How do we learn?
An overview of the research on learning in its many dimensions: neurological, physical, social, emotional, and more.
What is learning? What happens within the brain as someone learns a new concept or a complex set of skills? Is only the brain involved, or is there a role played by the body, by feelings and motivations, and by social relationships as well?
The processes involved in learning depend to some extent on what is being learned: a new word and the concept behind it, a physical skill or a mental skill, an attitude, a habit, appropriate social etiquette, or more. But most objects of learning are complex and involve many of these aspects simultaneously—new mental connections and new ways of thinking, new ways of using the body to accomplish a task, learning how to execute some tasks automatically or habitually to leave space for more complex mental demands, stimulating motivation and a set of attitudes that contribute to effective thought and action, and deepening one’s ability to coordinate and collaborate with others. Reflecting the complexity of learning, a number of different academic specialties now contribute research on learning issues: anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, neuroscience, psychology, and sociology to name a few—and theories of learning continue to be the focus of new research and controversy.(11)
The neurological dimensions of learning
The human brain is made up of billions of neurons connected via trillions of synapses in complex and constantly-changing networks.(12) While each region of the brain specializes in certain functions, neurons map through and across these regions in complex ways.(10) Neurons send electrochemical signals that travel extremely rapidly via fibres called axons, and are communicated to other neurons at the point of the synapse. Cognition, or thought and learning, is dependent on the formation and strengthening of these neural connections. Neurons begin developing from conception, and in humans the majority of neurons are created before birth. During the first few years of life the connections among neurons proliferate extremely rapidly, developing the architecture of the brain and setting the stage for learning throughout childhood and adulthood.(5) In later years, some new connections are developed, while many other connections are strengthened, and others are pruned away. While much is still being explored about the neurology of learning, it is clear that all learning involves building upon or transforming existing neural networks—no student is a blank slate or empty vessel.(1)
The physical dimension of learning
Beyond the brain, the body is also involved in learning. Even formal academic learning involves elements of physical mastery such as being able to control the body’s movement to allow the mind to focus; controlling the movement of the eyes to follow lines and rows of symbols; and the dexterity involved in holding and manipulating a writing utensil, among others.(4) In later years, physical skills are needed to master the tools used for mathematical measurement and scientific experimentation, as well as the physical use of information and communications technologies, and the machines and devices used in particular fields of work. The development of physical skills requires repeated practice, and once mastery is attained mental resources are freed for other types of learning.(10) There is growing recognition that physical movement also enhances other dimensions of learning, and these insights have influenced teaching practices such as the use of gestures and mime in language and mathematics teaching, and the increased use of gross motor activity in schools to enhance focus and retention.
The social dimension of learning
Current research recognizes that learning happens through social interaction—it is not just internal to the individual’s mind.(6) Cognition occurs in relation to a particular social context and knowledge itself is “in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used.”(3, p. 32) In an important sense, we are all apprentices learning from those who have achieved greater mastery in some area of knowledge and action.(8)
For example, when pupils sit in front of a teacher writing a lesson about history on the blackboard, they are not only learning those words, but they are also learning by observation about what it means to be literate, about what it means to be knowledgeable about history, about how to use that knowledge, and about how to exert authority and collaborate with others in the school setting. To be sure, what they learn from this social interaction is not as rich as what they would learn if they also observed the teacher reading and discussing current events and drawing on historical knowledge to participate in civic life, and if they also used their own historical knowledge to interact in these ways themselves.
Similarly, a child who accompanies a parent to the market is learning about arithmetic, financial literacy, and the economy—even if such lessons are never explicitly discussed. Yet they would learn more if, while observing and interacting in this setting, the parent also talks about what is happening and helps to translate these particular experiences into more general concepts and explanations. Social learning is always occurring, in other words, and its meaningfulness can both reinforce—and be reinforced by—formalized abstract learning.
The emotional dimensions of learning
Learning is also strongly influenced by emotional factors such as motivation and self-regulation. People can learn without wanting to, via processes such as instinctive imitation or deliberate behavioural conditioning, but such learning is limited. In most cases, the quality of learning depends on feeling a motivation to learn—whether an intrinsic motivation such as curiosity, or an extrinsic motivation such as the need to succeed on an examination. Students’ motivation to learn is related to several factors: the feeling of competence, a perception that their actions are linked to achievement in predictable ways, a sense that the subject being learned is of value, and the conviction that there is a purpose to their learning.(2) Even a highly-motivated student may not be able to learn, however, without skills in self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions, impulses, and behaviour in a flexible way to meet the demands of different situations and social contexts.(9) In the context of learning, students have more cognitive resources at their disposal when they have strong self-regulation skills, allowing them to productively “influence the intensity, duration, and expression of their emotions” to succeed in a learning task.(2, p. 102).
The role of feedback in learning
Learning happens through the experience of feedback: attempting to apply knowledge and seeing the results or experiencing the consequences. It also comes from comparison: evaluating one’s own work in light of a correct model or more advanced demonstration of abilities. Real-world applications and formative assessment are necessary for providing students with this feedback and comparison, strengthening the learning process and building stronger foundations for further development.(13)
The goal of learning: adaptive expertise
There are many levels of learning, from the simple to the complex. Simple skills often need to be mastered before moving on to more difficult ones. But the ultimate goal of learning is to become capable of purposefully generating novel solutions and further learning in new contexts. This is “adaptive expertise”, or “the ability to apply meaningfully-learned knowledge and skills flexibly and creatively in different situations.”(6, p. 45) The development of adaptive expertise depends on five components: 1) a well-organised knowledge base, 2) strategies for problem analysis and transformation, 3) meta-knowledge about one’s own thinking and emotions, 4) self-regulatory skills, and 5) positive beliefs about oneself, the subject, and the context.(7) In other words, the goal of learning is not only to develop knowledge, but also the thinking strategies and the emotional understanding and skills necessary to use them—whether in routine or novel contexts.
1. APA (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK-12 teaching and learning. American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education.
2. Boekaerts, M. (2010). “The crucial role of motivation and emotion in classroom learning.” In Dumont, E., Instance, D., and Benavides, F., Eds. (2010). The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice. OECD.
3. Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). “Situated cognition and the culture of learning,” Educational Researcher, Vol 18, No. 1, pp. 32-42.
4. Cameron, C., Brock, L., Murrah, W., Bell, L., Worzalla, S., Grissmer, D., and Morrison, F. (2012). “Fine motor skills and executive function both contribute to kindergarten achievement,” Child Development, Vol 3, No. 4, pp. 1229-1244.
5. Center on the Developing Child. (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief).
6. de Corte, E. (2010). “Historical developments in the understanding of leraning” In Dumont, E., Instance, D., and Benavides, F., Eds. (2010). The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice. OECD.
7. de Corte, E., Verschaffel, L., and Masui, C. (2004). “The CLIA-model: A framework for designing powerful learning environments for thinking and problem solving,” European Journal of Psychology of Education, Vol. 19, No 4, pp. 365-384.
8. Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
9. Murray, D., Rosanbalm, K., and Christopoulos, C. (2016). Self-regulation and toxic stress: Implications for programs and practice. Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation: US Department of Health and Human Services.
10. Ratey, J. (2001). A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain. New York: Random House.
11. Sawyer, R.K. (2008). Optimising Learning: Implications of Learning Sciences Research. In Innovating to Learn, Learning to Innovate. Paris: OECD, pp. 45-65.
12. Sporns, O. (2010). Networks of the brain. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
13. Wiliam, D. (2010). “The role of formative assessment in effective learning environments.” In Dumont, E., Instance, D., and Benavides, F., Eds. (2010). The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice. OECD.