Carnegie Mellon University

Learning Principles

Theory and Research-based Principles of Learning

The following list presents the basic principles that underlie effective learning. These principles are distilled from research from a variety of disciplines.

  1. Your prior knowledge can help or hinder your learning.

    You come into our courses with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes gained in other courses and through daily life. As you bring this knowledge to bear in the classroom, it influences how you filter and interpret what you are learning. If your prior knowledge is robust and accurate and activated at the appropriate time, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge. However, when knowledge is inert, insufficient for the task, activated inappropriately, or inaccurate, it can interfere with or impede new learning.

  2. How you organize knowledge influences how you learn and apply what you know.

    You naturally make connections between pieces of knowledge. When those connections form knowledge structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, you are better able to retrieve and apply your knowledge effectively and efficiently. In contrast, when knowledge is connected in inaccurate or random ways, you can fail to retrieve or apply it appropriately.

  3. Your motivation determines, directs, and sustains what you do to learn.

    As you enter college and gain greater autonomy over what, when, and how you study and learn, motivation plays a critical role in guiding the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which you engage. When you find positive value in a learning goal or activity, expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcome, and perceive support from your environment, you are likely to be strongly motivated to learn.

  4. To develop mastery, you must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what you have learned.

    You must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, you must also practice combining and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity. Finally, you must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge you learn. It is important that instructors develop conscious awareness of these elements of mastery so as to help you learn more effectively.

  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of your learning.

    Learning and performance are best fostered when you engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion, targets an appropriate level of challenge, and is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria. Practice must be coupled with feedback that explicitly communicates about some aspect(s) of your performance relative to specific target criteria, provides information to help you progress in meeting those criteria, and is given at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful.

  6. Your current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

    You are not only intellectual but also a social and emotional being, and you are still developing the full range of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. While instructors cannot control the developmental process, they can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways. In fact, many studies have shown that the climate instructors create has implications for you. A negative climate may impede learning and performance, but a positive climate can energize your learning.

  7. To become a self-directed learner, you must learn to monitor and adjust your approaches to learning.

    Learners may engage in a variety of metacognitive processes to monitor and control their learning—assessing the task at hand, evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses, planning their approach, applying and monitoring various strategies, and reflecting on the degree to which their current approach is working.  Unfortunately, students tend not to engage in these processes naturally. When you develop the skills to engage these processes, you gain intellectual habits that not only improve your performance but also your effectiveness as a learner.


  • Anderson, J. R., Conrad, F. G., Corbett, A. T. (1989). Skill acquisition and the LISP tutor. Cognitive Science, 13(4),  467-505.
  • Bandura, A.  (1989).  Self-regulation of motivation and action through internal standards and goal systems.  In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Goal concepts in personality and social psychology (pp. 19-85). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F.  (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior.  New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clement, J.J. (1982). Students’ preconceptions in introductory mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 50, 66-71.
  • DiSessa, A.  (1982).  Unlearning Aristotelian physics:  A study of knowledge-based learning.   Cognitive Science, 6, 37-75.
  • Dweck, C.S. (2002). Beliefs that make smart people dumb.  In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Why smart people can be so stupid (pp. 24-41). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Ford, M.E. (1992). Motivating humans: Goals, emotions and personal agency beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Healy, A. F., & Sinclair, G. P. (1996). The long-term retention of training and instruction (pp. 525-564). In E. L. Bjork, & R. A. Bjork (Eds.) Memory. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  • Hidi, S. & Renninger  K.A. (2004). Interest, a motivational variable that combines affective and cognitive functioning.  In D. Y. Dai & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Motivation, emotion, and cognition:  Integrative perspectives on intellectual functioning and development (pp. 89-115). Mahwah, NJ:  Erlbaum.
  • Holyoak, K. J.  (1984). Analogical thinking and human intelligence.  In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence, Vol. 2 (pp. 199-230).  Hillsdale, NJ:  Erlbaum.
  • Kuh,  G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., Whitt, E.J. & Associates. (2005). Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Matlin, M. W.  (1989). Cognition.  NY, NY:  Harcourt, Brace, Janovich.
  • National Research Council (2001). Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Nelson, T. A. (1992).  Metacognition.  Boston, MA:  Allyn & Bacon.
  • Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P. (2005). How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Schommer, M. (1994).  An emerging conceptualization of epistemological beliefs and their role in learning.  In R. Barner & P. Alexander (Eds.), Beliefs about text and instruction with text (pp. 25-40).  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Singley, M. K., & Anderson, J. R. (1989). The Transfer of Cognitive Skill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Steele, C.M. & Aronson, J. (1995).  Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69 (5), 797-811.
  • Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 82-96.
  • Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.