LEARNER-CENTERED PSYCHOLOGICAL PRINCIPLES:
A Framework for School Reform &
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Prepared by the Learner-Centered
Principles Work Group of the American Psychological Association's Board of
Educational Affairs (BEA), November 1997
Throughout its history, psychology has provided
vital information for the design of schooling based on theory and research
on human learning, development, and motivation. Research in psychology
relevant to education has been particularly informative during the past
decade. Advances in our understanding of thinking, memory, and cognitive
and motivational processes can contribute directly to improvements in
teaching, learning, and the whole enterprise of schooling. At the same
time, educators concerned with the growing problems of school dropout, low
levels of academic achievement, and other indicators of school failure are
arguing for more learner-centered models of schooling. Such models attend
to the diversity among students, and use this diversity to enrich learning
and to produce results within the context of current school reform.
The learner-centered psychological principles,
which are consistent with more than a century of research on teaching and
learning, are widely shared and implicitly recognized in many excellent
programs found in today's schools. They also integrate research and
practice in various areas of psychology, including developmental,
educational, experimental, social, clinical, organizational, community,
and school psychology. In addition, these principles reflect conventional
and scientific wisdom. They comprise not only systematically researched
and evolving learner-centered principles that can lead to effective
schooling but also principles that can lead to positive mental health and
productivity of our nation`s children, their teachers, and the systems
that serve them.
Learner-centered psychological principles provide a
framework for developing and incorporating the components of new designs
for schooling. These principles emphasize the active and reflective nature
of learning and learners. From this perspective, educational practice will
be most likely to improve when the educational system is redesigned with
the primary focus on the learner. Psychologists, in collaboration with
educators, can help decide how best to apply sound psychological
principles in the redesign of America's schools. A new and exciting vision
of schooling, and psychology's role in this vision, can then emerge.
Our immediate goal in offering these
learner-centered psychological principles is to provide a framework that
can contribute to current educational reform and school redesign efforts.
Through dialogue with concerned groups of educators, researchers, and
policy makers, these learner-centered principles can evolve further to
contribute not only to a new design for America's schools, but also to a
society committed to lifelong learning, healthy human development, and
productivity. In developing these principles, psychology -- together with
other disciplines -- can contribute to the betterment of America's schools
and the enhancement of the nation's vital human resources.
LEARNER-CENTERED PSYCHOLOGICAL PRINCIPLES
The following 14 psychological principles pertain
to the learner and the learning process*. They focus on psychological
factors that are primarily internal to and under the control of the
learner rather than conditioned habits or physiological factors. However,
the principles also attempt to acknowledge external environment or
contextual factors that interact with these internal factors.
The principles are intended to deal holistically
with learners in the context of real-world learning situations. Thus, they
are best understood as an organized set of principles; no principle should
be viewed in isolation. The 14 principles are divided into those referring
to cognitive and metacognitive, motivational and affective, developmental
and social, and individual difference factors influencing learners and
learning. Finally, the principles are intended to apply to all learners --
from children, to teachers, to administrators, to parents, and to
community members involved in our educational system.
Cognitive and Metacognitive
* The development of each principle involved thorough
discussions of the research supporting that principle. The
multidisciplinary research expertise of the Task Force and Work Group
members facilitated an examination of each principle from a number of
different research perspectives.
- Nature of the learning process.
The learning of complex subject matter is most effective
when it is an intentional process of constructing meaning from
information and experience.
There are different types of learning
processes, for example, habit formation in motor learning; and
learning that involves the generation of knowledge, or cognitive
skills and learning strategies. Learning in schools emphasizes the use
of intentional processes that students can use to construct meaning
from information, experiences, and their own thoughts and beliefs.
Successful learners are active, goal-directed, self-regulating, and
assume personal responsibility for contributing to their own learning.
The principles set forth in this document focus on this type of
- Goals of the learning process.
The successful learner, over time and with support and
instructional guidance, can create meaningful, coherent representations
The strategic nature of learning requires
students to be goal directed. To construct useful representations of
knowledge and to acquire the thinking and learning strategies
necessary for continued learning success across the life span,
students must generate and pursue personally relevant goals.
