning Works has been a popular choice for faculty development programs at many colleges and universities as well as Centers for Teaching and Learning, and our experiences at Denison have been positive as well. For example, many of the participants in our original reading group (and several other faculty) came together in the following year to read and discuss another excellent book that links cognitive and learning research with undergraduate teaching- Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.  The First-Year Faculty Seminar has continued to use Ambrose’s book over the past four years as the primary reading. Participants’ evaluations of the seminar have yielded very positive comments about the book and the impact of the seminar. For example, “we read about and discussed a variety of learning issues from how students process information to diversity in the classroom. The book helped me think more carefully about what I do and why I do it- as well as how I might do it better.”  “I was very impressed in reading about all of the scholarly research connecting learning and teaching.” The participants thought the book and our discussions were very relevant to issues in their teaching or their students’ learning, provided helpful insights as well as practical tips, and served to energize participants to introduce specific changes in their teaching. In addition, the participants greatly valued the support and mentoring provided by the experienced faculty members who acted as discussion facilitators. The following quote is representative of the impact: “I found our discussions of the book to be most productive because they naturally tended towards our immediate experiences and consideration of concrete examples relevant to the themes and learning principles at hand. Hearing others’ experiences and reflections on these themes challenged me to consider more methodically my own and thus to self-critique or, equally important, to recognize that I’m not alone in the ‘ups and downs’ of teaching.”


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