9 Key Principles for Instructors to Help Students Learn

Guest Author: Dr. Don Orth
Editor: Patrick Cooney

We are all teachers and learners, albeit too often flawed, slow learners. Here, pictured with a filmstrip projector, I listened as the Beatles sang “You say you want a revolution. Well, you know. We all want to change the world.” (John Lennon / Paul McCartney Revolution lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Don Orth listening to the Beatles “Revolution.”

Who wouldn’t want to change the world? Education should be a pathway for change, but is too often slow to change and impedes change. I learned much from the philosophy of Calvin and Hobbes, created by Bill Waterson. On the unspoken truth behind the education system, Calvin says: “As you can see, I have memorized this utterly useless piece of information long enough to pass a test question. I now intend to forget it forever. You’ve taught me nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system. Congratulations.” Even young Calvin knows that recall is not the highest form of intellectual achievements.  Also an observant philosopher speaking on looking yourself in the mirror, Hobbes says: “So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they’re already met?”  The more teaching has changed, the more the essential principles of learning (herein emphasized in bold) have stayed the same (Gregory 1886).

Socrates never had a syllabus but I do. Every semester I provide advice to my students on how to learn and make it stick.  Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1969) in Teaching as a Subversive Activity wrote of Crap Detecting. Written at a time called the “change revolution,” a crap detector is still needed to overcome prejudice learned from an early age. The survival of human society is threatened by numerous insoluble problems, which we call wicked problems. Educators must teach crap detection skills. Sometimes, we need to remember that our fondest beliefs may be crap.

No matter what we do the employer surveys will find universities lacking.  The following are results from a major survey by Hart Research Associates (2015):

  • Nearly all employers (91 percent) agree that for career success, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.”
  • Nearly all employers (96 percent) agree that “all college students should have experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different fromtheir own.”
  • More than three-quarters (78 percent) agree that “all college students should gain intercultural skills and an understanding of societies and countries outside theUnited States.”

The world you were educated to believe in doesn’t exist (p. 14. Postman and Weingartner 1969) but “people seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent” (Bob Dylan).  Education requires an open mind.  The process of education is never complete, unlike Luke 6:40 “When the process of education is complete, the student will have become like his master.” Today, the student’s skills should soon far surpass skills of the master.

style=”text-align: justify;”>The community of practice (COP), a social theory of learning, consists of the domain, community, and practice.  The student works toward developing his or her identity, which has a social, cultural and historical character. Practitioners and novices in a COP develop a shared repertoire of experiences, stories, and tools for addressing recurring problems. Shared practice is essential to developing skills that cannot be learned by reading a text.  The community of practice model is designed to facilitate the ritual, repetition, and an emphasis on the practical value of each lesson wherever or wherever it is needed.   Fish nerds are curious and develop a ritual of observing fish, collecting, and practicing the tasks that practitioners do.

These nine key principles are helpful to the novice and experienced instructors:

  1. Bullshit Asymmetry Principle (also known as Brandolini’s law) states that: The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.
  2. Hofstadter’s Law maintains that It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law (Gödel et al. 1999).
  3. Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias whereby a person overestimates his or her own qualities and abilities, in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other persons (Hoorens 1993). These individuals are also called the incompetent awesomes.
  4. Impostor syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud” (Chance and Imes 1978).
  5. Parkinson’s law is the adage that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
  6. Student syndrome is that planned procrastination where a student will only begin an assignment at the last possible moment before its deadline. This eliminates any potential safety margins and puts the person under stress and pressure. This plan induces a level of urgency high enough to ensure the proper amount of effort is put into the task (Smith 2010). The final product is often unsatisfactory.
  7. Optimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that they are at a lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others (O’Sullivan 2015).
  8. The Pygmalion effect is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance (Mitchell 2003). This is the opposite of Calvin’s lowering expectations to the point where they are already met. Kierkegaard wrote “our life always expresses the result of our dominant thought.” Yet students often work hard to hide themselves from the community.  The community of practice model helps remind me that learning is a social act.
  9. In our connected world, students still lack a sense of belonging. We need to see another person face to face in order to effectively communicate. We can support improved learning by intervening to enhance connectedness.   Connectedness can actually make a team work harder and perform better.  Many interventions may affect the long-term student motivation and achievement and assist in creating a sense of belonging to the group (Walton 2012).
The critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs (source).

The teacher’s work is to create the experiences via an inquiry method which “implies that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs” (p. 19, Postman and Weingartner 1969) while anticipating and accommodating for student struggles.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” -John Dewey

My students create a digital story “On Becoming an Ichthyologist” in order to reveal to who they are, why they are here, how they come to be, what they value most, and how they see the world. I use reflective prompts as a way to get into the head of the student. This is not an easy assignment and I would never have realized its value if I hadn’t created my own story.  View Not Everyone Truly Lives, which focused around early events in my childhood that influenced later career and educational choices. Tapping the dreams and motivation of students is critically important to engaging them.

