This teaching guide is a resource for lecturers   


Helping people learn - teaching methods and principles


The past several decades have seen an explosion of new research on how human beings learn. That research has taught us that human beings are, as anthropologist Susan Blum has written, "born to learn" (Blum, 2016, p. 3). We begin learning in our infancy and can continue to do so throughout our life span. However, while learning comes naturally to us, teaching does not. Indeed, helping another human being learn turns out to be a very complex challenge, one that has given rise to the rich field of educational theory.

Most university lecturers spend their own student years mastering their disciplinary knowledge, and do not have the opportunity to study that body of educational research. They usually can draw upon their experience as learners, as well as their early experiences as teachers, to develop effective teaching strategies. However, opportunities to reflect upon the educational process, even after one has gained experience as a teacher, can still prove helpful in developing new ideas or improving one's existing practice.

The Modules in this series, and especially the teaching materials and activities that can be found in each of them, align with some core principles from the educational theory research that are worth noting before working through the Modules. This brief outline is offered for two reasons. First, these principles help provide a theoretical grounding for the teaching methods recommended in the Modules. Just as we want students not only to practice ethical behaviour but also to understand the principles that guide such ethical behaviour, we wanted to make explicit the educational principles that provide a foundation for the activities lecturers plan for their students. Second, even if choosing not to use the recommended teaching activities, lecturers can use the learning principles to create and structure learning activities that might be especially appropriate for a particular context.

In what follows we offer a brief overview of five core learning principles that can be used to guide the creation of any type of learning environment, from a full traditional university course to a single learning session within a larger context. Within each principle, we have provided links to examples of learning activities that can be found within the Modules. The Appendix to this Teaching Guide includes a Table of Exercises, where we indicate which of the five core learning principles are reflected in each of the over 70 exercises that are included in the Modules.   

After exploring the five core learning principles, we briefly discuss the use of case studies, a popular teaching method which is extensively employed in the Modules.


The power of prior knowledge and experience

Whenever we are learning something new, we normally begin by testing it against what we already know. Researchers refer to what we already know as our prior knowledge, and it turns out that our prior knowledge has a substantial impact on how we process and understand new learning. The educational theorist Jean Piaget argued that our prior knowledge takes the form of schema, which one might think about as mental models or conceptual maps of our understanding in a particular area. Bain (2004) provides an overview of the theory of schema especially at it relates to university teaching. We have schema in our minds that govern all our thinking and action. We have a mental model of how a car works, for example, and that model gives us the information we need to get into the driver's seat and make it run. Another schema tells us how the city is laid out and enables us to navigate our way around it. A third and related model informs our understanding of the traffic laws.

Piaget and other educational researchers have argued that learning consists of making changes to our existing models - but that such changes can be difficult to make, and in fact we often fight against making changes to our models. When we encounter new information or ideas, our first instinct is to cram them into our existing models, even when they do not quite fit. Imagine a traveller to a foreign city which used what looked to her like traffic lights to keep people informed about the weather. Unless someone told the traveller the purpose of the lights, she would continually seek to interpret them as somehow connected to traffic, even when realizing that this interpretation did not fit well with what she was observing.

As teachers, we want students not simply to filter our course content through their existing models, but to change and expand those internal models. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by having students articulate and reflect upon their prior knowledge and mental models prior to learning something new. When students are invited to discuss their understanding and experiences of a subject before they have gained initial exposure to it, this opens the student up to the prospect of change. Moreover, as a happy corollary, this process helps teachers recognize the specific misconceptions and problems the students have, and it enables these points to be addressed more effectively.

In short, if teachers do not understand or discuss the ethical understandings that students bring into the room, they are less likely to reach the students with any of the course content. In many of the Modules, we encourage lecturers to invite students to surface their current ideas about ethics, or engage in ethical decision-making activities, before the lecturer presents the content to them for the first time. This helps students to surface and discuss their prior knowledge and gives the lecturer a clear picture of what will be most important for the lecturer to address and emphasize throughout the Modules.