Initially, students' short-term goals and learning may be sketchy in
an area, but over time their understanding can be refined by filling
gaps, resolving inconsistencies, and deepening their understanding of
the subject matter so that they can reach longer-term goals. Educators
can assist learners in creating meaningful learning goals that are
consistent with both personal and educational aspirations and
- Construction of knowledge.
successful learner can link new information with existing knowledge in
Knowledge widens and deepens as students
continue to build links between new information and experiences and
their existing knowledge base. The nature of these links can take a
variety of forms, such as adding to, modifying, or reorganizing
existing knowledge or skills. How these links are made or develop may
vary in different subject areas, and among students with varying
talents, interests, and abilities. However, unless new knowledge
becomes integrated with the learner's prior knowledge and
understanding, this new knowledge remains isolated, cannot be used
most effectively in new tasks, and does not transfer readily to new
situations. Educators can assist learners in acquiring and integrating
knowledge by a number of strategies that have been shown to be
effective with learners of varying abilities, such as concept mapping
and thematic organization or categorizing.
- Strategic thinking.
successful learner can create and use a repertoire of thinking and
reasoning strategies to achieve complex learning goals.
Successful learners use strategic thinking in
their approach to learning, reasoning, problem solving, and concept
learning. They understand and can use a variety of strategies to help
them reach learning and performance goals, and to apply their
knowledge in novel situations. They also continue to expand their
repertoire of strategies by reflecting on the methods they use to see
which work well for them, by receiving guided instruction and
feedback, and by observing or interacting with appropriate models.
Learning outcomes can be enhanced if educators assist learners in
developing, applying, and assessing their strategic learning skills.
- Thinking about thinking.
order strategies for selecting and monitoring mental operations
facilitate creative and critical thinking.
Successful learners can reflect on how they
think and learn, set reasonable learning or performance goals, select
potentially appropriate learning strategies or methods, and monitor
their progress toward these goals. In addition, successful learners
know what to do if a problem occurs or if they are not making
sufficient or timely progress toward a goal. They can generate
alternative methods to reach their goal (or reassess the
appropriateness and utility of the goal). Instructional methods that
focus on helping learners develop these higher order (metacognitive)
strategies can enhance student learning and personal responsibility
- Context of learning.
influenced by environmental factors, including culture, technology, and
Learning does not occur in a vacuum. Teachers a
major interactive role with both the learner and the learning
environment. Cultural or group influences on students can impact many
educationally relevant variables, such as motivation, orientation
toward learning, and ways of thinking. Technologies and instructional
practices must be appropriate for learners' level of prior knowledge,
cognitive abilities, and their learning and thinking strategies. The
classroom environment, particularly the degree to which it is
nurturing or not, can also have significant impacts on student
Motivational and Affective
- Motivational and emotional influences on learning.
What and how much is learned is influenced by the
motivation. Motivation to learn, in turn, is influenced by the
individual's emotional states, beliefs, interests and goals, and habits
The rich internal world of thoughts, beliefs,
goals, and expectations for success or failure can enhance or
interfere the learner's quality of thinking and information
processing. Students' beliefs about themselves as learners and the
nature of learning have a marked influence on motivation. Motivational
and emotional factors also influence both the quality of thinking and
information processing as well as an individual's motivation to learn.
Positive emotions, such as curiosity, generally enhance motivation and
facilitate learning and performance. Mild anxiety can also enhance
learning and performance by focusing the learner's attention on a
particular task. However, intense negative emotions (e.g., anxiety,
panic, rage, insecurity) and related thoughts (e.g., worrying about
competence, ruminating about failure, fearing punishment, ridicule, or
stigmatizing labels) generally detract from motivation, interfere with
learning, and contribute to low performance.
- Intrinsic motivation to learn.
The learner's creativity, higher order thinking, and
natural curiosity all contribute to motivation to learn. Intrinsic
motivation is stimulated by tasks of optimal novelty and difficulty,
relevant to personal interests, and providing for personal choice and
Curiosity, flexible and insightful thinking,
and creativity are major indicators of the learners' intrinsic
motivation to learn, which is in large part a function of meeting
basic needs to be competent and to exercise personal control.
Intrinsic motivation is facilitated on tasks that learners perceive as
interesting and personally relevant and meaningful, appropriate in
complexity and difficulty to the learners' abilities, and on which
they believe they can succeed. Intrinsic motivation is also
facilitated on tasks that are comparable to real-world situations and
meet needs for choice and control. Educators can encourage and support
learners' natural curiosity and motivation to learn by attending to
individual differences in learners' perceptions of optimal novelty and
difficulty, relevance, and personal choice and control.
- Effects of motivation on effort.
