ABC's for Teachers

The ABCs of Effective Teaching for Student Learning & Persistence

When Dr. Tom works on his course TBP101 (the big picture, 101), he spends most of his time on the cognitive requirements. He asks, what will students learn, what do they need to read and do, what gets covered in “lecture”, and how students will be tested. Yet when Dr. Tom’s students apply their attention to the course, they spend their time feeling unmotivated, at a loss for how to approach the learning, using ineffective methods, being confused, and sometimes “getting it”. This is the ABC problem in learning: Dr. Tom explicitly designs the C portion of the course (cognitive) while giving little or no facilitation of the A and B portions — affective and behavioral. Together, these are the ABCs of learning & persistence that lead to better outcomes.

The ABCs are important because they generally require that faculty approach facilitation in order of A then B then C, whereas many faculty jump to C because that’s their expertise. In simple words, first, students need to want to learn (affective), then they need to know and practice how to learn (behavioral), and finally they can apply their motivation and skills to learning the cognitive content.

Let’s unpack each letter.


How students feel about themselves, others, and the course subject determines whether learning is a struggle or a challenging adventure or somewhere in-between. The strongest students are self-confident, have self-efficacy, feel connected and comfortable in the classroom, and are truly interested in the subject. They self-monitor their affect, and work to correct any aspect that needs strengthened. At the same time, less-strong students may need help from the facilitator in any of these areas.

Self-confidence comes from being comfortable socially, personally, and intellectually. Students often have a narrative playing in their head that might go “I’m really good at this” or “I can’t do this — why do I have to do this?” or if they’re not self-aware, they may even blame the facilitator for being boring (and they may be partially right, but fail to take responsibility).

Dr. Tom could address affective aspects of his course by first focusing on establishing a quality learning environment based on treating each students as a valued member of the community, helping students explicitly to connect their goals to the learning goals, creating a safe place to fail that is growth-mindset-oriented, and coaching when students need support in dealing with failure, persevering, and reconnecting with their purpose.

Dr. Tom can mobilize the class to socially support a quality learning environment by modeling a positive affect and demonstrating growth mindset and grit. When he recognizes others for their positive affect, he can explain what’s going on so that the course has many modelers.


Students practice successful behaviors for learning & persistence when they manage their time and priorities, know and apply the skills of learning (and there are many such skills; see e.g. Leise et al., 2019), and self-assess their performance to improve.

Dr. Tom can help students behave in productive ways by offering examplars (models) that not only show steps in the cognitive material, but also steps in the skills and practices needed to be successful. He can include these expectations in the course, model them, and coach students on the application. He can encourage self-reflection on these skills by asking the students to write about their learning as part of each assignment or aa separate discussion posts shared with others in the class. Finally, he can encourage and coach reflective practice by asking students to assess their own learning, and then coach the assessment so they become more fair and helpful to themselves.


In teaching, a focus on cognitive content is familiar territory to most if not all faculty. Proper focus on A & B above ensure that learning and persistence in C are more likely. Yet, there’s room for improvement in Dr. Tom’s courses by using more low-floor/high-ceiling experiences, authentic exercises, multiple-right answers, exemplars, and the hardest problem to name just five.

Dr. Tom can add low-floor-high ceiling experiences as suggested by Jo Boaler in her many works on learning mathematics (eg. Boaler & Dweck, 2015). A low-floor experience is one that all students can be expected to be able to engage in and suggest possible solutions. A high-floor experience is one that provides challenge at all levels of solution, including very sophisticated ones. Such exercises allow students to practice growth-mindset and self-assessment by building on the first solution forward. When the floor is a bit higher, exemplars can be used to give students a “leg up”.

As Dr. Tom designs his experiences, he can use experiences without a single right answer by ensuring that multiple success criteria are present. Depending on which success criteria students want to emphasize, they may come up with different solutions that optimize differing subsets of criteria. Students can appreciate and learn from others’ work as exemplars.

Using Authentic Problems to Promote Cognition

Authentic problems are more motivating to students because they can recognize the real-life applications and more easily maintain a positive affect. Authentic real-world exercises are often multi-criteria, complex, and difficult. Dr. Tom can use these to motivate his students to first make them appreciate the power and question whether they can solve them, and then show them they can by first learning from easier problems that lead up to the authentic one. Exemplars may be a key approach, too, since they can focus students on a solution approach, rather than worrying about all of the issues and complexity.

When students are comfortable with their knowledge and problem-solving capabilities in an area, Dr. Tom challenges them to reconnect it to the real world of their interest by asking them to propose the hardest problem in their area that they can think of that could still succumb to the approaches they’re learning.

In general, Dr. Tom is practicing problem based learning, or PBL. There’s a large literature on PBL captured in the open-access Inter-disciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning (especially the most popular papers at

Next Steps

By becoming aware of the ABCs you can make facilitating more effective and fun. You’ll also be supporting students’ growth in learning and persistence skills and mindsets. The ABCs themselves are a low-ceiling/high-floor problem area. You can start simply, experience success, innovate widely, and continue to grow without limit.

When you’ve tried something, you’ll get even more out of it if you self-assess the specific approach to determine it’s strengths, opportunities, and learning insights you have from the experience. This is a method called SOL Assessment that is quick, easy, and productive.

Notes on Self-Efficacy and Growth Mindset

Albert Bandura developed the concept of self-efficacy (1977). Kathy Kolbe offers a practical definition containing the key characteristics (via Wikipedia): “Belief in [one’s] innate abilities means valuing one’s particular set of cognitive strengths. It also involves determination and perseverance to overcome obstacles that would interfere with utilizing those innate abilities to achieve goals.” From this definition, we can see a relationship with Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, which is a belief that one’s failures and mistakes are stepping stones to success because each failure is a learning opportunity (see e.g., Dweck, 2006). Similarly, Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit contains the growth-mindset as well as perseverance and determination (see e.g. Duckworth, 2016).


  • I don’t know who first applied the ABC Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive triple to teaching and I know it wasn’t me. I’ve found it a simple and effective way to approach teaching & learning. A exploration in psychology as the components of attitude was done by Ostrom (1969).
  • Picture of ABC chalkboard — used by permission from Gerd Altmann on
  • Individual letters A, B, and C — used by permission from Pramit Marattha on
  • The colorful kids image — used by permission from momosmiles on


  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191.
  • Boaler, J., & Dweck, C. (2015). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching (1 edition). Jossey-Bass.
  • Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance (Vol. 234). Scribner New York, NY.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success: How we can learn to fulfill our success. Ballantine.
  • IJPE. (n.d.) Inter-disciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning. Purdue.
  • Leise, C., Litynski, D. M., Woodbridge, C. M., Ulbrich, I., Jain, C., Leasure, D., Horton, J., Hintze, D., Sayed, M. E.-, Ellis, W., Beyerlein, S., & Apple, D. (2019). Classifying Learning Skills for Educational Enrichment. International Journal of Process Education, 10(1), 57–104.
  • Ostrom, T. M. (1969). The relationship between the affective, behavioral, and cognitive components of attitude. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 5(1), 12–30.