An example of this approach to learning about ethics can be found in the Possible Class Structure of Module 1 (Introduction and Conceptual Framework):

Conceptual analysis of integrity (15 minutes)

  • The lecturer asks students to divide into groups of three or four, and to provide their definition of integrity;
  • A few groups provide feedback to the class; and
  • The lecturer shares the textbook definition of integrity.

Note that in this case the Module recommends that the lecturer begins by asking students to provide their own definitions first, and then share and discuss those definitions as a class. Only after those definitions have been articulated does the lecturer share the textbook definition of integrity - and, in so doing, the lecturer can explicitly address some of the misconceptions or problems that were evident in the students' initial definitions.

Almost any learning experience is enhanced when students first have the opportunity to articulate and discuss their prior knowledge about a subject matter. This process can at times seem messy and inefficient, as the students' initial discussions or ideas will be incorrect or incomplete. However, taking even a short amount of time to learn about their understanding helps the lecturer to realize the best way to change and enhance the mental models that they have brought into the room. James Lang (2016) offers a more extensive discussion on the benefits of having students try to answer questions or solve problems before they are ready to do it.


Varied and active engagement

For learners to gain a deep understanding of new knowledge, skills, or values, they must actively engage with it. Active engagement can come through listening to a lecturer or viewing a video, but that should never be the only form of engagement that students have with the learning material. They should also have opportunities to engage with it in other ways, such as through writing, discussions, brainstorming activities, role plays and debates. In all the E4J Modules, there are recommendations for teaching and learning activities that require students to actively confront ethical questions, problems, and challenges. Whether lecturers choose to use these recommended activities or develop activities of their own, they should ensure that students are required not only to listen, read, or view (which are more passive forms of learning), but also to speak, write, and act.

Lecturers might have heard or read about the theory that students have different learning styles - such as visual learning, or auditory learning, and so forth - and that hence teachers should seek to identify the preferred learning style of every student and tailor instruction to it. This theory has been used to support and promote a range of educational initiatives, some of them expensive and time-consuming to put into practice. Over the past two decades researchers have tested this theory in several different ways and found that it is not well-supported by the evidence (Brown, 2014). While it is generically true that some of us prefer to read or listen to lectures while others like to engage in discussions or write, no evidence supports the idea that we learn more effectively or deeply when we are working in our preferred learning style. Indeed, some researchers have discovered that students are often mistaken when they predict the type of activity that produces the greatest learning for them.

We are discovering more and more that learning is most effective when it requires some effort on the part of the student, which means that students might learn more effectively when they are required to engage in activities that they find challenging. The student who enjoys listening to lectures may learn comfortably from lectures, but when that student has to gather her thoughts and deliver them to her peers in a role play activity, that challenge to her comfortable style of learning may be more memorable to her than the most brilliant lecture she has attended. The literature often refers to this phenomenon as "desirable difficulties'' (Bjork 2013 and this blog).

All of this leads to an important conclusion about the kinds of engagement activities that should be designed for students: they should be varied.  If the lecturer does nothing but lecture to students, those students who do not respond very well to lectures - because they have difficulty paying attention for long periods of time, for example - are at a disadvantage. Likewise, if the lecturer does nothing but have students engage in debates, those students who like to have the opportunity to read or listen quietly to an expert are at a disadvantage. As the lecturer is putting together plans to teach any of the Modules, he or she should consider how to offer varied methods for students to engage actively with the learning material.

All the Modules contain within them recommendations for active engagement in different forms. For example, Module 2 (Ethics and Universal Values) includes a Possible Class Structure with a variety of activities in a single class. If the lecturer were to follow the suggested sequence, students would be engaging in the following activities:

  • Listening to a lecture accompanied by a slide presentation
  • Watching a short video
  • Engaging in a whole-class discussion on key questions
  • Working in small groups on a clearly defined task
  • Writing their own Declaration of Human Values
  • Creating a performance which might include poetry, music or dance
  • Performing or presenting to their peers
  • Introducing an educational board game or app

This extremely wide range of activities gives every student the opportunity to feel comfortable in some aspects of the work and challenged in others. The creative student might fidget through the lecture but come to life in the creation of the performance. The more intellectual student will relish the lecture and video and must be helped by their peers to present their ideas to the class.