Acquisition of complex knowledge and skills requires
extended learner effort and guided practice. Without learners'
motivation to learn, the willingness to exert this effort is unlikely
Effort is another major indicator of motivation
to learn. The acquisition of complex knowledge and skills demands the
investment of considerable learner energy and strategic effort, along
with persistence over time. Educators need to be concerned with
facilitating motivation by strategies that enhance learner effort and
commitment to learning and to achieving high standards of
comprehension and understanding. Effective strategies include
purposeful learning activities, guided by practices that enhance
positive emotions and intrinsic motivation to learn, and methods that
increase learners' perceptions that a task is interesting and
Developmental and Social
- Developmental influences on learning.
As individuals develop, there are different
opportunities and constraints for learning. Learning is most effective
when differential development within and across physical, intellectual,
emotional, and social domains is taken into account.
Individuals learn best when material is
appropriate to their developmental level and is presented in an
enjoyable and interesting way. Because individual development varies
across intellectual, social, emotional, and physical domains,
achievement in different instructional domains may also vary.
Overemphasis on one type of developmental readiness--such as reading
readiness, for example--may preclude learners from demonstrating that
they are more capable in other areas of performance. The cognitive,
emotional, and social development of individual learners and how they
interpret life experiences are affected by prior schooling, home,
culture, and community factors. Early and continuing parental
involvement in schooling, and the quality of language interactions and
two-way communications between adults and children can influence these
developmental areas. Awareness and understanding of developmental
differences among children with and without emotional, physical, or
intellectual disabilities, can facilitate the creation of optimal
- Social influences on learning.
Learning is influenced by social interactions,
interpersonal relations, and communication with others.
Learning can be enhanced when the learner has
an opportunity to interact and to collaborate with others on
instructional tasks. Learning settings that allow for social
interactions, and that respect diversity, encourage flexible thinking
and social competence. In interactive and collaborative instructional
contexts, individuals have an opportunity for perspective taking and
reflective thinking that may lead to higher levels of cognitive,
social, and moral development, as well as self-esteem. Quality
personal relationships that provide stability, trust, and caring can
increase learners' sense of belonging, self-respect and
self-acceptance, and provide a positive climate for learning. Family
influences, positive interpersonal support and instruction in
self-motivation strategies can offset factors that interfere with
optimal learning such as negative beliefs about competence in a
particular subject, high levels of test anxiety, negative sex role
expectations, and undue pressure to perform well. Positive learning
climates can also help to establish the context for healthier levels
of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Such contexts help learners feel
safe to share ideas, actively participate in the learning process, and
create a learning community.
- Individual differences in learning.
Learners have different strategies, approaches, and
capabilities for learning that are a function of prior experience and
Individuals are born with and develop their own
capabilities and talents. In addition, through learning and social
acculturation, they have acquired their own preferences for how they
like to learn and the pace at which they learn. However, these
preferences are not always useful in helping learners reach their
learning goals. Educators need to help students examine their learning
preferences and expand or modify them, if necessary. The interaction
between learner differences and curricular and environmental
conditions is another key factor affecting learning outcomes.
Educators need to be sensitive to individual differences, in general.
They also need to attend to learner perceptions of the degree to which
these differences are accepted and adapted to by varying instructional
methods and materials.
- Learning and diversity.
is most effective when differences in learners' linguistic, cultural,
and social backgrounds are taken into account.
The same basic principles of learning,
motivation, and effective instruction apply to all learners. However,
language, ethnicity, race, beliefs, and socioeconomic status all can
influence learning. Careful attention to these factors in the
instructional setting enhances the possibilities for designing and
implementing appropriate learning environments. When learners perceive
that their individual differences in abilities, backgrounds, cultures,
and experiences are valued, respected, and accommodated in learning
tasks and contexts, levels of motivation and achievement are enhanced.
- Standards and assessment.
appropriately high and challenging standards and assessing the learner
as well as learning progress -- including diagnostic, process, and
outcome assessment -- are integral parts of the learning process.
Assessment provides important information to
both the learner and teacher at all stages of the learning process.
Effective learning takes place when learners feel challenged to work
towards appropriately high goals; therefore, appraisal of the
learner's cognitive strengths and weaknesses, as well as current
knowledge and skills, is important for the selection of instructional
materials of an optimal degree of difficulty. Ongoing assessment of
the learner's understanding of the curricular material can provide
valuable feedback to both learners and teachers about progress toward
the learning goals. Standardized assessment of learner progress and
outcomes assessment provides one type of information about achievement
levels both within and across individuals that can inform various
types of programmatic decisions. Performance assessments can provide
other sources of information about the attainment of learning
outcomes. Self-assessments of learning progress can also improve
students self appraisal skills and enhance motivation and