Seven Principles of Learning

A group of five students sit around a table with highlighters and paper on top of it.

Learning is a process leading to changes that we experience. Learning cannot be accomplished by teachers or instructors; it must be accomplished by learners:

"It is the direct result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences - conscious and unconscious, past and present." (Ambrose et al., 2010, p.3)

Per this definition of learning, teaching involves assisting student learners’ understanding of course concepts as opposed to more didactic teaching methods. This definition also highlights the complexity of learning. If learning must be accomplished by learners, then instructors must consider the overall learning process, including the cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects of it. In this article, we identify seven principles of learning to guide this approach to learning and list several ways instructors can assist student learning.

Principles of Learning

Consider these principles of learning from the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center:

  1. Students' prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. To learn strategies for working with students’ prior knowledge and assumptions, click Working with Students’ Prior Knowledge & Assumptions
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. To learn strategies for assisting students with knowledge organization, click How Knowledge Organization Effects Learning
  3. Students' motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do learn. To learn strategies for encouraging student motivation, click How Student Motivation Impacts Learning
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students' learning. To learn strategies for providing effective feedback, click Providing effective feedback
  6. Students' current level of socio-emotional development impacts learning. To learn strategies for learning about your students’ socio-emotional development, click Get to Know Your Students
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. To learn more about helping students regulate their own learning, click Encouraging Students to Take Responsibility for Learning

Assisting Students with Learning

Classroom time is limited and courses are robust with course-specific content. However, finding time in your course schedule to assist your students with their learning can go a long way towards reducing confusion and maximizing learning of the course content. Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • Allow periods of class time for students to write one minute papers about their learning and what they need to keep doing or change to improve their learning.
  • Provide tips in your assignments and announcements about ways to prepare for assignments, search for resources, etc.
  • Break assignments into smaller graded parts so that students are less overwhelmed and receive more feedback from you.
  • Learn as much as possible about your individual students and their prior knowledge and experiences.
  • Prioritize knowledge and course content that is most relevant to your course.
  • Provide a safe, stimulating learning environment by using inclusive language.
  • Scaffold student learning strategies to help them build new learning structures based upon prior knowledge and life experiences.
  • Develop and implement formative assessments so that students can determine if their knowledge is appropriate and adequate for moving forward with new learning.
  • Provide reasons to learn that are meaningful and relevant to students.
  • Develop strategies that actively involve students in their learning.
  • Provide opportunities for students to track and reflect upon their learning.
  • Provide continuous feedback.
  • Familiarize yourself with the UNT Learning Center services, which range from self-help study skills programs to individual tutoring. Include information about this resource in your syllabus or consider contacting a Learning Center representative about coming to your class to talk to your students.


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Dipietro, M, Lovett, M.C. & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Note.

Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center. (n.d.). Design and teach a course. Retrieved from

Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.