As lecturers plan teaching activities for the Modules, they should keep in mind the principle that they are seeking to create for their students a varied range of active forms of engagement with the learning material.


The challenge of transfer

The ultimate goal of all education is transfer of knowledge: the ability of the learners to take what they have learned in one context and apply it to a new context. In the area of integrity and ethics, lecturers want their students to take what they have learned in the Modules and apply it to ethical situations they encounter outside of the classroom: on campus, at home, in their careers, and beyond. When teaching a class based on Module 4 (Ethical Leadership), for example, one might expect that students will take the principles covered in that lesson and use them when they find themselves in leadership positions - but they might be months or years away from assuming leadership roles in a professional environment or in their communities.

Research on learning shows that transfer is very difficult to achieve. People tend to learn new skills and ideas within specific contexts and then associate those skills and ideas with the context in which they learned them. The best means of helping students transfer knowledge outside of the classroom contexts in which they first encounter it is to help connect that knowledge to contexts that students encounter in their everyday lives (Ambrose, 2010). As much as possible, lecturers should always work to provide real-world examples of the ideas and principles that they are teaching, and - even better - invite students to identify and explain their own examples of those ideas and principles.

Good teachers usually do this during their lectures or discussions. When they introduce a new idea, they provide examples of how it has appeared in the world, or they offer hypothetical scenarios in which it could appear in the world. Lecturers should make sure that at least some of their examples connect to the contexts in which students live: the histories of their own countries, the people with whom they are familiar, the everyday contexts in which they live. Of course, part of educating students means opening their eyes to historically and geographically distant countries and histories and people, but if the lecturer never helps them see the connection between the content and their own lives, students are unlikely to transfer the course content to their lives.

Fortunately, lecturers do not have to do all the work of making these connections themselves. If students gain a thorough understanding of the content, they should be able to identify their own examples of how the taught principles could apply in their own lives. Consider this very easy example of a teaching activity from Exercise 1 of Module 3 (Ethics and Society):

Students are encouraged to bring a daily newspaper to class or to access any news-related website. They are given five minutes for individual preparation - the task is to explore the front page or headlines and to identify three to five stories with a clear ethical component. After five minutes, small groups are formed to discuss and share examples. Each group is required to select one example to present to the class.

Inviting the students to comb through news reports, especially if those news reports are local, helps the students get into the habit of viewing the news through the lens of the principles lecturers are helping them to master - and that, in turn, gets them into the habit of transferring the principles into other contexts outside of the classroom.

All the Modules invite students to engage in activities or tackle real-world dilemmas in which the course content would apply. They also encourage lecturers to discuss how the content applies to the students' lives outside of the course. However, the lecturer should search consistently, as he or she is both planning a course and engaged in teaching, for opportunities to facilitate transfer by inviting students to make connections between the content and their own lives.


The social nature of learning

Although we often think about learning as a solitary affair, the construction of new ideas and knowledge operates most effectively when learners combine solitary study with opportunities for discussion and collaboration with one another. Every Module contains recommended teaching activities in which students are collaborating with one another in discussions or other group activities. Whether lecturers pursue these recommended activities or create activities of their own, the students benefit when they can share ideas, learn from one another, and even argue and debate.

Two related theories help support the proposition that students benefit from opportunities for collaboration with one another. First, as an expert learner in a specific field, lecturers might have developed what researchers call "expert blind spots": in other words, they are no longer able to see the material as a new learner sees it. Lecturers might have found this in their experience thus far as teachers: they explain something to a student that seems quite clear to them, but the student seems baffled. Researchers who study this problem have pointed out that experts, when they are explaining their subject matter to a new learner, often skip over steps or concepts that have become so automatic to them that they are no longer consciously aware of them. For example, if an expert swimmer were to teach someone to swim, the expert might focus on helping someone to develop perfect form in the motion of the arms and legs. In the meantime, the student might be gasping for air, as the teacher failed to instruct them in how to breathe properly throughout the strokes - something that the teacher does automatically and took for granted the learner would know. Ellen Langer (1997) offers an overview of the difficulties that arise from recognizing knowledge or skills that have become too familiar to us.

