How do we learn

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How do we learn?


The definition of learning has been commonly given as a process that brings together cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences and experiences for acquiring, enhancing, or making changes in one's knowledge, skills, values, and world views (Illeris, 2000; Ormorod, 1995).It begins probably right after we were born which was obviously long before we go to school; lasts for even longer after school; and occurs in parallel with school. The different approaches have been used in learning are numerous. Over many years, a great number of interested researchers and point-makers have described and explained most of these approaches basing on various target fields.

It is essential and instrumental for teachers to understand the processes of learning; therefore effective activities that will have the potential to lead to resultful learning are able to be developed in classrooms.

Learning is a process gaining knowledge through study. The research aiming at this process is focusing on what happens when the learning takes place. Hence, the learning theories are a set of theoretical system comprises the explanations of what happens. It provides the theoretical underpinning for our teaching and training activities from educational psychology aspect. With these theoretical supports we are able to relate what we do in the classroom to certain theory. Learning theories have two chief values according to Hill (2002). One is in providing us with vocabulary and a notional construction for explaining the example of learning that we observe. The other is in suggesting the directions for looking for solutions to practical problems. The essence of these theories is not certain solution, but shifting our endeavor to those crucial variables in finding solutions.

Common Learning Theories and Applications

The most broadly employed learning theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism which are specialized in the creation of educational atmosphere and instructional surroundings. They are main categories or philosophical frameworks which the rest learning theories are built on. Behaviorism only centers in the objectively observable aspects of learning process as behaviors. Cognitive theories look beyond the appreciable side to interpret brain-based learning. And constructivism concerns in the process of learning, learners construct new concepts or ideas on their own initiative.

In behaviorism theories, learning is identified as unknowable for the most parts. It states that we can't possibly understand what goes on inside a person (the “black box theory”). Margaret E Gredler (2001) expresses several different theories constitute behaviorism that make three assumptions about learning:

l Objectively observable behavior weights more than understanding internal activities

l Behavior should be aimed at simple elements such as particular stimulates and responses

l Behavior changes within learning process.

In addition to utilizing the methods basing on behaviorist theories to teach in some certain circumstances, these methods can also be helpful in establishing classroom behaviors. In a classroom environment, the teacher distinguishes whether the behaviors are desirable and should be best discouraged. It has been demonstrated the constructively effect from positive reinforcements are stronger and longer-lasting. Therefore, teachers should contrive some rewards to encourage the preferable behavior. Students need to understand about what they have done well and what is good about it. Therefore they will keep doing it subconsciously for foreseeing the ensuing consequences. For example, ‘You've put your textbook away. That's very good. It's better for you to recall the prior knowledge.' Here, we identify it as a medal. A mark, grade or other comparative commends is not a medal but a measurement, as it does not tell what is right or wrong about the work. For many young children, the approval from the teacher or some public display of simple praise is enough. Even though, a more regulated rewarding systems is needed in some classrooms. For younger children, some teachers use a system of points leading to stars on a chart, with the possibility of an end-of-term treat or the awarding of a smiley-faced sticker. For older ones, the use of awarding sometimes includes scholarship or a title of honor. Anyway, different rewarding schemes are designed by teachers targeting on different children for various purposes. Some of those schemes include the option to remove the reward, by deducting a point or removing the honor in some way. One of the crucial elements of behaviorist ‘control' is to value the positive stand towards behavior management which is also emphasized by many effective teachers. Rewards are considered as a positive influence to desirable behavior and performance. Besides, the students need to be aware of what needs to be improved, and the way to achieve it. How the teachers inform them also needs to be positive and forward looking. By positive, it means it should sound more like advice than criticism and is easier on the children's ego. And by forward looking, it means teachers should indicate how to improve more than just what is wrong. If the students are criticized in a positive and forward-looking manner (rather than in a negative and backward-looking one), the criticism will be took by the students in a positive way and effectively help with the improvement. For instant: ‘Next time, be more careful with your calculation' instead of ‘you calculated it wrong.' Here, we identify it as a mission. Missions give an impression that certain goals have been achieved in the present period but there are higher expectations. It narrows the distance where students are, and where they are trying to go.

