Beliefs About Learning and Their Implications for Teaching and Learning


This commentary is co-authored by Elliott Seif and Jay McTighe.

Over the past twenty years, research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience has significantly expanded our understanding of how people learn[i]. Yet educational practice has not always kept pace with this new knowledge.

The ten statements below are an attempt to synthesize the latest research about learning. The statements, along with their suggested implications (in italics) for sound educational practice, provide a framework for developing a research-based learning framework[ii] These learning principles and their implications can be used to start a discussion of what “research-based” learning principles should be adopted by teachers, schools, and districts in a 21st century world. A commitment to the principles and a focus on their implications might also lead to significant changes in curriculum, assessment and instructional practice. Once in place, they provide a conceptual foundation for all classroom and school reform initiatives.

As a means of better aligning theory and practice, teachers, schools, and districts should develop or adopt a set of learning principles based on research and best practices. As you read these principles and their implications, ask yourself: How would we adapt these principles to conform to what we believe are current learning principles? What changes do they suggest for schools and /or classrooms? What would it take to make student learning consistent with these principles?

Ten Research-Based Principles About Learning and Their Implications

1. Learning is purposeful and contextual. Therefore, students should be able to see the purpose in what they are asked to learn. To create purpose, pose relevant and “essential” questions, create meaningful challenges, conduct investigations, and/or use inquiry/problem-based learning strategies.

2. Experts organize or chunk their knowledge around transferable, core concepts (“big ideas”) that guide their thinking and help them to integrate new knowledge. Therefore, content should be “chunked” and instruction framed around core ideas and transferable processes, and not learned as separate, discrete facts and skills.

3. Learning is mediated and enhanced through different types of thinking, such as explanation, classification, and categorization, inferential reasoning, analysis, synthesis, creativity and metacognition. Therefore, students should continually be engaged in complex thinking activities to help them deepen learning.

4. Understanding is revealed and demonstrated when learners can apply/transfer/adapt their learning to new and novel situations and problems. Therefore, students should have multiple opportunities to apply their learning in meaningful and varied contexts.

5. New learning is built on prior knowledge. Learners use their experiences and background knowledge to actively construct meaning about themselves and the world around them. Therefore, students must be helped to actively connect new information and ideas to what they already know and build on current understanding and skill development.

6. Learning is social. Therefore, teachers should provide opportunities for interactive learning in a supportive environment.

7. Attitudes and values mediate learning by filtering experiences and perceptions. Therefore, teachers should understand how student attitudes and values influence learning and help students build positive attitudes towards learning.

8. Learning is non-linear; it develops and deepens over time. Therefore, students should revisit, refine, and revise core ideas and skills in order to develop more sophisticated and complex learning and understanding over time.

9. Feedback enhances learning and performance. Therefore, on-going assessments should provide learners with regular, timely, and user-friendly feedback, along with the opportunity to use it to improve learning.

10. Learning is enhanced when a learner’s preferred learning style, prior knowledge and interests are effectively accommodated. Therefore, teachers should pre-assess to find out students’ prior knowledge, learning preference and interests. They should customize instruction to address the significant differences they discover, and promote individualization through choice and options.

*Note: To read more about Learning Principles, see Chapter 4 of Wiggins and McTighe, Schooling by Design (ASCD, 2007)

[i] For example, see Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 2000, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Washington, D.C. National Academy Press; also Willis, Judy, 2006, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

[ii] Adapted from ten learning principles originally published in Jay McTighe and Elliott Seif, An Implementation Framework to Support 21st Century Skills, in Bellanca and Brandt (2010).  21stCentury skills: Rethinking How Students Learn (Solution Tree Press), Chapter 7, p. 153.

Jay McTighe is an educational consultant and the author and coauthor of ten books and numerous articles, including the best-sellingUnderstanding by Design series with Grant Wiggins. His website can be found at:

Elliott Seif is a long time educator, Understanding by Design trainer, author, and consultant. His website can be found at: