Strategies to Reinforce Fundamental Attributes of Learning

Todd Zakrajsek

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Throughout a teaching career, and perhaps even within a given semester, faculty make many decisions about which teaching strategies to use. Choices include very structured approaches, such as team-based learning, service-learning, or problem-based learning. Teaching strategies which require moderate structure include options such as a flipped classroom, jigsaw, or hybrid course design. Examples of more impromptu approaches, with easy implementation for those who teach more on the fly, include the likes of think-pair-share, muddiest point, or buzz groups. Of course, along with any engaged learning strategies, there is always room for a well-designed dynamic lecture (Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). It is important to note that a teaching strategy in and of itself is neither effective nor ineffective. Effectiveness is more a function of whether or not the fundamentals necessary for learning are present. A few of the most pervasive components necessary for learning are attention, understanding, value, repetition, and elaboration. Anticipating and promoting these attributes will help create dynamic lesson plans that result in better student learning outcomes across the course.


Are your students paying attention? Think strategically about ways to gain and then maintain attention. Start class with a story, newspaper article, YouTube clip, or research finding that has a direct impact on your community. Once you have their attention, you must work to maintain it.

The issue at hand is not to turn your course into a show or feel like you have to perform, but rather make a concerted effort to create a learning environment where students are interested in that which you are teaching.

At times it works well for students to be responsible for finding and bringing elements that are of interest to the class. Keep in mind that students are novices, whereas you are an expert in the field. Novices find it more challenging to see the interesting details of a topic about which they know very little. As a result, they may struggle to find something interesting. They may get there, but it will take time and learning on their part. Finally, think about ways to identify what interests your students. Consider creating a student survey to assess student interest; explain to students that you will use the responses to work at building course material that touches on their interests.


Do your students understand the material you are teaching them? We have all been confused by something at some time. Remember, when confusion sets in attention shifts away from trying to understand the concept to an increased focus on the frustration of lack of understanding. As you present course material, monitor the audience for feedback – read the body language and tone in the room. As a group, does it appear that the audience is digesting the information at the same pace you are providing it? Novice learners are not able to easily differentiate the important from the less important or identify the connections between concepts (Hrepic, Zollman, & Rebello, 2003). Beginners benefit from the direct instruction provided by the professor.

Checking for understanding is important in all classes. Comprehension may be checked using simple strategies such as the following:

  • Stop class and ask some fundamental questions

  • Give a one-item quiz question

  • Ask students to take 2-minutes to explain the concept to their neighbors

When small groups are set up, walk around the room to determine if students understand what they are to be doing. If multiple groups are confused, regain the attention of the entire class, clarify the muddiest point, and then restate the expectations for the group work. As students gain understanding, they will be able to build upon this knowledge for greater comprehension and deeper learning.


Do your students see value in what they are being taught? Does the course content have relevance to them? Will students be able to make use of that which you are teaching them? Much like a parent who says, "because I said so," the temptation to tell students something is important because it will "be on the test" is not a good idea. Such verbiage sends the message that you are as frustrated as the students, and more importantly, it sends a message that the information is not valuable in and of itself. As you teach, look for ways to help students appreciate knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Reveal to students what you find exciting about the course or subject matter and how it relates to the foundation of other professions. Whenever teaching a complex concept, explain and encourage the class to stick with it. Reassure them that although it is a complex concept, it can also be manageable.

Be sure to recognize and celebrate student achievement when they have conquered a problematic block of information.

It may help to make text-to-self, text-to-world connections. Using small group discussions is beneficial in making such connections as well as having students share reflections about the value of the information. When lecturing, point out the value in such a way that a novice can see the importance of the information.


Do your students have an opportunity to practice recalling information? Repeating information is essential to learning. When a neuron path "fires" repeatedly it becomes more and more automatic, making it easier to recall information needed quickly. Being able to recall foundational material with ease is extremely important in freeing up cognitive room for more complex thinking. One cannot think deeply about complicated concepts if one cannot easily process the more fundamental aspects of that concept. For all the good that can come from a lecture, it is relatively difficult to give students space to practice recalling information.

Two strategies which allow for and encourages recall are:

  1. Asking rhetorical questions, and

  2. Giving students opportunities to ask questions

Small group discussions, team-based learning, service-learning, think-pair-share, and other strategies that allow students to speak, provides students with an opportunity to practice recall. As you teach content, intentionally create opportunities for students to practice recall, if it does not exist, learning will be limited (Agarwal, et al., 2012).


Do you help your students to draw connections between new information and previously learned information? Connections are essential in establishing memories. Whenever you think of something, your brain becomes primed to more easily recall related elements and rich details. The same is true for learning new information. Psychologists have long known that relating new information to something previously learned, particularly about oneself, is powerful. During the lecture, you may help students understand how the new information relates to and builds upon previously learned material. You may also show how it relates to their own lives. This is one reason service learning is so powerful because it allows students to easily see how course content relates to the lives of others. Increase student awareness through a simple writing exercise whereby students explain how course material applies to themselves and/or their families. Using small group discussions can enhance students understanding and enrich student recall of material because they generate a wider variety of examples that emerge from small group discussions.

As you proceed through the semester, monitor student response, and evaluate the foundational elements of learning and memory. You will be able to tweak your course periodically as needed and enhance learning using any teaching strategy. Most importantly, when a colleague suggests an interesting new teaching approach that is generating a lot of excitement, you can use these same dimensions to evaluate the potential effectiveness of the approach before implementing it in your own course. Always consider the extent to which a teaching strategy enhances attention, understanding, value, repetition, and elaboration. These are the elements you will almost universally see in everyday life whenever you learn something new. The more you watch for these elements, the more you will see them, and the more you see them, the easier they will be to monitor. It is a fantastic learning spiral.

Discussion questions:

1. Describe briefly something you have learned recently, whether in a class or outside of the college/university setting. To what extent is this concept for which you had some understanding of foundational elements, could see value in what you learned and attended to the information when it was presented? That is, describe these elements and the extent to which they were present when you learned the new concept.

2. Do you consider yourself good at remembering the names of people you meet? If the answer is yes, what process do you use to facilitate remembering their name? If you feel you are terrible at remembering names, try to include some of the elements presented in this blog to see if you become better at remembering names.

3. There are many people who claim to have bad memories or state that they never seem to remember new concepts. To what extent might the elements noted in this blog come into play for those individuals?


Agarwal, P. K.; Bain, P. M.; Chamberlain, R. W. (2012). "The value of applied research: Retrieval practice improves classroom learning and recommendations from a teacher, a principal, and a scientist" (PDF). Educational Psychology Review. 24 (3): 437–448.

Harrington, C. and Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic Lecturing: Research Based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness. Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Hrepic, Z., Zollman, D., & Rebello, S. (2004). Students' understanding and perceptions of the content of a lecture. AIP Conference Proceedings, 720(1), 189-192. doi:10.1063/1.1807286

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multi-media learning (2nd edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Small, A. (2014). In defense of the lecture. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from:

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