7 principles of effective teaching in undergraduate education

Chickering and Gamson (1987) provided seven principles for effective practice in undergraduate education in 1987, based upon the empirical studies on good teaching and learning in higher education. Research on the practical experiences of students and teachers of different disciplines and in different contexts still support these principles nowadays.

Among the seven principles, five are about what a teacher can do on their side.

Principle 1: Encourages cooperation among students

In a learning environment where cooperation instead of competition among students is encouraged, students are more willing to share their ideas and respond to each other, through which students can get their ideas tested among each other. Such kind of cooperative learning involves a range of cognitive engagement of students from lower levels such as explaining, listing, comparing or demonstrating, to higher levels such as applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating and so on.   Students would also benefit from the exposure to different opinions. The collaboration then increases students’ engagement in learning and enhances their understanding.


A collaborative learning environment can be achieved in both large and small classes through learning groups. For example, students can be organized into groups to discuss, solve problems, debate, do presentations, or work on projects together. How the group should be organized depends on the demand of the task, the layout of the classroom, and the kind of dynamics you want to achieve among students. For example, if a course is aiming at fostering interdisciplinary perspectives, the teacher may deliberately assign students of different disciplines into one group, giving them opportunities to meet regularly throughout the semester. The long-term and deep engagement with each other will help achieve the purpose.

Principle 2: Encourages active learning

Learning will not happen if students are not actively and mentally engaged during the learning process. This doesn’t necessarily mean learning would not happen when students are listening. But rather learning should go beyond merely the input of information such as listening, reading or watching. There should be demand for output of information as well where the students need to actively process the information and develop their own understanding. Learning doesn’t really happen unless the knowledge is integrated into students’ own knowledge system.


Active learning can be achieved through various ways like encouraging students to relate what they learn to their prior knowledge, relate to the reality, apply through case studies, solve real life problem, or work on projects. Active learning can occur in the classroom, in the community, or in virtual learning environment.

The other two are about what a teacher should encourage among students.

Principle 3: Maintains good contacts with students

This doesn’t necessarily mean frequency, but rather, the quality. When talking about the factors that would influence student learning, we mentioned that teacher is one of the major socialization agents in the university. Their interactions with students have direct impact on student learning outcomes. Positive contact in and out of classes makes students feel that the teachers have interests in them. This enhances students’ sense of belongingness. It is likely to boost students’ motivations for study and intellectual commitment.


There are many ways to maintain quality contact with students. The simplest can be knowing your students by names or offering regular office hours to meet students. This helps students feel personally connected. In a virtual learning environment, emails, discussion forum or “chat room” in learning management system can be the alternatives. They give students more time to think about what they want to say before communicating with you or making it public. If you are targeting at maintaining a deeper contact with your students, you may even consider engaging undergraduate students as junior research colleagues in projects so that they have opportunity to work with you closely.

Principle 4: Gives prompt feedback

According to a meta-analysis by a famous scholar in the field, John Hattie (2009), feedback was among the most powerful influences on academic achievement.


There are many strategies which helps improve the quality of feedback. It has to be timely, goal-referenced, actionable, formative, and user-friendly. Timely means the sooner the better, while students’ memory about the related learning task is still fresh. Goal-referenced means the feedback has to be related to the learning goals. Actionable means the feedback should suggest things students could do for improvement. Formative means the feedback has to be provided constantly to encourage students to continuously improve their performance. User-friendly means the feedback has to be comprehensible. For more discussions about feedback, you can go to the Module on feedback in this course.

Principle 5: Emphasizes time on task

Research on student engagement shows that learning needs time. In fact, we almost intuitively know about this even without reading those research papers. Not only does this suggest that students need to spend necessary amount of time on learning, it also suggests that the time spent on learning needs to be of good quality. In order for it to be quality, a teacher has to be realistic when giving students the task. Allowing realistic amounts of time for students to learn is important for effective learning. Overloading students and not giving enough time will NOT lead to quality use of time.


To ensure quality time on task, one can consider identifying key concepts and deciding what realistically can be covered in given amount of time when planning a lesson. Structure the learning activities and contents so that students can take on challenges step by step. Give students manageable workload. At the same time, teachers may also help students to learn how to manage their time, especially for the freshmen. Communicate to them the time expectations. Help students set goals for their own learning.

Principle 6: Communicates high expectations

Goethe said: “If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” Educational research shows that when teachers expected their students to perform at high levels, students tended to make decisions about learning based on those expectations and really performed at high levels.


So give a detailed syllabus with assignments, due dates, and, more importantly, grading rubrics to tell your students your expectations. Encourage students to do their best. Provide feedback to help students improve. Encourage students to set challenging goals for their learning. Publicly acknowledge excellent student performance. Show examples of excellent work. Adjust courses for different cohorts of students when needed so that students can remain challenged.

Principle 7: Respects diverse talents and ways of learning

Students come with different strengths, learning history, and learning preferences. They need opportunities to show their talents and learn in the ways that work for them. If there are new challenges in learning where they need new skills or approaches to learning, the teachers should guide them into the new ways of learning and allow time and opportunities for them to develop the skills needed.


To achieve this, a teacher may establish a safe learning environment and encourage students to speak up when they do not understand. Use diverse learning activities to address a broad range of learning preferences among students. Allow students to solve the problems in different ways. Select materials and examples that are related to the different backgrounds of students. Encourage students from different backgrounds to share their views in class. Provide materials or activities to support students to develop essential background knowledge or skills if they need.




Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0307-4412(89)90094-0.

Hattie, J. C. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London & New York: Routledge.



About the photo: Reed Flute Cave in Guilin, Guangzi Province, China, filmed in 2004.

Reed Flute Cave

, filmed in University of Hong Kong in 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s