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Any set of learning principles is predicated on a definition of learning. In this book, we define learning as a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning (adapted from Mayer, 2002). There are three critical components to this definition:

  1. Learning is a process, not a product. However, because this process takes place in the mind, we can only infer that it has occurred from students’ products or performances.
  2. Learning involves change in knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. This change unfolds over time; it is not fleeting but rather has a lasting impact on how students think and act.
  3. Learning is not something done to students, but rather something students themselves do. It is the direct result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences — conscious and unconscious, past and present.


Our seven principles of learning come from a perspective that is developmental and holistic. In other words, we begin with the recognition that (a) learning is a developmental process that intersects with other developmental processes in a student ’ s life, and How Learning Works 4 (b) students enter our classrooms not only with skills, knowledge, and abilities.

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But also with social and emotional experiences that influence what they value, how they perceive themselves and others, and how they will engage in the learning process.

Consistent with this holistic perspective, readers should understand that, although we address each principle individually to highlight particular issues pertaining to student learning, they are all at work in real learning situations and are functionally inseparable. In the paragraphs below, we briefly summarize each of the principles in the order in which they are discussed in the book.

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