The most important factor in establishing an effective rewards and criticism system is that they must be relevant to the child is rewarded or criticized. When the incorrect action shows up, the reward must be withheld, vice versa. And the way to give reward or criticism can be either formally or informally. For informally ways, it can be any non-verbal means, for example with facial expression, through tone of voice, by ignoring, by gestures and so on. From my observation, most teachers consider rewards as their prior choice in behavior management. In some schools, the diplomas and the awarding cups are displayed in the most conspicuous place. And in the classrooms, children were praised for a wrong but creative answer or a B-grade assignment was marked B+ for the neat and beautiful writing.

Cognitivism often takes a computer information processing model to demonstrate its points. In cognitivism theories, learning process is viewed as a sequence of input, managed in short term memory, and coded for long-term recall. ‘Cognitivism' is a global term which seeks to cover all of the mental activities in terms of acquisition, storage, retrieval and use of knowledge. Cognition is the study of human mind in other way the ability of the brain to read, to process and store information, and to solve problems by using them. Cindy Buell details this process: “In cognitive theories, knowledge is viewed as symbolic mental constructs in the learner's mind, and the learning process is the means by which these symbolic representations are committed to memory.”

Constructivism theories state that learners create knowledge as they attempt to understand their experiences (Driscoll, 2000, p. 376). Behaviorism and cognitivism consider knowledge as external to the learner and the learning process as the act of internalizing knowledge. Constructivism theories are basing on the assumption that knowledge is not all external variables to the learners. Instead, learners are actively attempt to create knowledge which means they are able to choose and quest their own learning. Constructivist concepts acknowledge that real-life learning is massy and complex. The learning environment which simulates the blur of this context will be more instructive in preparing learners for life-long learning.

Indeed, effective learning is far less likely to be the result of anything that teachers ask children to do if there is no engagement with the content of a certain activity. As I have saw in a Business class, students were grouped according to different given positions to imitating a company hierarchy. The students were so interested that they could get a clear idea of what a manager or a department head should do as in a hotel. And they were easily impressed with the differences between the exploitive authoritative system and the benevolent authoritative system.

Hence, an important element of the role of the teacher is to encourage engagement. There are plenty of effective ways of encouraging engagement in learning process. Taking into account the prior knowledge of the children, the level of difficulty, different level of ability, the social and cultural context, and the general level of the interest of the subject matter will all help with the students' engagement into their work.

For example, in the classroom, teachers should create opportunities for mental activity which leads to deeper engagement with understanding concepts and increases the likelihood of effective, lasting learning taking place. As for so-called social interactions, common ways are discussion in pairs, group work and interaction between teacher and pupils which are also essential for the effective development of generating ideas. In the following situations, discussions are generally recommended as a valuable mean:

1. Where the students' ideas and experiences need to be known by the lecturer, or are valuable and interesting to the other students in the group. For example:

l In Maths lesson where students are exchanging their methods of solving a question or considering to solve a question.

l In a Business class discussing behavior in an interview.

l In a Physics class discussing a real instant illustrating a law.

2. Where the topic involves values, attitudes, feelings and awareness, rather than exclusively factual material. For example:

l While in an English Reading class exploring the author's mental experience through his/her work.

l While trying to develop or change ideas to prepare for a controversy.

3. Where it is necessary to give students practice in forming and assess opinions. For example:

l Simulate a real context for experiencing an interview.

l Discussing some effects of unemployment in a Business class

Teachers make the students engaged in learning by setting meaningful contexts sometimes practical simulation rather than random or remote contexts. Effective teaching methods comprises with making learning meaningful by placing it in a setting with meaning which children can identify.

In addition, teachers should encourage learners to recall what they know about a new topic before embarking on new teaching, commonly by asking questions. Also before a brand new lesson, learners should be provided with appropriate guidance, to find things out for themselves. For us to understand that, let's compare two teachers developing the same learning objective. They are both teaching students of the different types of forces existing in a practical instant.

The first teacher's approach is to use teacher talk.

Teacher Now, in this case there are various forces being exerted on the object. There is gravity of course. According to our prior lessons, every object in the universe has gravity. It is a special case of gravitational force which pulls all the mass to the earth's core. And here in the inverse direction of gravity, there is a support force exerted on the object. The quantity of it is exactly the same as the gravity, because we don't see any movement on the vertical direction which means the functions of these two forces are cancelled by each other. On the horizontal direction, the object has been applied to a pull force forwards. Because of that, a friction force is generated to cancel part of the effort of the pull. Only the quantity of a direction is decided by the mass of the object and the surfaces. The rougher the two surfaces, the greater is the starting friction resulting from their movement. And the difference between the pull and friction results the movement. So there are four types of forces being applied on this object.