Students who are struggling together to learn something have no expert blind spots. They can thus often be more helpful to one another than the teacher can. A second theory about learning, one developed a century ago by Russian educational thinker L.S. Vygotsky, helps explain why this is so. Vygotsky posited that we should identify two levels of ability in learners: their current state of ability, and the abilities that they might achieve with the help of experienced peers or guides. In other words, imagine ten mathematics problems of increasing difficulty. Working on his or her own, a student might be able to solve all the way through problem six. However, if that student were to join together with two peers, the three of them might be able to help each other get through problem eight. The difference between these two levels of achievement - what the student could accomplish on his or her own and what he or she could accomplish with the help of peers - was described by Vygotsky as that student's zone of proximal development.  In other words, that zone represents the next stage of learning that the student can achieve when he or she works collaboratively with others (Vygotsky, 1978).

As students are listening to lectures, watching videos or reading texts that explain the core ideas of ethics to them, they gain a certain level of mastery over the material. But they will have mastery over different parts of it. One student might have a very strong command of Concept A but a fuzzy grasp of Concept B and find Concept C completely confusing. By collaborating with his or her peer who is confused by Concept A but has a firm grasp of Concepts B and C, the student will be able to push him or herself and his or her peers into that zone of proximal development, thereby improving the learning of them both. The Modules thus provide plenty of recommended activities in which students work together on tasks, enabling them to help each other deepen their understanding of integrity and ethics.

One practical point about asking students to work collaboratively should be considered. Ideally, the students should work together to complete a concrete task of some kind. If the lecturer simply provides discussion questions for students, and invites them to discuss with one another, it is likely that the more motivated students will follow the directions, while the less motivated ones stray off task. This problem can be avoided if the requirement is that students work collaboratively to produce something: a document, a list, a map, a performance, etc. Always make sure that student groups have a deliverable of some kind, even a very informal one.

In Module 13 (Public Integrity and Ethics), for example, students are learning about the relationship between ethics and public service. Exercise 2 of that Module asks students to consider the ethics code of a particular country and compare it to a theoretical framework that has been introduced by the lecturer. The students are put into groups and asked to annotate that code by connecting its items with the principles from the theory. The students then explain the work they have done to the class in a plenary session.

This exercise gives students the opportunity to help each other complete an initial learning activity, and then to present their work to the entire class. This basic structure works well for many types of collaborative activities and provides students with the opportunity to help each other learn.


Becoming self-aware

Finally, we know that one key for effective learning is what researchers call metacognition,  which refers to our ability to understand our own knowledge levels and learning abilities. The more self-aware students are about their learning, the more they can monitor and improve their learning in any subject. So as much as possible, lecturers should seek out opportunities to invite students to identify what they understand or do not understand, or where they are strong and where they need improvement. Cognitive psychologist Stephen L. Chew has created a series of videos for students on the importance of metacognition to their learning. The videos summarize the key research in this area in ways that are accessible to both teachers and students, and can be found here.

Lecturers can insert small opportunities for these kinds of conversations throughout many of the recommended activities. Several of the E4J Modules recommend having students engage in debates or role plays surrounding ethical issues. Activities like this can always be followed by the opportunity for students to debrief and reflect upon the experience. This can be done in the form of discussions or writing activities. The lecturer can also consider pausing during role plays or simulations and giving students the opportunity to articulate their current state of understanding; once they have done so, the lecturer can then return them to the activity. Activities like role plays, simulations, and debates will be much more effective learning experiences if the students take the time to reflect upon the experience and to articulate explicitly what they learned from them.

In Module 7 (Strategies for Ethical Action), there are many recommended teaching activities that explicitly invite students toward self-reflection and analysis of their thinking. Exercise 3 of that Module, for example, concludes with the following directions:

After listening to your colleague's proposed solution to the values conflict under discussion but before discussing it, take a moment to silently consider your responses to the following questions:

  • What is your immediate response to your colleague's strategy and "script"?
  • What are the strengths of this response?
  • What questions do you still have for your colleague?
  • If you were the target of this response, how do you think you would react?
  • What might improve this response?

These kinds of questions invite precisely the sort of reflection that produces better metacognition and help provide the student with direction for her future learning.

