Improve Your Teaching Tomorrow with Teaching-Learning Psychology

Charles E. Wales West Virginia University

Engineering Education, February 1976

You can be a better teacher tomorrow through the common sense application of a little teaching/learning psychology. Five basic "psychological principles" 1 every teacher should attempt to use in the organization and presentation of each course are:

  1. Guide the student s learning
  2. Provide for practice
  3. Evaluate and give feedback
  4. Motivate
  5. Individualize

Simply put, the effective teacher is likely to be someone who guides students while they learn, allows them to practice, gives students the feedback needed to know whether what they have learned is correct, who reinforces correct behaviors, motivates the students so they want to learn, and recognizes that people are different, that they have different backgrounds and interests and learn at different rates, and who attempts to meet this variation by individualizing work.

Guide the Student

Some teachers translate guidance into a syllabus for their course, the choice of textbook, homework assignments and lectures. That may be a good start, but effective guidance involves more. You can do more tomorrow by going to class prepared to pass out a set of content-performance objectives describing what each student should be able to do after the current unit is completed. Also tonight you might prepare a set of notes to be duplicated and handed out, which supplement or complement the text by organizing new concepts from simple to complex and which provide organizers, such as lists, tables, or graphs, to help students learn.

While you might prepare these objectives and notes tonight, you should also consider the more involved task of preparing objectives for your whole course. More effective teaching usually springs directly from preparing objectives which specify both the subject matter involved and the intellectual operations expected of the student. A sample set of objectives and the intellectual operations appropriate for work with single-answer problems or ideas is shown in table 1. If the goals of the course involve more sophisticated intellectual operations, such as those related to the decision making skills required for professional development, then objectives similar to those shown in table 2 should be prepared. Of course, these objectives should be given to the student to guide the learning experience, whether it takes place in or out of class.

Both the teacher and the student must have clearly stated objectives if the teaching/learning process is to be most effective. The student also needs to know how the course relates to the real world: the many and varied applications of the subject matter may be obvious to the teacher, but not to the student, who can learn more effectively if this relationship is made explicit. To accomplish this end the teacher may organize course work so the student uses what is learned to solve both single-answer and open-ended problems.

Applying new concepts by solving single-answer problems is the key to acquisition and assimilation of new knowledge. Engineering faculty have followed that practice for many years; other faculty are just now learning the importance of such work. Using both single-answer problems and values to solve opens ended problems is the final step in a student's development the application of what has been learned to complex problems, using simulations, games, case studies and finally, if possible, some sort of internship.

The teacher who makes the effort to develop objectives and provide both single-answer and open-ended problems will almost automatically find ways to organize the subject matter sequentially from simple to complex and to help guide students by providing the organizers mentioned earlier. This teacher will find ways to help the student evaluate his or her own performance so that a great deal can be learned independently, outside of class. This change frees class time for guidance on either the objectives in table 1 or those in table 2, or both.

The way you plan to use tomorrow's class time also should be carefully considered. If you have prepared objectives and notes to guide your students, there is no reason to give a lecture; students should be able to learn on their own outside class. You might instead plan to model what you expect them to do, by solving problems at the board, for example. A steady diet of modeling is not what guidance is all about, either, so you should look beyond tomorrow in your thinking to consider how you might arrange your class for students to experiment with new ideas and discover the desired behavior. Whatever your choice, students should use these new ideas in class, so that you can supervise their initial trials and prompt them until they can do the work correctly on their own. Psychologically. this is a far better use of class time than is the presentation of subject matter.

All these ideas on guidance can be summarized in the following way.

How To Guide Learning

Provide for Practice

Effective learning requires activity on the part of the student. To accomplish the objectives listed in table 1 students should, for example, study a textbook, a programmed text, or work through an audio-tutorial lesson and have an opportunity to clarify fuzzy concepts by talking to other students, the teacher or assistants. Then they should do homework, which might involve solving single-answer problems, preparing an outline or writing a report. If the high-level objectives of table 2 are involved, students should be working on the solution of an open-ended problem, gathering information from the library or the laboratory, and developing decision-making skills under the teacher's guidance.


Table 1. Example of Content-Performance Objectives for Intellectual Abilities.

At the end of a period of study each student should be able to solve single-answer problems and:

Intellectual Ability Action
Recall: Write concept X.
Manipulate: Restate concept X in a new form.
Translate: Convert concept X from verbal to graphical or symbolic form.
Interpret: State the results derived from the use of concept X.
Predict: State the expected effect of concept X.
Choose: Independently select concept X and use it to solve a single-answer problem.

Table 2. Example of Content-Performance Objectives for Intellectual Modes.

At the end of a period of study each student should be able to use the decision-making process including steps such as:

Intellectual Mode Action (with an open-ended problem)
Analysis: Break down a problem into its constituent parts.
Synthesis: Combine elements from many sources into a pattern not previously known to the student.
Evaluation: Make purposeful judgments about the value of ideas, methods, or designs.

