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Teaching Materials

"Guidelines on Learning that Inform Teaching at MIT"

Guidelines on Learning (2nd edition)

"Guidelines on Learning that Inform Teaching at MIT" (2nd edition), adapted by TLL from the "Guidelines on Learning that Inform Teaching at the University of New South Wales"

This handbook includes 16 Guidelines on Learning based on a survey of the research literature on student learning and accepted good teaching practice. Each Guideline is explained with relevant quotes and there are links to examples of the guidelines in action, including examples at MIT.

The guidelines presented in this handbook are organized in five broad categories:

1. engaging students in learning
2. contextualizing students’ learning experiences
3. creating an inclusive learning and teaching experience
4. designing an engaging, contextualized and inclusive curriculum
5. teaching an engaging, contextualized and inclusive curriculum

If you are a member of the MIT community, a printed copy of this booklet is avilable to you free of charge. Pick up a copy in 5-122 or e-mail us your address.

Anyone may download the entire booklet or any of its individual chapters as PDF files (formatted to print 8.5"x11"), courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare.


MIT Examples of Putting Learning Guidelines into Practice

  1. Guideline # 1:  Engage Students in Learning
    Discipline: Physics

    Beginning in 2003, MIT adopted a new format for freshman physics education, which is designed to help students develop much better intuition about, and conceptual models of, physical phenomena. (All MIT undergraduates are required to take two semesters of physics, Physics I [mechanics] and Physics II [electromagnetism]). This new format is known by the acronym TEAL (Technology-Enabled Active Learning), and it is centered on an active learning approach. TEAL classes are taught in a highly collaborative, hands-on environment, with extensive use of networked laptops and desktop experiments. Lectures, recitations, and laboratories are merged as students work together in teams of three. More information can be found at; an article that appeared in The Journal of Learning Sciences is here.
  2. Guideline # 2:  Create a Climate of Inquiry; Link Learning to Research
    Discipline:  Biology & Engineering

    MIT faculty from bioengineering taught Microscale Engineering for the Life Sciences, a project-based course for freshmenThe course was an introduction to manipulating and characterizing cells and biological molecules using microfabricated tools.  In the first half of the term, students perform laboratory exercises designed to introduce the design, manufacture, and use of microfluidic channels; techniques for sorting and manipulating cells and biomolecules; and making quantitative measurements using optical detection and fluorescent labeling. In the second half of the term, students work in small groups to design and test a microfluidic device to solve a real-world problem of their choosing.  The broad goal of the course is to "stimulate interest in the intersection of engineering with the life sciences."  More information can be found at

  3. Guideline # 3:  Make Learning Interesting, Challenging, and Fun
    Discipline: Engineering

    A freshman course Exploring Sea, Space, and Earth: Fundamentals of Engineering Design is based around student teams formulating and completing space/earth/ocean exploration-based design projects with weekly milestones. The course introduces core engineering themes, principles, and modes of thinking, and includes exercises in written and oral communication and team building. Specialized learning modules enable teams to focus on the knowledge required to complete their projects, such as machine elements, electronics, design process, visualization and communication. Examples of projects include surveying a lake for millfoil from a remote controlled aircraft, then sending out robotic harvesters to clear the invasive growth; and exploration to search for the evidence of life on a moon of Jupiter, with scientists participating through teleoperation and supervisory control of robots.  More information can be found at

  4. Guideline # 4:  Structure Occasions for Reflection
    Discipline: Management Science

    A required course for students majoring in the MIT Sloan School of Management focuses on professional communication.  The course gives students the opportunity to develop the writing, speaking, teamwork, and interpersonal communication skills necessary for leaders.  Students learn communication principles, strategies, and methods through discussions, exercises, examples, and cases.  Among the assignments for the course are:  a memo written at the beginning of the semester that provides a baseline on their skills; an evaluation of the semester-long teamwork project (see assignment here); and a memo written at the end of the semester to reflect on how the students have strengthened their skills, as well as how they will continue to improve.  More information can be found at

  5. Guideline # 5:  Build upon Students' Prior Experience and Knowledge
    Discipline: Engineering

    Several courses at MIT are experimenting with the use of pre-tests so that instructors can get a sense of students’ knowledge before the course begins.  The TEAL project (see example #1) used a pre-test/post-test design to assess the conceptual knowledge students gained in the studio physics format as compared to a lecture/recitation format.  More recently, faculty teaching the first required core course in the department of mechanical engineering, Mechanics and Materials I, have developed concept tests not only to evaluate prior knowledge, but also to understand how much their students have learned during the semester.  An unpublished report on the use of pre- and post-tests in this course can be found here.

  6. Guideline # 6:  Linkthe Classroom to the Wider Community
    Discipline: Engineering

    MIT’s D-Lab is a program that fosters the development of appropriate technologies and sustainable solutions within the framework of international development. D-Lab’s mission is to improve the quality of life of low-income households through the creation and implementation of low cost technologies.  D-Lab’s portfolio of technologies also serves as an educational vehicle that allows students to gain an optimistic and practical understanding of their roles in alleviating poverty. There are currently eleven different academic offerings that make up the suite of D-Lab classes. All D-Lab courses are based on the same values and principles of providing experiential learning, using technology to address poverty, building the local creative capacity, promoting local innovation, valuing indigenous knowledge, fostering participatory development and co-creation, and building sustainable organizations and partnerships.  More information can be found at

  7. Guideline # 7:  Encourage Dialogue
    Discipline: Humanities

    Living Well Then and Now:  Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective asks students to think—and talk about—such questions as:  Which members of society (and which societies) eat rice, which eat porridge, which eat bread, and what does this signify?  What does urbanization mean in a seemingly ‘”rural”setting? and why are 11th- and 12th-century cathedrals built the way they are?  The course surveys the conditions of material life and the changing social and economic relations in medieval Europe. It covers the emergence and decline of feudal institutions, the transformation of peasant agriculture, living standards and the course of epidemic disease, and the ebb and flow of long-distance trade across the Eurasian system.  More information can be found here as well as in this poster.

