Last changed 31 July 2012 ............... Length about 1,000 words (9,000 bytes).
(Document started on 6 May 2007.) This is a WWW document maintained by Steve Draper, installed at You may copy it. How to refer to it.

Web site logical path: [] [~steve] [rap] [principles] [this page]

New principles

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

Contents (click to jump to a section)

The REAP project has made me aware of issues that seem important in distinguishing the best from mediocre practice in this area, but which are not described by the Nicol 7 and the Gibbs 4 principles. Here I sketch a few of the most important.

Solo to group work ratio: Learning communities

(See also a longer treatment of this here.)
To make groups productive of learning, as opposed to workplace groups where the goal is to get a joint task done, what matters is the balance of individual (solo) work and work in the group. Groups are not a substitute for working alone, nor is working alone an alternative to group work. What makes the minority of successful study groups highly productive is establishing a recipe that combines some of each mode. For example: revising alone for six hours, then meeting for two hours to get help with problems, share insights, and test each other. Another example: getting as far as possible alone with the set maths problems, then meeting in a group to get "unstuck" on the ones you couldn't do. Another: starting a new type of problem in a group (to gain confidence and get over any initial problems), then doing some more problems alone afterwards, to establish that each person can now do them alone (as they will have to in the exam).

Being social or making friends do not in themselves make a contribution to learning, any more than getting dressed, having a glass of water, or cleaning your room. These are all important in a student's life, but do not advance learning.

The provision and progressive withdrawal of scaffolding

(See also a longer treatment of this here.)
HE students are in one respect like kindergarten children and indeed all humans: when we first attempt a new activity we need a lot of support, as we get a better and better grasp of it, we not only need less, we do better with less. Providing a uniform course structure and provision of help makes a course simpler for an administrator, but is significantly dysfunctional for learning. Students need more structure and support at the beginning of a module than at the end; more in first year, less in their final year.

Creating a record of learners' work actions

One of the few things that computers are good at in education is keeping records. It turns out that simply creating and keeping available a record of all a learner's transactions, as is done as a side-effect of discussions on VLEs, bulletin boards, wikis, can sometimes have major educational added value. For individuals, it records their "workings" or steps, that can be later reviewed by a teacher if that becomes useful. For groups, it allows a staff member to police them if complaints arise (such as social loafing by some members); yet without having to "be there" at the time. This makes behaviour accountable, without having a possibly perturbing presence intervening and so changing the encounters at the time.

Contingency: having teacher actions vary depending on learners' actions

(See also a longer treatment of this here.)
A striking variation between courses is the amount of contingency: how much changes because of how the students respond as opposed to staying fixed regardless. Standard practice is to have "course feedback" questionnaires that might change things once a year; and the worst lecturers follow a fixed script and do not respond in any way to the audience. In contrast, good teachers stay in touch with their audience, take away questions or incomprehension, and come back next time with a response specially addressed to them. The most innovative modern practice goes further. In Just In Time Teaching, the content of each presentation (to a class of hundreds) is decided only on the hour before, on the basis of the quiz results and/or questions from the class on this week's assignment. A number of other current practices are similarly responsive, and make large amounts of teacher input contingent on the class' responses.

The degree of contingency has two dimensions: the time scale (are things changed yearly, weekly, daily, on the spot?), and the content scale: how much is changed (the answer to a single question, or the content of a whole lecture). One can further divide contingent responses into those that adapt academic content, and those that acknowledge and respond to the emotional state of the class: whether they are tired, need a joke, generally feeling anxious about exams, etc. Even though it is not obvious why the latter should improve learning, the signs are that it does, perhaps by demonstrating communicative coordination between teacher and learner, and it certainly raises student ratings of lecturers.

Ensure processing of feedback

(See also a longer treatment of this here.)
Ensure there is something that triggers the learner into processing any feedback into actions.

Provide intelligible comparisons for grades/marks

(See also a longer treatment of this here.)
Ensure students can translate their marks into usable information for their self-regulatory decisions


"Over-dimensions" refers to principles that can be applied to every other principle.

Degree of learner proactiveness

(See also a longer treatment of this here.)
For every learning activity there is a question, not just of whether the learners can play their active part in it (e.g. know how to take notes in a lecture, feel able to contribute to a seminar discussion), but whether they are able and willing to organise the activity for themselves. Can they not only contribute to peer discussion when it is called for by the teacher in class, but organise their own study group? Of course there is no need for them to do so while the staff are organising adequate amounts. But for lifelong learning and autonomy, they need to be able to take the initiative as necessary.

This can in fact be applied to all the other principles. Not just understand the assessment criteria [Nicol no.1], but be capable of creating and refining their own. Not just respond well to "clear and high expectations" [Gibbs no.4] from staff, but when necessary set their own rather than waiting to be told.

Minimising teaching costs

Resources are finite. Saving effort and cost, means resources go further, and so learning will benefit. Whenever a new technique saves teacher time, more learners can be taught.

Web site logical path: [] [~steve] [rap] [principles] [this page]
[Top of this page]