Elements of effective learning


Multiple conditions contribute to successful learning. Intuition alone is insufficient to guide the understanding of these conditions—they must be backed by evidence. A key element of the mission of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) is to develop, collect, and share this evidence to improve learning.

“Making learning more effective” is too broad a challenge. To make the collection of evidence practical, MITili frames learning at three levels as shown in the illustration above: learner, instruction, and policy. Each of these levels can be broken down further to suggest research questions that can be asked and answered—the breakdown is not so much definitive as it is directional.

The learner, the instruction, the policy

The more that the learner, the instruction, and the policy are each set up to succeed, the more likely it is that learning will be effective.

learner1. The learner


If a learner has the right prior knowledge, motivation, interest, and physiological readiness, he or she will be in a good position to learn.

  • Prior knowledge
  • Motivation
    • Motivation as used here reflects external reasons for learning—to earn a credential, receive a promotion, or otherwise further a career. The topic might not interest the learner, but it could still be motivating.
  • Interest
    • Interest as used here regards internal reasons. There may be no external professional value to the topic, but it might still be intrinsically interesting.
  • Physiological readiness
    • The learner needs to be well-rested, well-fed, otherwise in good physical shape, and as important, in a good mental state that includes such traits as grit and growth mindset.

Having the right learner conditions in place isn’t sufficient for effective learning, however. Instruction must be right as well.

instruction2. The instruction

If the instruction has the right content, delivery, and assessment, the odds of effective learning improve.

  • Content
    • Content includes the breadth, depth, and accuracy of the subject matter and the production value with which the subject matter is configured.
  • Delivery
    • Delivery variables include human vs. digital, synchronous vs. asynchronous, duration of learning, user-requested vs. pushed-to-user, and device through which the learning is consumed.
  • Assessment
    • Assessment has to do with the frequency and depth with which the learner is assessed and the formative manner in which the responses are used to guide the next piece of content and delivery.

Having the right learner and instruction conditions in place also isn’t sufficient for effective learning. Policy must be right as well.

policy3. The policy

If the policy has the right law, access, funding, leadership, and measurement, the prospects for effective learning are better still.

  • Law
    • Laws and regulations must be conducive to learning.
  • Access
    • Learners must have access to learning. This isn’t access via funding, but rather, access via circumstance. For instance, a K-12 student who is prohibited from going to a better school by virtue of geography/school/district boundaries might have an access problem.
  • Funding
    • Funds have to be available to pay for the learning experience. These funds may be provided by the learner or the provider of instruction.
  • Leadership
    • Leaders of those providing instruction must have a philosophy conducive to/supportive of learning.
  • Measurement
    • Measurement as used here is different from the formative level of assessment guiding the learner’s next instruction. Rather, it addresses the summative level of what learners come to know, how their behaviors change, and what organizational improvements those behavior changes drive.

This working paper outlines a framework—one that’s a work in progress—with which to think about specific research questions that can be asked and answered to improve learning effectiveness.

For instance:

Q: What impact does prior learning have?
Q: How can motivation be increased?
Q: What’s the role of better content?
Q: What’s the right duration for learning?
Q: How much funding is needed?
Q: What influence does leadership’s embrace of learning have?