Book by S. Ambrose, M. Bridges, M. Di Pietro, M. Lovett, & M. Norman
Review by Stephen Price
Physical Education and Recreation Studies
Mount Royal University

The introduction to the book How Learning Works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (2010) leads the reader to believe that it is the perfect bridge between the existing research on instruction and student learning and the application of this research into teaching practice. In fact, How Learning Works is this bridge and more. Advisors who teach and have an interest in improving the learning in their classes, or who would value a primer on the vast scope of research into teaching and learning, will find this book of value.

As the title implies, the book outlines seven principle of learning that the authors have found to be key for an effective learning environment. Each principle is supported by research from such disciplines as psychology, education and anthropology, and the practical approaches to using each principle allow the reader to incorporate each principle into their own teaching. The principles of learning in the book deal with such concepts as the prior knowledge student’s bring to their classes, their motivation, the need for students to acquire certain skills before mastering others, and what it will take for student’s to become self-directed learners.

Each chapter follows a similar pattern, starting with two short stories of fictional instructors and the issues they face in their classes. These stories are referenced frequently in the chapter and serve to illustrate the principle of learning that is being highlighted. The principle is then defined and a summary of the existing research on that principle is provided, including implications for instructors. The chapter then switches gears into the practical strategies suggested by the research on how to apply the principle of learning.

Chapter four is a good example of this pattern. Opening with a story of group work that did not produce strong results and a group of acting students who were not able to apply key learning’s from their first year into a second year project, the chapter seeks to explain the principle that “to develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned” (p.95). An overview of what mastery is, including four key components—expertise, component skills, integration, and application—is provided. The chapter then describes 18 unique strategies to help students get exposed to and reinforced in component skills, integrate those skills into more complex ones, and transfer those skills to new and unique situations.

Although there are times that the book swings closer to a meta-analysis or literature review, the quantity of practical strategies is exceptionally high. As the authors describe in the introduction, the reader may choose to read the entire book, or find value in selecting the one or several chapters that are relevant for their present situation. This allows the time-conscious reader to easily access both the theory behind a valued principle and get into the practical application of the strategies for implementing that principle.

In summary, How Learning Works does an exceptional job at balancing practical applications with the supporting research literature. It will find a place in the personal libraries of scholars of teaching and learning, and will be a great addition to the reading list of any advisor who is interested in increasing the effectiveness of their teaching or the quantity of learning that occurs in their classes.

How Learning Works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. (2010). Book by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele Di Pietro, Marsha C. Lovett, & Marie K. Norman. Review by Stephen Price. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 336 pp. $38.00, ISBN # 978-0-470-48410-4
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