Skip to Main Content

How Students Learn: Principles of Learning

"Your brain is changing right now as you read this sentence, such that if you read this exact sentence again tomorrow, you would recognize exactly when and where you read it, if you read it next week, you would probably remember that you had read it somewhere recently, and if you read this exact sentence again next year, you would probably get a sense of déjà vu. But it would seem silly to claim that I just rewired your brain, even though reading that sentence has absolutely changed the biology of your brain in a durable way."

–Cedar Riener, as quoted in How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching by Joshua Eyler.


Theory and Research-based Principles of Learning

The following list presents the basic principles that underlie effective learning. These principles are distilled from research from a variety of disciplines.

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

    Students come into our courses with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes gained in other courses and through daily life. As students bring this knowledge to bear in our classrooms, it influences how they filter and interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is robust and accurate and activated at the appropriate time, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge. However, when knowledge is inert, insufficient for the task, activated inappropriately, or inaccurate, it can interfere with or impede new learning.

  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.

    Students naturally make connections between pieces of knowledge. When those connections form knowledge structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, students are better able to retrieve and apply their knowledge effectively and efficiently. In contrast, when knowledge is connected in inaccurate or random ways, students can fail to retrieve or apply it appropriately.

  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.

    As students enter college and gain greater autonomy over what, when, and how they study and learn, motivation plays a critical role in guiding the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which they engage. When students find positive value in a learning goal or activity, expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcome, and perceive support from their environment, they are likely to be strongly motivated to learn.

  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.

    Students must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, they must also practice combining and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity. Finally, students must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge they learn. As instructors, it is important that we develop conscious awareness of these elements of mastery so as to help our students learn more effectively.

  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.

    Learning and performance are best fostered when students engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion, targets an appropriate level of challenge, and is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria. Practice must be coupled with feedback that explicitly communicates about some aspect(s) of students’ performance relative to specific target criteria, provides information to help students progress in meeting those criteria, and is given at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful.

  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

    Students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and they are still developing the full range of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. While we cannot control the developmental process, we can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways. In fact, many studies have shown that the climate we create has implications for our students. A negative climate may impede learning and performance, but a positive climate can energize students’ learning.

  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

    Learners may engage in a variety of metacognitive processes to monitor and control their learning—assessing the task at hand, evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses, planning their approach, applying and monitoring various strategies, and reflecting on the degree to which their current approach is working.  Unfortunately, students tend not to engage in these processes naturally. When students develop the skills to engage these processes, they gain intellectual habits that not only improve their performance but also their effectiveness as learners.


Anderson, J. R., Conrad, F. G., Corbett, A. T. (1989). Skill acquisition and the LISP tutor. Cognitive Science, 13(4),  467-505.

Bandura, A.  (1989).  Self-regulation of motivation and action through internal standards and goal systems.  In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Goal concepts in personality and social psychology (pp. 19-85). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F.  (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Clement, J.J. (1982). Students’ preconceptions in introductory mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 50, 66-71.

DiSessa, A.  (1982).  Unlearning Aristotelian physics:  A study of knowledge-based learning. Cognitive Science, 6, 37-75.

Dweck, C.S. (2002). Beliefs that make smart people dumb.  In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Why smart people can be so stupid (pp. 24-41). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ford, M.E. (1992). Motivating humans: Goals, emotions and personal agency beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Healy, A. F., & Sinclair, G. P. (1996). The long-term retention of training and instruction (pp. 525-564). In E. L. Bjork, & R. A. Bjork (Eds.) Memory. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Hidi, S. & Renninger  K.A. (2004). Interest, a motivational variable that combines affective and cognitive functioning.  In D. Y. Dai & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Motivation, emotion, and cognition:  Integrative perspectives on intellectual functioning and development (pp. 89-115). Mahwah, NJ:  Erlbaum.

Holyoak, K. J.  (1984). Analogical thinking and human intelligence.  In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence, Vol. 2 (pp. 199-230).  Hillsdale, NJ:  Erlbaum.

Kuh,  G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., Whitt, E.J. & Associates. (2005). Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Matlin, M. W.  (1989). Cognition.  NY, NY:  Harcourt, Brace, Janovich.

National Research Council (2001). Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Nelson, T. A. (1992).  Metacognition.  Boston, MA:  Allyn & Bacon.

Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P. (2005). How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Schommer, M. (1994).  An emerging conceptualization of epistemological beliefs and their role in learning.  In R. Barner & P. Alexander (Eds.), Beliefs about text and instruction with text (pp. 25-40).  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Singley, M. K., & Anderson, J. R. (1989). The Transfer of Cognitive Skill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Steele, C.M. & Aronson, J. (1995).  Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69 (5), 797-811.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 82-96.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

  • URL:
  • Last Updated: Sep 15, 2023 10:06 AM
  • Print Page