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Every field has its own distinctive vocabulary, and the world of pedagogy and instructional design is no exception.

Scholars of learning have developed a technical terminology to describe the factors -- cognitive, affective and pedagogical -- which contribute to robust student learning.

I am often taken aback to discover knowledgeable and experienced colleagues who are utterly unfamiliar with the language of academic innovation. Here is a list of key terms and concepts used in the scholarship of teaching and learning that every teacher should be familiar with.

Active Learning

Pedagogical practices that actively engage students in learning. Examples include: hypothesis generation, brainstorming, sequencing (asking students to order a series of events or developments), decision making (identifying critical junctures and options), concept mapping, problem solving, and role playing.

Atomic Design

The creation of highly granular instructional units that makes it easy to tailor learning pathways to each learner’s strengths, challenges, prior experiences and goals. These atomic units can be used LEGO-like to support a wide range of programs.

Authentic Assessment

Assessment that evaluates a students’ mastery of knowledge and skills in terms of their ability to solve real-world problems or challenges.

Backward Design

An approach to instructional design that begins by identifying outcomes and then proceeds to devise lessons or activities to help students achieve those goals.

Block Scheduling

Concentrating all of a student’s courses in a particular block of time, e.g. morning, afternoon, evening or weekends, to help students to better accommodate their work schedules.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

A hierarchy of six levels of cognition -- remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating -- that moves from recall to synthesis and hypothesis generation.

Cognitive Flexibility

Aware of multiple viewpoints, perspectives and points of view can increase a student’s ability to think flexibly, shift from one activity to another and apply knowledge and skills to new domains.

Cognitive Load

Excessive or extraneous information can make it difficult for students to process and assimilate information.

Cohort Programs

Learning communities or interest groups in which students traverse the curriculum as members of a cohesive group and which typically couple courses with a faculty mentor, dedicated advising and an assortment of co-curricular activities, typically including supervised research experiences.

Community of Care

An approach to student support that brings together a network of support, which might consist of faculty, advisers, instructional facilitators, success coaches and peer mentors, who act in a collaborative, integrated manner.

Community of Practice

A group of people who share expertise and engage in a process of collaborative learning or inquiry.

Competency-Based Education

An approach to education that emphasizes mastery of essential knowledge and skills rather than seat time.

Constructivist Pedagogy

An approach to teaching that rests on the principle that students learn most effectively when they engage in active inquiry, problem solving and self-reflection. Constructivist pedagogy treats learning as a developmental and reflective process in which learners build on prior knowledge (the skills, understandings and misunderstandings students bring to class), actively process information, repeatedly practice skills, construct their own frameworks of conceptual understanding, and reflect critically on what they have learned.

Corequisite Remediation

Enrolls students in regular for-credit courses, combined with supplemental instruction, intensive tutoring and study groups, rather than in noncredit remedial courses. A proven approach that accelerates academic momentum, it has arisen in response to the unreliability of placement exams and the fact that unevenly prepared students usually have a limited number of discrete areas of confusion or unfamiliarity that can be addressed within the context of for-credit courses.


The next iteration of the textbook, courseware includes multimedia-rich, immersive content, interactives, simulations and personalized, adaptive learning pathways and virtual tutorials powered by frequent embedded formative assessments.

CRM (Constituent Relationship Management)

The practices and technologies that an institution uses to manage its relationships with its customers or clients. These include methods of communication and of storing and analyzing information about the customers or clients and their interactions with the institution.

Curriculum Optimization

Deliberate alignment of course or learning experiences to eliminate redundancies and facilitate learning and time to completion. The resulting curriculum is coherent and consists of synergistic courses.

Design Thinking

A deliberate, structured process for solving problems and fostering innovation that begins with a focus on the end user and that individual’s unmet needs, desires and priorities. Subsequent steps involve brainstorming (or what design thinking calls ideation), concepting and blueprinting (combining various ideas into implementable plans), rapid prototyping (quickly designing, developing, testing and evaluating possible solutions), and iterating (a process of continuous improvement through incremental modifications and refinements).

Differentiated Instruction

A pedagogical approach that addresses differences in student preparation, interests and strengths by offering a variety of learning pathways within the same classroom. These pathways, which might differ in terms of content, focus, activities or outcome, should not be confused with personalized learning, which involves individualized instruction.

Direct Assessment

Instead of measuring student knowledge and learning in terms of seat time and grades, this approach directly measures student learning through an assessment, such as an examination or project.


Breaking down a curriculum, a course or a class session into its components, which might consist of a module or much smaller instructional units.

Field of Study Curriculum

A set of lower-division courses that can transfer seamlessly and can fulfill degree program requirements.


The integration of elements of gaming -- such as points, levels and celebrations of achievement -- into the learning experience.

Generation Effect

Learning is enhanced when learners produce answers rather than simply recognizing answers.


Grades can serve as a measure of a student’s level of understanding, the range of their work and the sophistication of their ideas, facility with various concepts and skills, the amount of work they have performed, or their growth. Grades can measure process (a student’s thought process or application of skills and knowledge), effort and engagement, or progress. Grades can also be informational, motivational, diagnostic, evaluative, metacognitive, formative and summative. In addition, grades can be:

  • holistic or targeted (based on discrete assignments).
  • norm referenced or criterion referenced (that is, grading can be relative to their classmates or it can be based on predetermined criteria).
  • calculated based on subjective or objective criteria.

Innovative approaches to grading include:

  • Standards-based grading: Whether students demonstrate proficiency on well-defined course objectives.
  • Achievement-based grading: How far students go beyond minimal expectations.
  • Mastery grading: Where students retake assignments until they achieve an acceptable level of competence.
  • Specifications grading, which evaluates students based on whether they meet a range of detailed expectations.

Growth Mind-Set

The belief that talents can be developed through study and practice, as opposed to a fixed mind-set, which views talents as innate. Motivation is reduced if individuals attribute their failure to a lack of ability (rather than a lack of effort).

Guided Pathway

A clearly defined and optimized route to a credential.

High-Impact Pedagogy

Practices associated with high levels of student engagement and learning, including challenge-, inquiry-, problem- and team-based learning, learning communities, experiential learning opportunities (including internships, service learning and study abroad), and capstone projects.

Higher-Order Questions

Deeper understanding is elicited by questions such as why, how and what-if, as opposed to recall questions that simply ask who, what, where and when.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Engagement tends to decline if an activity is motivated by the promise of a reward (as opposed to an intrinsic motivation, such as a desire to increase one’s competence).

Island of Innovation

A space for innovation free from the constraints of incumbent processes and technologies.

Knowledge Graph

Faculty, industry, subject matter experts, accreditors and standard-setters identify critical learning outcomes and evaluation metrics. These graphs serve as the master blueprint that underlies competency-based certificate and degree programs.

Learning Analytics

Fine-grained data analysis of data on student engagement, persistence, pace, performance, interactions and self-efficacy moves, which can be linked to student profile information, such as their high school rank, GPA, standardized test scores and measures of grit, in order to guide advising and prompt timely interventions.

Learning Outcomes

Specific, measurable learning goals.

Learning Theories

Theories of how students learn have shifted from 19th-century faculty psychology, which likened the mind to a muscle and considered education a way to strengthen the intellect so that it could control the will and emotions, to a behaviorist paradigm, which emphasized the power of repetition and positive and negative reinforcement, social learning theory, which stressed the importance of observation, imitation and modeling, and cognitivism, which shifted attention to the “mental maps” or schema that individuals acquire or create, and which are revised as learners acquires new information. Many ideas that are now commonplace were advanced by cognitivists:

  • That information that is relevant and meaningful is easier to remember than information that isn’t.
  • That practice or rehearsal makes it easier to retain an idea.
  • That prior knowledge or preconceptions can advance or hinder future learning.
  • That memory is improved when a learner categorizes ideas or concepts (for example, by using mnemonics).
  • That memory is context dependent, making it easier to remember an idea in a particular context than outside of that context.


A learning management system serves as the interface between students and digital course materials. In addition to providing access to electronic assignments, instructional resources, notifications, a discussion board and assessments, each in its own compartment or partition, it records enrollment, grades and learning data. LMSes generally focus on a single course in isolation.

Learning Relationship Management System

Unlike a traditional LMS, an LRM is designed to chart a student’s progress along a learning path, support personalized and competency-based learning, and promote a variety of forms of social interactions between students and faculty and among peers, and combines content delivery with advising, coaching and badging.

Mental Modeling

Deep understanding requires students to develop a framework for conceptual understanding that gives coherence to disparate material and explains why particular pieces of information are relevant and important.


A set of default first-year courses that provide an entryway into a broad area of high student demand, such as the arts, business, education, health care or public safety. The goal is to maximize first-year student engagement and help students better identify their area of interest and avoid acquiring unnecessary credits.


The process through which students monitor and assess their own understanding.


Alternate forms of certification that do not require two or four years to vest. These include badges, certificates, specializations and micromaster's.


A massive open online course. A SPOC is a small private online course. A cMOOC consists of a community of learners who study a common topic or problem, while an xMOOC is a very large online course with a designated instructor.


Open educational resources are instructional content and tools that are available without charge or copyright restrictions.

Organization Effect

Outlining, integrating and synthesizing information produces deeper and more durable learning than rereading or reviewing the materials.

Persistent Progressive Profile

A dynamic record of all a student’s academic and nonacademic accomplishments and proficiencies, and which serves as the basis for a universal transcript, a comprehensive catalog of a student’s training, education and experience that can be easily understood by employers and universities.


An instructional approach that meets students’ learning needs, interests and aspirations by adjusting pace, content or learning trajectory.

Psycho-Social Dimensions of Learning

A particular concern among feminist pedagogues, who argue that learning is context sensitive, that classrooms are sites of power, privilege and hierarchy, and that teaching as an inherently political act. Within the traditional classroom, certain ideas, perspectives, interpretive approaches and forms of behavior, discourse and argumentation are favored, leading some, if not many, students to feel marginalized.

Regulatory Fit

Students with a prevention focus are especially sensitive to negative outcomes, seek to avoid errors and are driven by security concerns, while those with a promotion focus are more sensitive to positive outcomes. Learning is enhanced when there is regulatory fit.


The criteria by which a work will be evaluated.


Supporting a student’s learning just beyond the level the student could do alone.


The Student Information System that handles admissions, registers students for courses, tracks student schedules, documents their grades and maintains their transcripts.

Spaced Learning

Long-term retention of information is greater when it is spaced out over time rather than concentrated in a single class or study session.

Stackable Credentials

A series of accomplishments that can add up to a degree or another kind of credential.

Stereotype Threat

Fear that one's behavior will confirm an existing stereotype of a group with which one identifies has a negative effect on student performance.

Student Life Cycle Management

The services -- including financial aid, advising, registration, retention services and career services -- needed to support students from the moment they express interest in an institution, through enrollment and graduation, and beyond.

Student Profiles

The characteristics -- which might involve economic, educational, ethnic or familial background, demographic characteristics, work or familial responsibilities, or mind-set -- that define student subpopulations.

Student Swirl

The tendency of students to attend multiple institutions and to take courses from different providers, sometimes even during the same semester.

Testing Effect

Frequent testing keeps students engaged in the material and contributes to long-term memory and the ability to retrieve and apply information.

Transformational Teaching

Rather than expecting students to assimilate information on their own (the defining characteristic of transactional or didactic instruction) or phyletic (in which the teacher serves as a role model), this is a heuristic approach that engages students in inquiry and discovery. It is more self-conscious about its objectives and methods and seeks to help students develop a deep conceptual knowledge of a topic and give them opportunities to engage in discipline-specific methods of research, analysis and reporting.

Transmedia Case Application

An application to support case-based learning that utilizes a variety of media, including text, video and such next-generation approaches as augmented and virtual reality.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

Attention, memory, cognition and a capacity to plan and regulate emotions all suffer when students are under overwhelming stress, hindering their ability to focus, process information, organize their time or cope with frustrations and disappointments. To better support students; be attentive and responsive to student struggles; prepare students for difficult topics; create a class atmosphere that is respectful, supportive, compassionate, sensitive and inclusive; be flexible and empathetic; give students a sense of agency; and make sure activities are worth an investment of students’ time and energy.


A clearly defined curricular pathway that can begin in middle school or high school and extent into graduate, professional and continuing education.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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