Psychological research on learning is sometimes overemphasized in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean some concepts shouldn’t play an important role in teachers’ approaches. A report released last week by the American Psychological Association looks at what teachers should actually know about the ways their students learn.
The report was created by the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, an APA-backed group of psychologists who each proposed two psychological principles they deemed essential for teachers, as supported by current research. The group members then rated the concepts and came to a consensus on the top 20, then broke down the principles into five thematic categories.
1. Student Learning
The eight principles in the first theme focus on the best ways to approach student learning. Most of the concepts here encourage teachers to think carefully about where their students are starting from. Others focus on the importance of “deliberate practice"—rather than rote repetition—and providing timely, specific feedback.
Sample principle: What students believe about intelligence matters. For example, some students may think of intelligence as a fixed trait, while others may view it as a skill they can improve upon.
What to do about it: Be wary of making comments like “You’re so smart” when students quickly solve simple problems, as this can cause students to feel unintelligent when they struggle with more challenging problems.
The principles in the second group look at student motivation, particularly the need for students to develop intrinsic motivation and the influence of teacher expectations on student learning.
Sample principle: Mastery goals give students a better incentive to challenge themselves than arbitrary performance goals do.
What to do about it: Focus on personal progress and individual effort, and downplay opportunities for students to compare themselves to or compete with their peers.
3. Social Context
Interpersonal relationships—both in and out of the classroom—and emotional well-being have a major impact on students’ ability to learn. The three principles in this section of the report all encourage teachers to be aware of their students’ lives and emotions.
Sample principle: Since the classroom is inherently a social place, communication and healthy relationships are crucial for students to succeed in school and life.
What to do about it: Teach students strong communication skills, make sure the classroom is a safe environment for all students, and facilitate a “positive social climate” between students.
4. Classroom Management
There are only two principles in this section, but they both include extensive suggestions for the best way to create a classroom environment that’s conducive to learning.
Sample principle: A student’s behavior is learned, not inherent, and can thus be taught.
What to do about it: Establish clear expectations, be proactive in approaching potential issues, and teach behavioral skills in the same way you would any other concept, with feedback and opportunities for practice.
The final section discusses the need for fair, well-designed assessments that are grounded in the teacher’s understanding of the assessment as a source of useful information.
Sample principle: The best assessments are those that are “grounded in psychological science,” making them both reliable and valid.
What to do about it: This principle seems at first glance to be a form of self-promotion—the description refers readers to another APA publication on testing—but the report includes a solid run-down of what it means for an assessment to be “valid.” Assessments should be reliable, well-aligned to the material that has been taught, and suited to their intended use (placement vs. evaluation, for example), and teachers should look back at their tests after the fact to make sure the difficulty level is appropriate.
For all 20 principles and the practical advice associated with each one, see the full report, available for free online.
Image: Sue Clark/Flickr Creative Commons
More research to use in the classroom:
- 3 Ways to Use Testing as a Learning Tool
- Teaching Should Be Two-Way Interaction, Not Student-Centered, Author Says
- Study: ‘Pygmalion Effect’ Links Teacher Expectations to Student Success
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.