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The Psychological Principles of Learning: An Overview


This article lays out Psychological learning principles that can guide technology-enhanced teaching as well as more traditional forms of instruction. Drawn from both traditional learning theory as well as current research about how people learn, the principles integrate these findings in a helpful set of guidelines that give emphasis to issues of instructional design. The principles outlined here can serve as a guide to the design of learning experiences in both online environments and traditional campus classrooms.

Psychological Principles of Learning


The Principle of “Learner at the Center”

This principle offers a framework that helps reduce the complexity of the learning experience. This framework has four elements—

  • The Learner: The first element, the learner, may be an individual student (or a group of students in the case of collaborative and group learning activities).
  • The Mentor/faculty member: Provides instruction and support to the learner. The mentor/faculty member may be physically present on stage, may remain in the wings directing the learner, or may only be present implicitly by virtue of having designed the instructional event. This element may also be an inanimate learning object such as a text or video component that provides instructions and guidance from the faculty member.
  • The Knowledge: the content, or the problem that is the focus of the instructional experience. For instructional design, the knowledge component is the answer to the question, "What is the knowledge, what is the skill, what is the attitude that the instructional event is intended to facilitate in the student?"
  • The Environment: the environment is defined by the answer to the question, "When will the event take place, with whom and where and with what resources?"

Whatever be the scenario, it is the student who is at the center of the learning experience: The student is on stage, guided by the task design created by the faculty member, accessing whatever resources might be needed, and acquiring useful knowledge from the experience. This fundamental design framework serves as a context for the principles that follow.

The Environment in which the Learner Interacts

Every learning experience occurs within an environment in which the learner interacts with the content, knowledge, skill, or expert. The environment might be simple—for example, one learner with one resource at home, work, or some other community space. The environment might be complex, such as several learners with many resources in a classroom, library, media center, or café. Another type of environment might be a synchronous virtual meeting place, such as when several students collaborate online with many resources in different locations. The faculty member’s involvement and presence can vary in any of these environments.

Usage of Learning Tools

Tools make a difference in any learning environment. In previous generations, the faculty member lectured, the students took notes, and the learning process unfolded within a relatively limited and discrete environment of tools and technologies. The learning environment is considerably more complex today, including a network in which all students and faculty have access to powerful digital tools for communication and research. The first wave of laptop universities rolled out in the mid-1990s and were followed quickly by a wave of wireless and Web-enabled cell phones, and we are now in the middle of a third wave of mobile and hand-held digital tools. A learning environment in which all learners and faculty have their own personal laptop computer and other mobile tools such as iPods and PDAs transforms teaching and learning experiences. Meanwhile, students have discovered the community-building and networking power of instant messaging, discussion boards, online forums, blogs, and wikis while still occasionally using e-mail. These tools are dramatically changing the communication patterns and relationships between learners and the faculty.

Faculty are the Directors of the Learning Experience

Faculty can monitor student learning and facilitate discussions from anywhere there is a high bandwidth wireless connection. The point is not that faculty will be less involved in classes, but that these new instructional options will provide faculty with more effective ways to leverage their expertise. Using technology to encourage peer-to-peer learning enables students to make better use of the faculty member as a source of specialized guidance and feedback. Likewise, one of the more important ripple effects of a course design incorporating an instructional team is that the faculty member has more time to mentor the learning processes of students. With less time is spent on administration, more time can be spent on the formation of new thoughts and lessons.

Learners Bring Their Own Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes to the Learning Experience

The learner is an individual. In traditional classrooms instructors have typically solicited this information at the beginning of a course through in-class discussions or through informal writing assignments that ask students to discuss their personal interests, academic goals, and educational background. In turn, currently available technological tools provide instructors with a wider range of avenues for gaining this valuable information about their students. Some of the tools that are helpful for this purpose include discussion boards, student response systems, and online testing modules that assess current skill sets as well as more complex forms of knowledge.


We each do experience and remember events just a little differently. This richness of perspective and worldviews is both a challenge and a potent creative force. The combination of the uniqueness of each learner and the richness of each learner’s perspective argues persuasively for more emphasis on community, culture, and ethics as well as the acquisition of knowledge, content, and skills.

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