Sample excerpts of student stories illustrate the top three themes that emerged from student scripts:

  1. Early sense of belonging
    • “…as children… used to spend hours at the lake house fishing. One time, we spent three hours looking for the perfect worms in my grandma’s garden to catch the perfect sunfish.”
    • “I have always had some sort of strange connection to fish; I spent a lot of time around them growing up.”
  2. Effect of the class
    • “There was nothing else I would have rather been doing than being out on the river learning about fish, which was the moment I believe I became a better ichthyology student.”
    • “My goal is not just to learn many different types of fish but to understand and to better continue conserving the fish we have now for future fish enthusiasts.”
    • “most exciting part of my journey to becoming an ichthyologist is being surrounded by people I fit in with. The journey has many diverse paths, but meeting people who are all so motivated and enthusiastic about all of them makes it seem less difficult”
    • “but in Ichthyology I have observed, in detail, learned their morphology, and began to understand such a complex and diverse group. I believe no learning is better than hands on learning, and having specimens and dissections has really helped me learn and understand the working of a fish.“
  3. Influential person
      • “altering of my thought process has been perhaps my toughest obstacle for me to overcome. My first fisheries science professor told me to stop thinking so much like a fisherman and more like a scientist. This advice given from a professional in the field of fisheries is what ultimately drove me to shift my reasoning to study fish.”

    <li>“If my uncle never took me out on his boat to go fishing with him or to see that clear, crisp sky over the open waters, my interest and curiosity of fish would have never sparked into my mind.”

Frequency of occurrence of qualitative themes in student video scripts (Orth and Moore 2015).

Listen to some student stories to see how the story helps you remember.

Jacob uses vivid imagery to help tell his story of his non-academic struggles.

Katie compares her journey and earliest experiences with fish to the journey of fishes.

Rachel’s story reflects her uncertainty as compared to other students.

Erica’s story emphasizes the importance of work experiences to motivate classroom learning.

Thomas’ story emphasizes his discouragement when learning many types of fish that he believed were not part of his future.

Lindsey’s story reflects early passions and experiences near water and wetlands

The reality of uncertain fish identification challenges is explained in a barcoding video.  A parody of Roger Miller’s King of the Road, reminds us of what is needed to Know all the Fish.  These notions of multimodal instruction were more fully introduced by Grossman et al. (2016).  My story assignment and other types of public writing assignments help students develop and refine transferable skills. They develop their voice.

One overdue change is the adoption of inclusive pedagogy, which emphasizes self-understanding, purpose, and serving others.  The Virginia Tech motto is Ut prosim, which translates to ‘That I may serve.’  Inclusive pedagogy is designed to cultivate empathy, encourage participation, and minimize barriers to participation, all of which are essential to a functioning democracy (Laird 2014).  Where do our students find these inclusive communities of practice?   This is a new responsibility for our professional societies.

Calvin and Hobbes © Bill Watterson Source: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/


Clance, P.R., and S.A. Imes. 1978. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15(3): 241–247. doi:10.1037/h0086006

Grossman, G.D., D.J. Orth, and J.R. Neuswanger. 2016. Innovative approaches to fisheries education and outreach. Fisheries 41(8): 450-457.

Hart Research Associates. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC. 13 pp.

Hofstader, D.R. 1999.  Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.  Basic Books,   New York, New York.  824 pp.

Hoorens, V. 1993. Self-enhancement and superiority biases in social comparison. European Review of Social Psychology 4 (1): 113–139. doi:10.1080/14792779343000040

Laird, T.F.N. 2014. Reconsidering the inclusion of diversity in the curriculum. Diversity and Democracy 17(4): 12-14.

Milton, J.G.1886. The seven laws of teaching. Reprint, Canon Press, Moscow, Idaho.

Mitchell, T. R., and D. Daniels. 2003. Motivation. In W.C. Borman, D. R. Ilgen, and R. J. Klimoski. Handbook of Psychology (volume 12). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 229. ISBN 0-471-38408-9.

Orth, D.J., and M.J. Moore.  2015.  Adopting a community of practice approach to teaching.  Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.

O’Sullivan, O.P. 2015. The neural basis of always looking on the bright side. Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences, 8(1): 11–15.

Postman, N., and C. Weingartner. 1969. Teaching as a subversive activity. Dell Publishing, New York. 219 pp.

Smith, D.C. 2010. The effects of student syndrome, stress, and slack on information systems development projects. Issues In Informing Science and Information Technology 7: 489-494.

Walton, G.M., G.L. Cohen, D. Cwir, and S.J. Spencer. 2012. Mere belonging: the power of social connections. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 102(3): 513-32.

About the Guest Author

Dr. Donald J. Orth is a professor at Virginia Tech University in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.  He was recently recognized by the Education Section of the American Fisheries Society with their annual educator award award.  Don’s research encompasses investigating the habitats used by fishes in streams and rivers and developing protocols or habitat suitability criteria for maintaining sustainable populations in the face of various human modifications, such as water withdrawals and habitat modifications.   He also studies ecological drivers that influence fish population dynamics and develops and evaluates a variety of instream flow assessment methods in order to derive environmental flows for sustainability.     Finally, he investigates trophic connections between the various food web components to assist in the development of ecosystem based management.

He also continues to sing Beatles songs in his free time.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Henry says:

    Amusing and enlightening blog. Some typos in the citations: Gregory 1886 should be Milton 1886 to match references; Godel et al. 1999 should be Hofstadter; Chance and Imes 1978 should be Clance and Imes 1978; and one source is missing. Gremlins at work or as I tell my students – one more proof read never hurts.

  2. There’s a lot to learn from your blog.Thanks for your valuable post.It’s so useful for everyone.

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