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How people learn – an overview

The theories on how people learn have changed dramatically since Skinner and Pavlov first posited their theories.  The trend in learning theories have advanced from classical conditioning, in which the learner is no more than a reactive organism, to complex theories, such at Sternburg’s Triarchic theory, which involves the interplay between metacognition, social context, and the learner’s familiarity with the subject.

The most commonly accepted theories are considered “constructivst” theories. In these theories, the learner is thought to create, or construct, their own understanding of the world. The learner takes in information through the senses, buffers the information in order to limit input to the brain, and places the input into what has become known as “working memory.” If an older memory is activated at the same time, the older memory is moved from long-term memory and also placed in working memory. The learner compares the new input to what is known through the old memory. If the two are similar, the learner “re-constructs” their knowledge and places the newly reconstructed information back into long-term memory.  If the two are dissimilar, the old memory is returned to storage unaltered and the sensory input is forgotten within seventy-two hours.

What does that mean to us as teachers? In order to have students remember and understand, we must provide educational experiences that trigger old memories and help the learner build their knowledge.

How can we do this?

  1. Use learning activities that will require the student to do more than memorize. Unless attached to an old memory, memorized material remains in working memory and is eliminated.
  2. Activate old memories. This can be done as simply as reminding the student of previous activities (“Remember the last class when we……”), building incrementally on your topic so students must draw on old information, or drawing analogies between new information and everyday experiences.
  3. Create learning activities that help the learner construct their knowledge in a step-by-step manner.  For example, provide students with:
    1. problems to solve.
    2. plenty of opportunity to practice and give them feedback while they are practicing.
    3. skeleton outlines of your lecture rather than complete PowerPoint slides.

What to learn more?

In this chapter, we will discuss what the best college teachers do, how to get up and running quickly, and some of the characteristics of good teachers.  Upcoming chapters discuss particular aspects of teaching, such as course preparation, teaching strategies, and evaluating your students.

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Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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