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REVIEW: How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching

Adrian Lawrence, MD, MACM
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN, USA

What does research say about how learning works? Where can a teacher find sound, instructional approaches to help students learn effectively and meaningfully? Is there a book that concisely explains and summarizes a philosophy of learning and yet provides practical strategies for real world application? How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles of Smart Teaching, by Ambrose et al, fits that bill. The authors and faculty drawn from Carnegie Mellon's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and the University of Pittsburgh set out to examine how students learn and how the principles of learning theory can be realistically applied. They manage to integrate research evidence drawn from the field of psychology, education, and cognitive science with practical experience for application in the college classroom. Note, this book was written with the college teacher and the undergraduate student in mind; however, those of us with a teaching or learning role within health professions will be well served by recommendations presented here. The strategies provided in most chapters can be applied easily to clinical teaching settings, simulation centers, and laboratory settings.

As implied in the title, How Learning Works is organized around seven inter-related learning principles that are paramount for learning success. In brief, the principles are: (1) prior knowledge, (2) organization, (3) motivation, (4) mastery, (5) practice and feedback, (6) development and climate, and (7) self?directed learning. Each principle forms a stand-alone chapter. The chapters are inter-connected but independent of one another, thus allowing for reading in any order. This is one of the book's key selling points for the busy clinical instructor who can read a chapter at a time without losing any understanding. All chapters share a common format. They begin with an attention grabber in the form of two typical classroom scenarios, which serve to introduce the principle at stake. This is followed by an in-depth discussion of the principle and ending with presentation of practical strategies for the classroom application. Contained within every chapter are tables and figures that summarize key "take home points." The final book chapter, another gem, provides ways an educator can use these learning principles to enhance their own lifelong learning. Eight appendices, found at the end of the book, provide very useful examples of learning objectives, student self?assessment, and other tools to complement the learning principles.

How Learning Works does an excellent job straddling theoretical and practical considerations. The book's comprehensive approach to effective teaching makes it an excellent resource for faculty who are interested in developing their teaching. Faculty who are in the early stages of their development will benefit from using these learning principles to frame their teaching. More experienced faculty, irrespective of their discipline or teaching style, will undoubtedly select a few suggestions and integrate them into their teaching toolkit. All faculty will find that the seven learning principles are very useful categories of analysis when constructing course activities or reflecting on challenging learning situations.

In conclusion, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching provides deep insight to the theory and research of learning and offers concrete strategies to enhance teaching. The book's in-depth discussion of the seven learning principles lead the reader to a greater understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it. How Learning Works is an essential reading to discover research-supported practical strategies to help students learn effectively and meaningfully, irrespective of subject matter or environment. If you have a desire to improve your teaching and enhance learning, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, would be a valuable addition to your library.

Book Review:
How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching

Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman, with a foreword by Richard E. Mayer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470484104. 336 pages, $40.00 US. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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