Some Resources on Learning Issues


Ambrose, Susan A., et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010.

A full and readable treatment of the range of issues most talked about in teaching and learning scholarship over the past few years: prior knowledge, motivation (under which resistance is treated), best practice for comment and feedback, differences between expert and novice knowledge, how students can become self-directed learners. I found it all helpful, particularly the chapter on motivation. It keeps it closely connected to classroom practice and sees resistance largely in terms of failed motivation (which at some level it obviously has to be!).

Deci, Edward, with Richard Flaste. Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin, 1995.

Not the newest book out, but still the best introduction to “Self Determination Theory,” a data-based motivation theory out of Humanistic Psychology. In essence the problem of motivation here is that of tapping one’s innate inner motives towards autonomy, competency, and connectedness (community). These are in opposition to extrinsic motivations like grades, rewards or punishments, or any deontic instructions that, though internalized, and perhaps dominant in a person’s behavior, have not been accepted by a willing learner in an authentic way. Though learning is a big part of this book, Deci’s theory is also about happier alternatives to living in guilt and repression. See the Wikipedia entry for a good overview:

Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass, 2009.

The author is a cognitive scientist, and uses that branch of learning studies to educe 10 principles for good teaching. He begins with the problem of why students often don’t much like learning (short answer: the brain doesn’t actually like to learn), and then goes through a number of observations about how cognitivists now think the human mind works and what the implications of their observations are for teaching. Learning is obviously a big part of this, but like the Ambrose book its focus for action, as it were, is on teaching. This treatment is highly readable—even popular—but with substantial bibliography for anyone who would like to follow up.

Articles and Websites

_____, “Motivation: Stimulating Movement.”

An intriguing popularly written website whose treatment of motivation is essentially an outline of Self-Determination Theory—i.e., Deci and Flaste in a nutshell. My students last year found it too hard to process, but it does summarize and define key terms, and its illustration does encode a lot of the basic scheme D and F adduce. The key claim is that the more authentic a motivation, the more powerful it is, for it is serving ends that the normal self sees as very much in its interest. (As in the Deci annotation, those ends are autonomy, competency, and connectedness) Inauthentic motives, by contrast, seem without force because the self does not see them as being “relevant” or useful to any of its true ends. The other key concept here is that of “introjection”—their term for any imperative from the outside (like a teacher’s assignment or a mother’s command) that the self feels obliged to carry out, but has not accepted as authentic. Selves may act on introjected imperatives, but usually only at a cost.

*Atherton, J. L. “Learning and Teaching; Resistance to Learning.” Website:

This is an approach to “resistance,” focusing exclusively on a “cost” based theory of learning. His main concern is what he calls “supplantive” learning—that learning that supplants earlier learning (what in “Opening the Black Box” I call revisionary learning in contrast to additive learning). He uses the economic metaphor to explain how students behave in learning situations where they learn something new only by giving up something they already know. He observes that one can think of that as a cost—students must pay something in order to make progress. (A more friendly metaphor might be “investment.” If you want to see your general fortune grow, you do not stand pat with your money in your wallet, but rather you invest it such that it can accrue profit.) Atherton has an expanded essay on this same topic (look for the link at the top of the page); it’s a little wide-ranging and speculative, but offers other ways to conceptualize supplantive learning.

Meyer, Jan and Ray Land. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing in the Disciplines.” ETL Project Occasional Report 4, Universities of Edinburgh, Coventry and Durham, 2003.

Important for its explanation of threshold concepts—those discipline defining concepts that are both necessary entry points to work in many research areas, and rarely understandable without a certain amount of rethinking and relearning of one’s common sense notions of how things work. One such would be the concept of natural selection, a theory about how species evolve which flies in the face of what seems a universal human will to understand change in terms of purpose and meaning. Force, in physics, would be another such threshold concept, as would reading in English, which upon arriving in their classes students think they understand perfectly, but which experts see as a complex act of cultured response and construction. The authors go on to point out that threshold concepts like these are often also examples of “troublesome” knowledge, by which they mean those knowledges that seem to have something about them that, again, flies in the face of what prior understanding or commons sense would expect.

*Mooney, Chris. “The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science: How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.” Mother Jones, 18 April 2011

A semi-popular review of research on humanity’s penchant for error. Very provocative for thinking about motivation, prior knowledge, and (especially) not-learning. His account, in short, is that we all have strong affective responses to new information such that we are likely to react strongly either positively or negatively depending upon how it seems to affirm or attack our prior understandings. Thus climate change deniers rarely change their minds when they hear new evidence that supports the theory. Indeed, they may even believe it even more firmly than before. In general, because we will do a lot to not-change the deep conceptual frames/lenses through which we see the world, human beings find learning in a charged atmosphere very difficult. In such cases we much prefer not-learning to learning.

*Moore, Margaret. “How We Change: Driving me Crazy or Driving me Well.” Huffington Post pop psych articles, 2010. (Scroll down to find links to all three pieces.)

The first of three popular explications of how motivation theory applies to health issues—like smoking, or dieting, or getting more exercise. The other two articles are “How We Change: Driving with the Brakes on” and “Who is Driving your Health and Welfare?” In the series Moore draws on work by Dan Pink on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, on Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on flow, and on Deci and Ryan on Self Determination Theory’s notions of deeply motivating needs: the needs for autonomy, competency, and connectedness. The interesting question for me lies in how Moore’s setting up of these issues can be transferred to academic learning issues. The exposition is relatively simple, and the metaphor of driving is worth exploring. And like many motivation pieces, it doesn’t address education—which I think makes it a good place to ask students to transfer concepts into their own educational experience.

*Pink, Daniel. “Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation | Video on”

“Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don't: Traditional rewards aren't always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories -- and maybe, a way forward.”

*Webster, John, “My Troubles with Perry: Developmental Scheme or Humanities Curriculum?” in David Gosling and Vaneeta D’Andrea, eds., International Conference on theScholarship of Teaching and Learning: Proceedings 2001 and 2002. London: Educational Development Centre, 2003. Pp. 118-121.

William Perry conducted a highly influential 1960’s study of undergraduates from which he concluded that there was a pattern to the intellectual development students underwent over their undergraduate years. This short paper both summarizes Perry’s scheme and offers an alternative to Perry’s explanation of what he (and others repeating his study over the next 30 years) have found. Though dating back to the ‘60’s, Perry still appeals to those looking to understand better how college learners process new material.

*Webster, John, “Opening the Black Box, Or How I Came to Love Metacognition.” MS, 2008.

An account of teaching a class in which metacognition, along with a number of learning concepts, became part of the curriculum. It offered me some unlearning as well as new learning moments, and made me a partisan for including learning topics in any class I teach. I offer an introduction to a set of learning issues which run from what one could call the underlying narrative structures of many college classes as well as accounts of the effects of prior knowledge on learning and not-learning and resistance—both in general and in a particular class.

*Weimer, Mary Ellen, “Six Causes of Resistance.”

This is a short redaction of Chapter 12 of Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom, (2nd ed), 2006. She briefly distills and defines six modes of resistance.