The second teacher uses questioning to develop the same teaching point.

Teacher Why is this object moving?

Student 1 There is a force. You are pulling it, sir.

Teacher Good, but is there any other forces here?

Student 2 Lift force from the desk, sir?

Teacher Oh, do you mean the force applied by the desk? That is so right. But I don't think ‘lift force' is the right term to call it. What can you recall from our last lesson?

Student 2 Oh, it is support force, sir.

Teacher Good! And if it is SUPPORTING this object, can we find out the direction in which the support force is pointing at?

All Students Up!

Teacher Brilliant! But why the desk is supporting the object if there is nothing will fall down?

Student 3 There is gravity downwards too.

Teacher Good. There we know there are support force and gravity in the opposite direction. What about the value of them? Are they different or the same?

Student 1 Same, sir?

Teacher Why is that?

Student 1 Because the object is not moving upwards or falling down. So they are even.

Teacher Right! They are same in value. We don't see any movement on the vertical direction, right?

Students Right.

Teacher So, besides support force, gravity and pull, what else? Any more?

Student 4 A force stops it moving.

Teacher That's right! There is something being negative here. But what is it exactly?

Student 4 Oh, friction.

Teacher Perfect! A friction is applied on it too when the object moves.

One of the greatest advantages to questioning is that the knowledge gained in such a lesson is ‘transferable'. Imagine the classes which experienced these lessons, which one is learning more effective?

The class who were given the ‘teacher talk' lesson would probably only remember the number four. They may apply it in every instant without active analyzing. However, the class taught to understand the process of analyzing the forces being applied on an object would probably have some abilities to identity different cases; they would be able to transfer their understanding to this unfamiliar problem. It is important to teach for understanding, rather than just for knowing. Questioning makes students to think for themselves. In the interaction between teaching and learning, the process of generating ideas should be contemplated, and teachers should gauge the process of teacher intervention carefully. Telling is not teaching.

Most of those factors influencing learning process should be contemplated in the lesson planning stage. Certain guidelines can apply to the planning of lessons. Lessons planning should be led with a distinct focus and goals including explicit learning objectives. All the teaching should base on the students' existing knowledge and be set in a proper context. Social interactions and activities should be devised as an essential part of a complete lesson. Lessons should also be considered as a preparation for forward learning.

Also, the learning will be more effective if the learners' own approaches or methods that they use in the course being made up into certain concepts through their active thinking, work-mental arithmetic, for example, or how to prepare for a test. In addition, learners should be allowed for some time to reflect upon and build up new knowledge what they have learnt. The plenary as a part of a lesson planning at the end of lessons are very good for this.

It would be impracticable to suggest that, if all of the above were in place, then the teaching will certainly be instructive, since, all the teachers know, there are various uncertain factors, some of which are controllable but others that are not. For example, a misjudgment of students' prior knowledge as a new teacher, or an unexpected incident interrupting the pace of a lesson. These factors can easily influent the outcome of any particular lesson. Although, taking into account what is known about effective learning, and about how children learn, will help the teacher to achieve an instructive lesson and increase the possibility of effective learning resulting from it.

Other Learning Theories

There are some other learning theories have also been developed for more specific purposes than general learning theories. For example, Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory (Gardner 1993) proposes the idea that we all have various levels of intelligence across a range of intellectual areas. And andragogy is the art and science to help adults learn. Connectivism is a recent theory of networked learning which focuses on learning as making connections. Multimedia learning theory focuses on principles for the effective use of multimedia in learning. The Sudbury Model learning theory adduces that learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you. This theory states that there are many ways to learn without the intervention of a teacher.


The process to achieve a goal is more important than the essence of the goal itself. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, our ability to gain knowledge and to access to the needed resources is more important than the existing knowledge in our possession. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill.


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George Siemens (2005): Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age From: elearnspace. Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

Hoerr, T. (1996) Multiple Intelligences: Teaching for success. St Louis, MI: The New City School Inc.

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Nelson Thornes (2004): Theaching Today published by Nelson Thormes Ltd

QCA (undated)

Wikipedia: Learning theory (education)