What is effective teaching, anyway?

Well, one thing is for sure, we know that any definition of what 'good teaching' is will be highly contested (Tuckman, 1995; Ornstein, 1995; Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005). The truth is that there are many roads that will lead to good teaching. Probably the most quoted of them all is Chickering and Gamson's (1986) Seven Principles of Good Practice. While these principles still stand today, the environment in which we learn has changed dramatically, and new approaches to learning, such as connectivism which looks at the importance of learning networks, have emerged.

More recently, Ambrose et al (2010) have come up with seven research-based principles for smart teaching which are quite useful. The following is adapted from their work, and is taken from the Victoria University website.

What is Learning?

Any set of learning principles is predicated on a definition of learning. In the book How Learning Works by Ambrose et al. (2010), learning is defined as. This change occurs as a result of experience, increasing the potential for improved performance, and for future learning (adapted from Mayer, 2002).

There are three critical components to our definition of learning:

  1. Learning is a process, not a product. And because this process takes place in the mind, we can only infer that it has occurred from what students' produce or how they perform.
  2. Learning involves change in knowledge, beliefs, behaviours, or attitudes. This change unfolds over time and is not fleeting. Rather, there is a lasting impact on how students think and act.
  3. Learning is not something 'done' to students. It is something that students themselves do. It is the direct result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences - conscious and unconscious, past and present.

The Principles of Learning

The seven principles of learning used by Ambrose et al. (2010) come from a developmental and holistic perspective. They begin with the recognition that:

  1. Learning is a developmental process that intersects with other developmental processes in a student's life, and
  2. Students enter our classrooms with skills, knowledge, and abilities, and importantly, with social and emotional experiences that influence what they value, how they perceive themselves and others, and how they will engage in the learning process.

Consistent with this holistic perspective, readers should understand that although each principle might be addressed individually, as a means to highlight particular issues pertaining to student learning, all the principles are collectively at work in real learning situations. They are functionally inseparable.

In the paragraphs below, each of the principles is summarised in the order in which they are discussed in Ambrose et al. (2010).

(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, that prior knowledge or understanding can interfere with or impede new learning.

(2) How students organise 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 organised, 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 tertiary education 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 their learning behaviours. When students find positive value in a learning goal or activity, and they expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcome, with perceived 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 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, targeting an appropriate level of challenge and their practice is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria. Practice must be coupled with feedback that explicitly communicates germane aspect(s) of students' performance, relative to specific target criteria. It is critical that feedback includes information to help students progress in meeting the criteria, and that it 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. They are still developing their 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 the classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways. Studies have repeatedly shown that the climate we create has implications for our students. A negative climate may impede learning and performance, while a positive climate can energise 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 meta-cognitive 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. However, students tend not to engage in these processes naturally. When students acquire the understanding and the necessary skills to engage in these processes, they gain intellectual habits that not only improve their current performance, but also their long-term effectiveness as learners.

What makes these principles powerful?

The strength of these seven principles is that they are based directly on research. The principles draw on literature from cognitive, developmental and social psychology, from anthropology, education, and diversity studies, and from research targeting not only higher education, but also secondary education. This is not an exhaustive review and any summary of research necessarily simplifies a host of complexities for the sake of accessibility. However, Ambrose et al. (2010) believe that the discussions of the research underlying each principle are faithful to the scholarship and they describe features of learning about which there is widespread agreement. Indeed, several of the principles converge with those that others have delineated (Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, 2009; American Psychological Society, 2008). Ambrose et al. (2010) propose that this convergence attests to the principle's salience.

Not only are these principles research-based, but as Ambrose et al. (2010) have shared them with colleagues over the years, they have found that they are:

  • Domain-independent: They apply equally well across all subject areas, from biology to design to history to robotics; the fundamental factors that impact the way students learn transcend disciplinary differences.
  • Experience-independent: The principles apply to all educational levels and pedagogical situations. In other words, although the pedagogical implications of a principle will be somewhat different for first-year undergraduate students in a lab environment as opposed to graduate students in a studio environment, the principle still applies.
  • Cross-culturally relevant: Although the research Ambrose et al. (2010) identified has been conducted primarily in the Western world, faculty colleagues in other countries have resonated with the principles, finding them relevant to their own classes and students. However, it is important to bear in mind that culture can and dose influence how the principles should be applied as instructors design and teach their courses.


This set of principles seems a good basis for considering good practice in learning and teaching generally. Another simpler version comes from Conole and Oliver (2007), and it focuses on three core elements of learning:
What's your definition of good teaching?

  • thinking and reflection: Learning needs to nurture the 'ability to think, reflect, deliberate and anticipate the possible consequences of our actions (p.89). They argue that this also involves guiding students in the ability to make decisions in a world of change, uncertainty, ambiguity and risk.
  • experience and activity: Drawing on the work of Kolb (1984), Jonassen (1993), Piaget (1971) and many others, they argue that a core element in learning is that students need to be active, constructive participants in their own learning. These experiences and activities need to be situated in authentic contexts, either real or simulated, and involving the negotiation of social relationships.
  • conversation and interaction: Learning is a social process, requiring dialogue that students engage in either in real terms of vicariously in order to create meaning.

Common elements of good practice drawn from a variety of other frameworks, such as those listed in JISC's Design Studio, focus on students being engaged, active, challenged, reflective, independent and responsible, with a strong focus on personal learning and the ability use develop one's own networks to enable lifelong learning. In addition, they not that the design should build on prior knowledge, ensure that the objectives, activities and assessments are aligned, be relevant, authentic and meaningful, provide opportunities for timely, meaningful feedback, and encourage students to take control and personalise their own learning through building their own learning networks, especially in later years.

However, as Sale (2010) argues, 'the core principles of learning, while universally applicable as a heuristic frame for effective and efficient learning design, are always mediated by a range of situated factors'. He identifies these factors as broadly being categorized in terms of learning outcomes, learner characteristics, learning context and resource availability. For example, different types of learning outcomes require different learning designs. This means the most important factor is that the course team comes together and agrees on what good teaching means for them, their course and their learners, at this particular time.


What are the most important principles of good teaching practice from your own experience? Add your thoughts, and your name (if you wish) here.


For a fuller consideration of how others have conceptualised effective teaching, consider the following resources:

JISC's Design Studio resource on design principles This page has links to a variety of studies and papers that outline principles of good practice from a number of different perspectives.

Guidelines on learning that inform teaching at UNSW A good set of evidence-based principles, with with linked references and online resources.

Other general resources on effective teaching can be found here: