Baxter Magolda: Three Principles For Learning Best

From Prof. Marcia Baxter Magolda of Miami University of Ohio (nationally recognized author and speaker on student development and learning)

In her continuing longitudinal study, Marcia Baxter Magolda (1999) asked students to describe teaching environments that helped them learn. From these interviews emerged three principles. Students learn best when professors:
  1. "Validate Students as Knowers"

    Students reported they learned better when professors conveyed a caring attitude, which ranged from taking an interest in their extracurricular activities, to talking with them rather than at them, to creating test formats that permitted partial credit for students who explained and documented the thinking behind their wrong answers.

  2. "Situate Learning in the Student's Own Experience"

    Students learned better when their teachers used examples that related to everyday life or offered real world assignments, and when students had opportunities to tell their own stories or create their own examples.

  3. "Mutually Construct Meaning with Students"

    To elucidate this principle, Baxter Magolda refers to Kegan's (1993) scenario of two instructors teaching the concept of 'irony': Teacher A asks for a definition of 'irony.' A student responds with an example, but not a definition. Teacher A notes that it is a good example but not a definition, then asks again. Students continue to think of examples but cannot come up with a definition, and fall silent. The teacher then gives the definition, which the students write down. There is student involvement, but this teacher is not connecting to the way the students make meaning, and they end up learning the definition by rote. In contrast, Teacher B capitalizes on the example given by the first student by asking for more examples, writing each on the board. After collecting several examples, this teacher invites the students to figure out a definition for irony that encompasses all the examples, thus taking into account how they make meaning using examples.


Baxter Magolda, Marcia. 1999. Creating Contexts for Learning and Self-Authorship. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Kegan, Robert. 1993. "Minding the curriculum." Pp. 72-88 in Andrew Garrod (ed.) Approaches to Moral Development. NY: Teachers College Press.

More on Developmental Education and Teacher-Student Partnerships to Create Meaning

Kegan (1994) argues that much of what society (and education) expects of young adults is "over their heads;" the expectations require ways of making meaning beyond what the students currently hold. Kegan suggests creating a bridge that is both meaningful to students' current ways of making meaning and facilitative of more complex ways of making meaning.

But, Kegan notes, "we cannot simply stand on our favored side of the bridge and worry or fume about the many who have not yet passed over. A bridge must be well anchored on both sides, with as much respect for where it begins as for where it ends" (p. 62). [Excerpted and paraphrased from Baxter Magolda, 1999]

Baxter Magolda points out that real dilemmas arise as teachers attempt to facilitate complex ways of constructing meaning. Students who are at an early developmental stage have difficulty with attempts to invite them into more complex meaning making. A student quoted by Baxter Magolda said,

"I am just not used to this type of class set-up. I prefer more structure ...I blew off most of the assignments and did not give my best effort and still made high grades...I haven't compiled as much information and ideas from this courses as I thought I would."

Baxter Magolda notes that this student's comment reveals two assumptions characteristic of the "absolute knowing" stage of development. One assumption is that "learning is the compilation of information. The second is that the instructor is responsible, through grading procedures, for ensuring that students give their best effort."

She goes on to describe how instructors can facilitate these students' growth by "simultaneously respect[ing] and gently challeng[ing] their belief that knowledge is certain and objective;" by making the instructor's participation in the creation of meaning explicit (including explicit discussion of course goals and methods, and structure of assignments; and by developing a relationship wherein the professor is seen as approachable.


Kegan, Robert. 1994. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.