How do People Learn?

by Suzanne Miller & Kristina Kauffman

Before you plan your course(s) it is important to give significant thought to:

  1. Who your learners will be, and 

  2. How you can best reach them.  

Recent research on the brain and on how people learn is having a revolutionary impact on the study of education.  A quick search of the Internet will reveal a wealth of information on the topic. While much of the research applies to how children learn, our knowledge of adult learners has expanded dramatically as well. Based on that new knowledge and what our experience suggests works best in the classroom, we review two key areas: learning patterns and learning theories. Concepts related to learning patterns actually grow out of learning theories, but we will begin with them in the hope that they will illustrate the relevance of learning theories.   

Learning Patterns

Every course, and every lesson within a course, follows some sort of pattern. You walk in the room (or the student logs into your online course), you do or say something and eventually material is covered. If all goes well students learn. Think about how you plan to cover a lesson.  
  • How will you start?
  • What technique or approach will you use to communicate the material?
  • How will you conclude the lesson?
  • How will you assess learning?

It may be helpful to jot down your own answers to these questions before reading further. You will be able to compare your responses and adjust them as you read. This exercise may help you to discover an improved pattern, or give you greater confidence in the one you use now.

Research at the University of Indiana has shown that it matters how we approach a class. It has demonstrated what entertainers have known for generations.  The entrance, settling down and exit phases are often just as important as the core material.  Just think about the value of music before the movie or drama begins. Most of us know the music for our favorite shows. Hearing it cues our memory. Favorite hymns or praise music indicate transition points in religious services. If you have ever heard a religious group debate a change in musical style, or liturgical patterns you know how important these patterns can be.  They are equally important in your classroom. They provide cues about what to expect, and provide security for those stressed by the learning experience. Changing the learning patterns slightly can also wake up a class that is lithargic. The point is that the pattern should be intentional and reflect your goals for the learning experience.

Plan classes so that students experience:

  • Entrance phase:  Typically casual talk that helps individuals assess the nature of your relationship with them
  • Settling down phase:  Indicates that the class is moving to the materials and allows students to shift from personal to group tasks
  • Work phase:  This is where one covers the lesson for the day
  • Clearing Up:  Students disengage from the group and begin to focus on questions like, "What was that about?" They begin the process of integrating the new knowledge with their world outside the classroom.
  • Exit:  Clarifies expectations for the future.

During the work phase, faculty similarly need to be attentive to the organization of the material.  The following are common approaches, each of which follow a different structural approach and have varying advantages and disadvantages:

Organizational Type Structure Advantages Disadvantages


woman giving lecture

  • Present the abstraction
  • Present illustrations
  • Create examples
  • Closure

This classic lecture format can quickly and easy transmit information

Most effective when used with highly motivated learners who have a familiarity with the subject matter

Can easily be boring or too complex

Rarely engages the learners


woman doing science experiment

  • Explain
  • Demonstrate
  • Involve
  • Coach
  • Test/Terminate/Transfer
Very effective for skill development May not encourage analysis

The Kolb Pattern

woman actively participating in class discussion

  • Concrete examples
  • Reflective observations
  • Abstract generalizations
  • Applied experimentation

Develops analytical abilities

Is often most effective with adult learners

May not effectively train learners for specific skills quickly

S H O W e D

group celebrating, used to illustrate a situation that we can relate to

  • See
  • How come
  • Our lives
  • Why
  • Do

Develops concern, empathy and understanding

Very effective when building community or dealing with cultural differences

May evoke emotional responses

Emphasis on relevance to our lives may not encourage deep analysis

Theories about Learning

Theories about learning seem to be proliferating at break neck speed.  How can we keep up? And, just what does all the research mean?  The serious student of learning theories can go to the Theory in Practice (TIP) database developed by Greg Kearsley.  The database contains encyclopedia reviews of nearly fifty different theories, learning domains and learning concepts. The more famous and commonly referenced include:

Learning Theory - Bloom's Taxonomy

The work of Benjamin Bloom and his collaborators (Bloom, et al., 1956) had significant impact on educational research and practice. 

Bloom's work identified three "domains" of educational activities: the Cognitive Domain, Affective Domain and the Psychomotor Domain.  His work on the Cognitive Domain resulted in his highly influential Taxonomy.  It attempts to divide cognitive objectives into subdivisions ranging from simple to complex. The taxonomy categorizes the level of abstraction of questions that commonly occur in educational settings. For those developing assessment tools it is particularly helpful as it categorizes test questions.

Skills Demonstrated

Knowledge Observation and recall of information including dates, events, places, major ideas and mastery of subject mater

Question Cues:
list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.

Comprehension understanding information, grasping it meaning, translating it into next context

interpret facts, compare, contrast

order, group, infer causes and predict consequences

Question Cues:
summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend


use information, methods, concepts, theories in new situations

solve problems using required skills or knowledge

Questions Cues:
apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover

Analysis see patterns, organization or parts, identify components and recognize hidden meanings

Question Cues:
analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer

Synthesis use old ideas to create new ones

generalize from given facts and relate knowledge from several areas

predict, draw conclusions

Question Cues:
combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite

Evaluation compare and discriminate between ideas, assess the value of theories, presentations

make choices based on reasoned argument

verify value of evidence

recognize subjectivity

Question Cues
assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize

* Adapted from: Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. New York ; Toronto: Longmans, Green. 

For another way of looking at Bloom Click Here.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory has important application for designers of all courses.  It points out the tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. Imagine you have a student who firmly believes one set of "facts."  In order for the student to expand their knowledge they must learn and accept that there are errors in their understanding.  

Educators working to eliminate dissonance need to: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.  This is easiest when students trust and respect the instructor, and when the instructor can provide evidence which the student finds relevant.

See also:

Adult Learning Theory

Theoretical frameworks for adult learning or andragogy (as opposed to pedagogy) suggest that adults learn differently than children.  Adult learning theory emphasizes the impact of experiential learning and lifespan psychology.  

As a result it argues that:

  1. Adult learning programs should capitalize on the experience of participants.
  2. Adult learning programs should adapt to the aging limitations of the participants.
  3. Adults should be challenged to move to increasingly advanced stages of personal development.
  4. Adults should have as much choice as possible in the availability and organization of learning programs.

For more see:

Learning Styles

Research suggests that faculty who are sensitive to their students learning styles reach students more quickly and more easily than those who force all students to adapt to the traditional read/lecture only approach.  Keep in mind our discussion of memory.  Use of learning styles is key to enhanced memory.  Remember students' memory retrieval strategies are linked to the way their brain functions (brain-based learning).  We should encourage students to explore all learning styles and enhance all of their learning skills, while mindful that students will learn more quickly and with less emotional resistance if we employ the learning style most natural for them.  Community College students, more than perhaps any other group of learners, frequently suffer from low self-esteem.  The more we enhance learner success, the more likely we are to retain students and inspire them to continue their education.  

Don't miss this opportunity: take a learning styles survey at:

Other interpretations of learning styles can be found at:


dig deeperLearn more about Learning Styles


Another interpretation of Learning Styles and Learning Cycles comes from Kolb, (click on the image to enlarge):

Image is explained in links below 

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. Most human behavior is learned by observation.  The effectiveness of learning varies according to attention:

  • distinctiveness
  • affective valence
  • complexity
  • prevalence
  • functional value

and observer characteristics:

  • sensory capacities
  • arousal level
  • perceptual set
  • past reinforcement 


  • symbolic coding 
  • cognitive 
  • organization
  • symbolic rehearsal
  • motor rehearsal

Motor Reproduction:

  • physical capabilities
  • self-observation of reproduction
  • accuracy of feedback


  • external
  • vicarious
  • self reinforcement

For more see:



Multiple Intelligences

Perhaps the most famous recent analysis of how we learn comes from Howard Gardner former director of an educational research group, Project Zero, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  In his book, Frames of Mind: Theories of Multiple Intelligences (1983, 1993), he argues that we must expand the definition of intelligence beyond that of the traditionally defined verbal and logical thinking assessed by IQ tests.  He defines intelligence as ``a biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.'' Over the last 20 years he has developed a theory and model of multiple intelligences supported by research from the fields of cognitive and developmental psychology, animal physiology and neuroanatomy. 
Definition: Intelligence is the capacity for understanding and responding to new situations. It includes the ability to learn from one’s past experiences.

Why is consideration of multiple intelligences important?

The concept of multiple intelligences is important because it provides insight into why some material is learned quickly, while other information remains elusive. The theory argues that each of us has every intelligence in varying strengths. It also suggests that we can use our strengths to excel and compensate for our weaknesses. Knowing what comes most easily, and why, can provide guidance for learning more difficult material.

Even those who question the theory can usually agree that students’ optimism about learning can be increased when instructors encourage students to excel by building on their strengths. Optimistic students stay in class and put forth the effort needed to learn. They are able to use one area of intelligence to support work in another. For example, some students succeed at math by viewing it as a language rather than using symbolic skills. Other students may reflect on, process ideas and "write the paper" in their head while exercising, as they need the kinesthetic movement to simulate their thinking.

Multiple Intelligences: what are they?

Gardener has identified eight distinct intelligences and is considering a ninth.  The best teachers (particularly in introductory courses) employ classroom techniques which allow students to employ their stronger forms of intelligence and to develop those that are weaker.  The intelligences include:

1.  Verbal/Linguistic (V/L)
2.  Logical/Mathematical (L/M)
3.  Visual/Spatial (V/S)
4.  Musical (M)
5.  Bodily/Kinesthetic (B /K)
6.  Social/Interpersonal (S/I), sometimes referred to as Interpersonal (IE)
7.  Intrapersonal (IA)
8.  Naturalist (N)
9.  Existential/Spiritual (E/S)

dig deeperLearn more about the types of Multiple Intelligences

How can we use the theory of multiple intelligences?

Project based assignments using teams of students with different intelligences can be an enriching experience for all. Students learn to notice and appreciate the diversity of ways people can be 'smart'.  As you read through the rest of this lesson keep multiple intelligence in mind and we believe that you will find numerous additional ideas. 


See also:

To see the link between Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles see: