How do we learn?

Understanding How People Learn


The ALT-Members email list is a fascinating place where members of the ALT community discuss a variety of issues related to everyday practice. Recently, Daniel Scott asked what he thought was an obvious question, but one that has generated some interesting responses. To paraphrase his invitation email:


… what methods are there to find out as much as we can about individuals to help them learn more effectively? What can the learner(s)/teacher(s) be asked? A typical teacher identifies the content, but how can we find about how those learners learn?

Ultimately a question like this prompts us to question the very act of learning and what it is to be a student:

To me; learning is about interaction and engagement, not just passive intake of didactic ‘content’. (Matt Jenner)

Many of the responses that followed identified both traditional and contemporary ways to investigate the act of learning. For example, Stephen Powell’s response emphasised the role of feedback…

Evaluate feedback loops as the key mechanism for learning… Either way, the key point is that learners are able to make judgements about what they have learned and where to go next. (Stephen Powell)

… whilst Sarah Honeychurch emphasised how learning analytics can help us understand how students learn (citing Dragan Gasevic’s work). Some others focussed on the importance of digital literacies and the academic staff’s skill base (Sue Greener). Tom Worthington suggested the experience of being a student, for example via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can be a critical factor in understanding what works for learners in contemporary education. Sticking with the online theme, Steve Locke-Wheaton also questioned the role of the teacher in online learning:

I would argue that the role of the teacher in online learning is not to try to discover the “learning style” of each participant (this doesn’t scale even if you could do it) but to allow learners to choose their own pathway through a variety of engaging tasks. (Steve Locke-Wheaton)

Understanding the ‘learning style’ is an interesting concept, with many people across the sector relying on the likes of VARK spectrums and Myers-Briggs tests, etc. Interestingly one of the first responses to the original post was by Clive Buckley, suggesting we ignore such learning styles. Matt Jenner picked up on learner claims of  ‘I am a visual learner’, to which he responds: ‘you just like pretty graphics – most of us do when given the choice’. He’s right though – this can be a dangerous and destructive line for learners to take, as they tend to turn away from other media because they believe they can’t/won’t learn that way. In reality, it’s much more likely that we learn through a blend of the different modes, what the VARK spectrum describes as ‘Multimodal’.

This post could go on for some time in attempting to summarise the conversation further. For me there are a number of interesting points to consider when thinking about how we learn:

  • Do we have a shared understanding of what it is to learn? Is it about answering questions and passing a test to ensure compliance and basic business objectives (Gavin Henrick), or is about an individual’s right to enquiry, academia and ‘learning for learning’s sake’ (Sarah Honeychurch)?;
  • Understanding the technicalities of how and where we learn best: formats and modes; active learning; situated learning; group learning; problem-based learning and learning by doing;
  • In considering networked learning and approaches such as Connectivism, should we be more concerned with the make up of networks and the flow of information rather than the content itself?

If you are not on the email list, or you haven’t managed to get involved, there are lots of questions and interesting discussion you’re missing out on. You can head over to the Jiscmail Subscribers Corner to register, see the archives and catch up!


Flickr photo by GotCredit shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Although this post was put together by Peter Reed (@reedyreedles), Lecturer in Learning Technology at the University of Liverpool, much of the content was generated by members of the community on the ALT-Members email list.

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *