Chapter 3 – Step 3 in the Process

Action 7: Role of Learning Theory

Identify and apply fundamental learning principles that inform effective curriculum design 

Curriculum designers want to create a set of learning experiences that are very likely to help almost all students meet the learning outcomes, even when students have a range of learning needs. The learning that is occurring is checked and verified through assessment practices.


Creating your foundational learning principles helps sustain a focus on student learning and helps define the scope and sequencing of that learning.


Articulating how you expect students to learn helps you plan your curriculum so it is likely they will learn. It also helps you avoid problems like a curriculum that is too dense, or teaching of concepts when students don’t have prerequisite knowledge they need. You may draw on existing principles or adapt.


Here is one set of learning principles from Ambrose et al. (2010, p. 4 – 7):

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works. 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.


Process Tips ✔

  • Engage students, find out about what it is like to learn in your program now and what works best.  Conduct student consultations as surveys or focus groups.  Use Student Learning Experience Questionnaire (SLEQ) or Learning Analytics data.
  • Find a learning theory or resource that speaks to your curricular goals and overall vision and can become a touchstone.
  • Refer to the principles often, keep them present and on hand at meetings, and check how well the decisions you are making enable them.


Good Signs! 🏁

Indications of awareness of how learning works:

⊕  Curriculum committee and associated working groups have some touchstone learning principles

⊕  Opportunities for improved engagement, inclusion and wellness among students are identified



Warning Signs 🏴

⊗  No consideration of current student perspectives or insights about how learning works  is evident

⊗  Committees do not see the curriculum as an opportunity to positively impact engagement, inclusion, and wellness




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Curriculum Design Guide Copyright © by Susan Bens; Sara Dzaman; Aditi Garg; and Wendy James is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book