The teacher's job is to plan and manage student work and provide what it takes to ensure that students get needed practice. Part of the teacher's job is to pace work so that students can manage several classes simultaneously. The teacher should realize that inexperienced students often do not know how to plan their work, and many of them are totally inept at managing self-study. Thus, the teacher must find ways to help students plan their work. Furthermore, varying the setting of the assignments will help stimulate interest by demonstrating the relevance of the work to a variety of real situations. To summarize, the following elements should be considered.

How To Provide for Practice

The first principle we presented - guidance - plays an important role in practice because students are more likely to do work if they have an effective model to work from, including supervised in-class practice. the guidance provided by a set of objectives, a study guide, notes or whatever else the teacher can devise. While some of this planning can be done for tomorrow's class, the teacher might also be thinking in terms of a programmed text or an audio-tutorial presentation to provide much greater individualized support for out-of-class practice with single-answer problems. In fact, it should be noted that these two methods of presentation can satisfy all five of the "psychological principles," and therefore they are likely to be the best type of self-study material.

Evaluation and Feedback

A "psychological principle" the teacher can put into effect immediately is that of giving feedback. An obvious place for this is the classroom, where the teacher is supervising the students' initial trials. This feedback can also be supplied by other students, if the teacher organizes teams to work and learn in class. Feedback might also be provided in writing, through answers to homework problems or solutions used by students in class to check their work. One simple technique which seems to have value is to disguise the correct answer by giving three answers to each homework problem, one right and two wrong. When students finish each problem they can tell if their work is right or wrong. If the result does not match one of the three given answers, the student knows the work should be continued. This is much more valuable than the common practice of working backwards from a single correct answer to find an error as, later, there will be no answers.

Feedback is one of our more obvious needs - we all look for it. (That's why we prefer elevator buttons that light up.) The student needs it, too, to be confident that the practice of specific behaviors is adequate. Feedback all too often occurs only on a test, where errors count against a student's record and no further learning is involved what's missed is often lost. Of course, there is an appropriate time for a test, where students demonstrate learning. But before that takes place students should have practice with guidance, either directly by the teacher, as mentioned earlier, or through some technique such as programmed instruction or audio-tutorial instruction, which provides feedback on the correct response so that comprehension and performance can be checked by the student. These ideas are summarized below.

  1. Immediately during initial learning.
  2. Frequently thereafter.

The teacher who wants to implement the three ideas of guidance, practice, and feedback can also do so through a competency-based testing program which allows students to restudy and repeat any quiz or exam not up to some minimum level. Competency-based testing provides guidance by letting a student discover where a test performance is weak. It gives practice with the concepts in a testing situation, practice which is likely to reduce fear or anxiety. And two or more chances to be successful can do a lot for a student's self-respect, resulting in a more confident graduate. This pattern also gives the needed feedback to correct learning errors, which is desirable any time but particularly important where concepts build through a course or from one course to the next.

When a complex or sophisticated performance, such as that described in table 2 is expected, the student should have the more immediate feedback provided by direct interaction with other students, a teaching assistant, or the teacher. Since the teacher may not have the help available to work directly with 30 or more inexperienced students on the sophisticated tasks involved in decision-making, an approach such as guided design 1,2 should be considered. With the printed "instruction-feedback" material characteristic of guided design the teacher can model the decision-making process in slow-motion and provide the guidance, practice, and feedback needed to help students learn.


Another "psychological principle" you can apply in tomorrow's class is reinforcement, which has been shown to have an important effect on people's motivation. To begin, the teacher might couple reinforcement with the feedback given during class practice by not only confirming a correct response, but also giving an open, enthusiastic "that's right." With more sophisticated tasks the reinforcement might involve an elaborate congratulation for a task properly accomplished. Whatever the form of reinforcement, it should be clear that a student is more likely to learn the correct response, continue learning, and enjoy learning if practice includes appropriate guidance, feedback and reinforcement.

This point is so important that it is worth a few more words. The type of feedback used can be critical to the learning process. Appropriate feedback has two components: informative and affective. It's not enough to supply feedback if it is presented with the wrong attitude. The response must be one of genuine pleasure that the student is learning and developing appropriate skills. The teacher should realize that one of the most effective types of feedback is to help the student learn how to correct errors so they do not occur again. 3

Another way in which the teacher can help motivate students is to relate what they are learning to meaningful work. If the goals of the course include objectives from both table 1 and table 2, so that students use what they learn to make decisions, this motivation may be automatic. If the course is focused on single-answer problems and ideas, the teacher must look for ways to make the real-world relationship meaningful. It is not motivating to tell a student that three years of course work must precede the use of the material in some type of "capstone" course. Every course in the curriculum should attempt to justify what is being learned through the application of ideas studied.