Another very simple strategy that many lecturers use in their courses takes the form of a writing exercise that students can complete at the end of any class period, no matter what the activity is. In this technique, usually called the "Minute Paper" (see Module 9 for an example), the instructor pauses the class a few minutes before the end and asks students to write down their responses to two questions: "What was the most important thing you learned today? What question remains in your mind?" When students conclude a learning experience by reflecting upon these two questions, they are helping to seal in their minds the most fundamental knowledge or skill from the class, and they are also taking stock of their learning to discover where they still need help. As an added bonus, lecturers will find it useful to read what students have to say. They might all be confused about the same idea or they might have rated as "most important" an idea that lecturers see as less critical. In either case, this can be addressed with the students in the next class period.

Learning researchers tell us that most of us have "fluency illusions" in our understanding of any given topic. In other words, we tend to assume we know more than we actually do. These fluency illusions, which plague our students as well, can de-motivate them from learning something new. The best remedy for fluency illusions is to encourage self-reflection and analysis of one's own knowledge. Most importantly, paying attention to the metacognition of their students helps lecturers empower the students and motivate them for continued learning after the formal education has concluded.


Using case studies

It may be worth saying a few things about the use of case studies given that many of the Modules employ this important teaching method. Case studies can either be fictional or real-life. The scope can range from very extensive, e.g. a typical Harvard Case Study, to small caselets of a few paragraphs.

The Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario is one of the most prolific producers of business case studies. They explain the reason for using cases as follows:

A "case allows (the student) to step figuratively into the position of a particular decision maker." The strength of the case method of teaching is that students have to apply business principles to the issues raised and defend their recommended course of action to their fellow students. Cases enable students to put themselves in the place of actual managers. Students analyze situations, develop alternatives, choose plans of action and implementation, and communicate and defend their findings in small groups and in class. Cases are used to test the understanding of theory, to connect theory with application, and to develop theoretical insight. Cases are still one of the best ways to enable students to learn by doing.

The case studies that are most often used in the E4J Modules are sometimes called "illustrative case studies". According to the Writing Guide at the University of Colorado:

Illustrative case studies are primarily descriptive studies. They typically utilize one or two instances of an event to show what a situation is like. Illustrative case studies serve primarily to make the unfamiliar familiar and to give readers a common language about the topic in question.

In the E4J Modules, the case studies are generally short descriptions of a situation where a decision must be taken. The student is then placed in the position of the decision maker and has to decide (and articulate) how to respond in that specific situation. Within this context the role of the lecturer is primarily to facilitate the discussion. In most cases students come to class having read the case already. The lecturer introduces the topic and the case and then leads discussion. The lecturer also concludes the discussion by emphasizing the main learning points, but the bulk of the discussion should be done by students. Depending on the class size, the discussion takes place either in a plenary or in small groups. When guiding discussion, the lecturer needs to ensure that the students do not simply jump to the proposed solution within the first few minutes of discussion. Therefore, the following is a generic series of questions that could be used by the lecturer:

  • What are the different issues that are relevant in this case?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • Who is the main decision maker?
  • What are the options available to the decision maker?
  • What are the criteria that should be used to select the best option? (This is a key part of the discussion to relate the case to the theory discussed in class, if applicable.)
  • What would you recommend?
  • What are possible critiques of this decision and how would you respond?

Depending on the facilities available, the lecturer should use a board or flip chart to capture the conversation. This could be done either informally as discussion unfolds or it could be more structured. Some lecturers spend hours to design a board plan in advance and then apply this in a flexible way during the discussion.


References and further reading

  • Ambrose, Susan et al (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.*
  • Bain, Ken (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.*
  • Bjork, R. A. (2013). Desirable difficulties perspective on learning . In H. Pashler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the mind. Thousand Oaks: Sage Reference.
  • Blum, Susan (2016). I Love Learning; I Hate School: An Anthropology of College. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Brown, Peter, Mark McDaniel and Henry L. Roediger (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.*
  • Lang, James M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.*
  • Langer, Ellen (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Vygotsky, L. C. and Michael Cole (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Zull, James E. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.*

* These five books provide an overview of the latest research on teaching and learning in higher education and are recommended for further reading.

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