  8. Guideline # 8:  Value Diversity
    Discipline: Humanities

    A course in MIT’s program in Foreign Languages and Literatures, Communicating Across Cultures, focuses specifically on the ways in which cultural values, beliefs, and norms impact the communication practices of people from around the world.  Students from many backgrounds typically take the course, so that it become a living laboratory for observing, talking about, and practicing communication differences.  Assignments ask students to reflect on how their ethnic roots have influenced their worldviews, and thus, their communication styles.  Students are assigned to diverse teams to work on a report and presentation throughout the semester.  More information can be found at

  9. Guideline # 9:  Incorporate Multiple Modes of Instruction
    Discipline: Various

    MIT’s project-based courses (see help students learn through hands-on experiences, as well as the more conventional visual and auditory modes of instruction. Courses include those in urban planning, energy, microscale engineering for the life sciences (see example #2), aerospace, international development (see example #6), biological engineering, and even toy design.

  10. Guideline # 10:  Articulate Learning Outcomes
    Discipline: Various

    MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory has worked with faculty throughout the Institute in helping them articulate learning outcomes and then develop pedagogy and assessment that will support those goals.  Examples can be found at

  11. Guideline # 11:  Ask Students to Take Responsibility for Their Learning
    Discipline: Engineering

    In a second-year (sophomore) engineering course, students are given reading assignments and (graded) homework, called “Look Ahead Homework,” which is due prior to in-class discussion.  As the instructor wrote in an article that appeared in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, “By encouraging self-directed learning through pre-class homework, students are better prepared for class, and faculty can then focus on the important concepts and misconceptions. I personally believe this adds significant value to the classroom experience by allowing our faculty to do what they do best.”  In an end-of-the-semester evaluation, one student wrote,  “I was initially opposed to the idea that I had to do reading & homework before we ever covered the subjects. Once I transitioned I realized that it made learning so much easier!” More information can be found at

  12. Guideline # 12: Assist Students in Attaining Graduate Attributes within a Disciplinary Context
    Discipline: Engineering

    In a course in product engineering processes, students work in large teams of approximately 14 to 16 people to design and build prototypes of new products.  Each year the teams work on projects unified by a theme (the 2009 theme was “emergency.”)  They learn about creativity, product design, working within a budget, and working with a strict deadline.  The size of the teams means that students must learn about group dynamics, team roles, building consensus, and making decisions.  They must also learn presentation skills because at the end of the semester the teams present their work to an audience of over one hundred product designers and entrepreneurs.  More information can be found at

  13. Guideline # 13:  Use Educational Technology to Foster Learning

    Example 1 (Discipline: Biology) Biology faculty, working in collaboration with educational technologies, developed StarGenetics, an interactive program to help students learn genetics.  The teaching of genetics lends itself to problem-based or laboratory-based learning.  Ideally, students are asked to design, perform, and analyze data collected from their own genetic experiments.  However, limitations in space, time, and resources often make this impossible. Instead, faculty use written exercises, but these do not capture the thinking behind and the process of actual genetics experiments.  StarGenetics was created to address this problem.  It is a genetic cross simulator that allows students to perform simulated genetic experiments.  Using StarGenetics, students can re-create the experience of collecting and analyzing data over time, with sequential experimental planning and analysis based on experimental observations.  Unlike other available online genetic tools, StarGenetics allows for customization of the experiment presented to students.  More information can be found at

    Example 2 (Discipline: Math) Mathematical concepts and relationships are often difficult to understand in the abstract.  Mathlets (computer manipulatives) are used to help students engage with and more thoroughly understand specific mathematical ideas.  Through the guided use of mathlets, students develop a better sense for the roles that specific parameters play in the physical manifestations of individual equations.  More information can be found at

  14. Guideline # 14:  Promote Opportunities for Collaboration and Peer Learning
    Discipline: Computer Science

    In the last several years, the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science department at MIT has changed its two introductory courses in the major from lecture/recitation to a project-based course with a strong peer-learning component. Students work together on mobile robots to gain an understanding of the design of engineered artifacts operating in the natural world.  Peer instructors help students with their experiments in the lab.

  15. Guideline # 15:  Use Assessment to Support Learning

    Example 1 (Discipline: Engineering) Several courses in MIT’s School of Engineering have experimented with oral exams.  Not only does this kind of assessment allow students to demonstrate what they have learned, but it also gives them an opportunity to practice presenting technical material, a skill they will need professionally.  As Aeronautics/Astronautics Professor David Darmofal writes, “While written exams can only analyze the information which appears on paper, i.e. the final outputs of a student’s thought process, an oral exam is an active assessment which can provide greater insight into how students understand and relate concepts. Also, oral exams are adaptive to each student.  If a student is stuck or has misunderstood a question, the faculty can help the individual.  . . . .  Finally, practicing engineers are faced daily with the real-time need to apply rational arguments based on fundamental principles. By using oral exams, we can directly assess this ability.”  For more information see

  16. Example 2 (Discipline: Management Science) Instructors in the professional communication course for students majoring in management (see example #4) help students learn to give one another rigorous, professional feedback on their written and oral  assignments.  Students practice giving feedback during presentations by doing so with the graduate teaching assistant (TA), who plays the role of a fellow student.  During in-class exercises to review drafts of written assignments, the instructor and TA observe students commenting on each other’s work.  Students are then asked to submit those drafts, which include the signatures of their colleagues who provided the feedback.  A handout given to students describing how to give feedback in a professional setting can be found here.


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