The teacher can also motivate students by helping them be successful. There is surely an important difference in the attitude of a student who gets an A on the first exam in a course and tries to maintain that level and the student who gets a C or D grade and knows it is next to impossible to raise that grade. The teacher can build this success and motivation into the course by initiating the competency-based testing system described earlier, which provides success if the student is willing to keep working and learning.

In summary, the teacher who wants to increase the student's motivation should consider the following factors.

How To Motivate

Reinforcement properly used is likely to be motivating, and therefore this addition to the concept of feedback provides an important part of what the student needs to be an effective learner. Guided practice can also be highly motivating, as can the success which is likely to follow if activities are organized to suit abilities, or if retesting is allowed. Further motivation can be provided by the teacher's encouragement, by acceptance of the student's ideas and viewpoints, and by helping the student see the relevance of the subject matter. All too often education is based on the promise that what is learned will be useful later in life, a promise that fails to be fulfilled within a meaningful time span. Much better motivation can be achieved by making the learning process relevant to real-world activities that the student can see as valuable.


Whatever else can be said about students, one thing is sure: as individuals, they are vastly different from each other. They differ in aptitude, in intelligence, in motivation, in background, in their ability to learn, in the rate at which they learn, in learning style, in the time of day when they are at their best, in the personal problems they face, in their interests and in the goals they seek. To accommodate this vast array of differences the effective teacher should consider the factors given below.

How To Individualize

The range of options available to a teacher are limited by many constraints, in particular the time and learning materials available. Time is limited for both the teacher and the student; the student has several classes to prepare for and the teacher has several classes to teach, as well as other duties. This may mean the teacher must limit the use of a competency-based testing approach to one a week for repeats in early classes, or two tests as the student gains both experience and confidence. This approach still provides more individualization than one "all or nothing" event which is bound to hit some people at the wrong time.

Another way the teacher can individualize course work is to offer different learning materials. Sophisticated learners know that one textbook may not be as easy to understand as another - isn't that why faculty keep writing them? Therefore, when a problem occurs, this learner looks for another book. The teacher can help by suggesting students try other sources and recommending one or two alternate textbooks or a programmed text, if one is available. The teacher can also supplement confusing sections in the text with a set of printed notes or example problem solutions - in other words, provide the guidance we considered earlier.

Group work in class can also help individualize learning by providing peer tutors for students who have a problem. Since teaching is often a way of learning, some students in a group will reap this benefit, while the others get the help they need. If a team of students are working together on the solution of an open-ended problem, this may increase the motivation of those who are having trouble. The teacher should also carefully consider that slow learning often reflects poor prerequisite skills, which may be the fault of the student or a previous teacher. If algebra, for example, is a necessary tool, poor skills may handicap a student in many other classes. If appropriate materials or tutorial help are available, a properly motivated student can often overcome this type of handicap quite rapidly.

Finally, the teacher should consider the goals of the learner. Is this a course in the student's major, is it a required non-major course, or is the class a freely chosen elective (and if it is an elective, on what basis do students usually elect it - as a cake course or ?). A chemistry course for non-majors which dwells on sophisticated atomic theory important only to a Ph.D. chemist is not likely to meet the needs of education students or political science majors who need to know how important chemistry is to the operation of our society.

The same concern for a student's goals should be demonstrated in a competency-based testing program. A course in a student's major which is focused on fundamental concepts may demand a high level of performance and a passing grade of 85. A required non-major course which some students would be pleased to pass with a C grade may require the same quality work and an 85 on examinations, but the teacher can set a minimum number of units which must be passed to earn a C and allow those students who have an interest to cover more ground and earn a better grade.


The teacher who wants to improve tomorrow's class can do so through the use of the five "psychological principles" described in this paper. These principles can be applied to the pattern of class work, the student's homework, to a testing program, or to the planning of any part of the education process. In fact, it appears that those faculty who are identified as effective teachers use all or most of these principles - it's just a matter of common sense to them. But any teacher who wants to improve the teaching-learning process in his or her class can be equally effective by organizing course activities around these concepts. We hope we have helped those teachers who would like to improve their performance with this description of how each principle might be applied.


  1. Wales, C.E., and R.A. Stager, Educational Systems Design, 1970, 1974, available from C. Wales at West Virginia University.
  2. A series of eight articles on guided design was published in Engineering Education between February and May, 1972, vol. 62, nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8.
  3. McKeachie, W.J., "The Decline and Fall of the Laws of Learning," Educational Researcher, vol. 3, no. 3, March 1974.

Working as an "educational engineer" at West Virginia University, Charles Wales helped develop both a systems approach to course design and a new concept in course operation called guided design. A published boo/c which models this new approach is Guided Engineering Design. A second book, Educational Systems Designs /co-authored with Dr. R. A. Stager), was written to help other faculty learn how to apply a systems approach to education. This work has been recognized by a variety of teaching awards including the ASEE George Westinghouse Award