What is learning? From theory to practice

Learning is a part of our lives. Every day we acquire new knowledge, skills, understanding, values, and preferences. It can happen implicitly and repeatedly, for example, while watching the news or talking with a colleague. But we also consciously choose to learn new things, like a new language, sport, or software program. Learning is an elusive thing. Why are some people good at it and others not? And why do we all have our learning preferences? Let's dive into the theory of learning so that you can bring your training to the next level! 

Content Manager & HR Officer
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Table of contents

  1. What is the definition of learning?
  2. Five common learning theories
  3. How to deal with different learning styles?
  4. What are the implications for training?
  5. What are the factors that influence learning?
  6. How can you provide an effective learning experience?

What is the definition of learning?

Research on what qualifies as learning is inconclusive. But most agree that learning is much more than memorizing and recalling information. It involves deep and long-lasting understanding and relating new information to existing ideas, concepts, and knowledge. A definition of learning that is often used is:

"Learning is a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning. The change in the learner may happen at the level of knowledge, attitude, or behavior. As a result of learning, learners come to see concepts, ideas and/or the world differently. [1]" 

Regarding this definition, the most important learning processes or activities relate to:

  • Selecting information
  • Taking in information
  • Processing information
  • Integrating new information with current knowledge
  • Establishing a new conceptual model
  • Using information
  • Giving meaning to information [2]

Five common learning theories 

Understanding how people learn is a critical step in optimizing the learning process

Understanding how people learn is a critical step in optimizing the learning process. Since the early 20th century, researchers have pondered how learners assimilate and how best to address various learning challenges. This has brought about different learning theories about the best learning processes and strategies. Let's have a look at the five most crucial learning theories:

1. Behaviorism

This traditional movement emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. In a nutshell, the behaviorism theory boils down to the motto: 'practice makes perfect'. With enough practice and training, people should eventually be able to perform a specific action without thinking. In addition, behaviorists assume that external stimuli cause changes in behavior, as the teacher's role is to help learners construct knowledge and reflect on and use a variety of learning strategies.

Examples of behaviorism in today's education
  • Giving bonus points for homework done.
  • Building up pupils' learning step-by-step.

2. Cognitivism

This movement displaced the behaviorism theory in the sixties. Cognitivism focuses more on how students process and memorize information. According to this theory, the human brain is a 'black box' and similar to a computer. Since the emergence of this theory, terms like working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory have been widely recognized and studied.

Cognitivism advocates that storing information first requires processing. Also, that training material is best suited to the student's previous knowledge. 

Examples of cognitivism in today's education
  • Actively involve pupils in the learning topic by asking them questions that make them think about it.
  • Instead of an hour spent relaying information as an instructor, pupils work together on assignments related to the topic.

3. Constructivism 

This theory was established circa 1980. According to this theory, learning is a social process where knowledge is created and shared with others. The responsibility for learning is increasingly passed to the pupils. It is important to learn with context, so a powerful learning environment is indispensable. When children learn about the temperature, for example, a teacher can refer to a thermometer, oven, and/or the seasons.

Like the cognitivism theory, this theory claims that learning is a knowledge construction process. So, learners should build on existing knowledge.

Example of constructivism in today's education
  • The instructor presents a problem, for example measuring the length of the Chinese wall. The instructor doesn't immediately introduce methods to solve the problem. Instead, the instructor lets their pupils reflect on the problem and create their own measurement methods.

4. Constructionism

This theory was also established in the eighties. It views constructing knowledge in a very literal way. It emphasizes an approach of ‘learning by making, and learning to make’. This movement stimulates creativity, collaboration, and experimenting.

Example of constructionism in today's education

Pupils work on a project together, such as creating a kitchen garden. While planting the seeds themselves, they learn more about nature. 

5. Connectivism

This is the most recent theory, established in 2004. This theory fits into the digital era we live in. The central aspect of connectivism is the metaphor of a network with nodes and connections. Learners can create their learning network. In their search for information, learners will visit informative websites, read books, and use other sources. The role of the teacher will be more giving guidance and feedback than actively providing new knowledge. 

Adherents of connectivism see this theory as a supplement to existing theories.

Example of connectivism in today's education
  • Connectivism is mainly visible outside of a school situation. Pupils use digital resources; the instructor teaches how they should review online information critically.

How to deal with different learning styles 

There is no convincing scientific proof that matching instruction improves learning

Just as understanding different learning theories is crucial for shaping your training program, you also need to understand people's different learning styles. At least, that is what the majority of instructors think. 89% of teachers believe in matching instruction to a student's preferred learning style. You would expect that would be a good thing, but yet there is no convincing scientific proof that matching instruction improves learning [3].

A frequently used distinction between learning styles is the VARK model. According to the VARK model, learners are identified by whether they have a preference for:

  • Visual learning (pictures, movies, diagrams)
  • Auditory learning (music, discussion, lectures)
  • Reading and writing (making lists, reading textbooks, taking notes)
  • Kinesthetic learning (movement, experiments, hands-on activities)

As appealing as a framework like VARK is — relatively easy to conceptualize and quick to assess — everyone engages in different modes of learning in various ways. The brain processes information in very complex and nuanced ways that can't be so simply generalized. So, if you shape your training material to a specific learning style, you learners are likely to miss learning opportunities. Instead, a general approach would be better. But then your program must be strong so that the need for personalizing disappears. In this regard, strong means that:

  • The student feels involved.
  • The content is represented in multiple ways.
  • It stimulates action and expression from the student.

The Universal Design for Learning is an approach that supports this way of thinking. It aims to meet the needs of every student in a traditional classroom or online learning environment.

What are the implications for training? 

In particular, learning theories can determine the design of your training and lessons. The theory is the basis of the curriculum, even though you may not even be aware of it. Do you think the repetition of facts is important in order to learn? Or do you see yourself more as a facilitator than an instructor? And do you favor a project-based approach? Consciously - but as said also unconsciously - you see these aspects reflected in your training and the way you teach.

And this has, of course, an effect on your students. Imagine that you opt for a teaching method that emphasizes social and visual learning. Your students will later feel more comfortable in a working environment where cooperation is paramount, and video presentations occur more often than reading dry paperwork.

What are the factors that influence learning? 

Learning theory is at the heart of education. But in the end, basing your training on learning theories is not the only influence on how well someone learns. Other factors come into play too.

Physiological factors [4]

1. Sense-perception

Impairment to any of the senses makes learning more difficult. For instance, a blind man has more difficulty learning than a person without a visual impairment if they do not get the right tools. 

2. Physical health

If you are not feeling well physically, you are not in a position to learn as well as you can. A sound mind is only possible in a sound body.

3. Fatigue 

It is related to point two, physical health. If you are physically or mentally tired, you can't bring the best version of yourself. Fatigue can have several causes like you are too busy, your diet isn't balanced, you have studied too long.

4. Time of day

Research studies has shown that learning is most effective between 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm

Research studies has shown that learning is most effective between 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm when the brain is most receptive. On the other hand, the least effective learning time is between 4:00 am and 7:00 am [5].

5. Nutrition

We shouldn't underestimate the effect of nutritious food. A healthy diet is responsible for efficient mental activity. Poor nutrition has the opposite effect. Alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine are known to affect the brain, and you should be aware of how it impacts you.

6. Age

The evidence is irrefutable: as we age, our brain capacity declines. It is generally easier to learn at a younger age than at an older one. From the age of 25 onwards, the greatest stagnation occurs.

Psychological factors

1. Mental health

Mental tension, complexes, conflicts, mental illnesses, and mental diseases hamper learning.

2. Motivation and interest 

Motivation is key to learning. If you are motivated to learn, you can absorb information (and recall and apply it later). If you lack motivation, the knowledge and skills won't stick.

3. Positive reinforcement

Nothing is as addictive as success. If you experience success or get high praise from your teacher or instructor, it gives you wings. Sometimes, it can work the other way around. Evidence shows that elder children are more sensitive to reproof and blame than younger children are.

Environmental factors

1. Working conditions 

Proper lighting, good ventilation, the right temperature, and humidity positively impact mental efficiency. Distractions of all sorts affect the power of concentration and, consequently, the efficiency of learning.

2. Organizational setup

The organizational setup entails, for instance, the school or training schedule. It should align with psychological principles. It should avoid fatigue and boredom. So, it would be helpful to train difficult subjects at the best learning times. Also, a positive relationship between instructor and student contributes to the learning outcome. If the student trusts the trainer and is motivated, this will be reflected in the learning outcomes.

Methodology of instruction

1. Presentation 

The way the learning/training material is presented is essential

The way the learning/training material is presented is essential. It should be good-looking, organized, and graded to suit the mental level of the pupil. Instructors should deliver it in a meaningful and interesting manner. The training material could be either offline (in books, syllabus) or online (in an LMS, webinar, or online presentation).

2. Learning by doing and timely testing 

Repetition and practice are important for learning. Students should be encouraged to apply what they have learned (by taking an exam to assess their knowledge level) or to learn through activity. It sticks better if you have a personal experience with the learning material. You can read how you should do CPR from a book, but practicing on a dummy is much more valuable.

How can you provide an effective learning experience? 

As already described, many factors impact learning. As an instructor, you don't have an influence on all factors, but just a subset. So, focus on what you can influence.

Put time and effort into creating excellent training material 

A famous expression is that ‘you get out what you put in’. This applies not only to food but to knowledge too. Excellent training material is a prerequisite for great learning results. But what is excellent training material?

Challenging, but not too challenging 

It should build on prior knowledge, but not be repetitive. The level of the material should be challenging enough, but not too challenging. It’s a thin line. If the material is too easy, your pupils don't feel motivated and don't put effort into it. On the other hand, if the level of the training is too high, pupils get demotivated. To keep everyone focused, the material should be a bit higher than the current knowledge and skill level, but not too high. 

Look and feel 

Also, the look and feel of your material is important. If it is pleasing to the eye, it is pleasing for the brain too. Everyone prefers a book, paper, or online educational material with bright colors, images (or videos), clear font (size), spacing an so on, because it is easy to read. Please note that color use in instructional material has proven to play an essential role in creating different emotional reactions and capturing learners' attention. For example, warm colors such as red, orange, and yellow have been recognized as ideal for increasing learners' attention and stimulating their active participation. And using a blue background increases the likelihood that the information delivered will be remembered [6].

You need to take your students' attention span into account

Attention span 

Finally, you need to take your students' attention span into account. They can't focus all day long. So, try to instruct the difficult subjects when learning is most effective and provide natural breaks during training. Or make sure your online training tool warns pupils when it is time to take a break or start using a tool that supports microlearning. According to many studies, the average adult has a maximum attention span of about 20 minutes. 

Put time and effort into your relationship with your pupils 

Although it sounds superficial, it starts with respect for the instructor. If people like you, trust you, and you motivate them, they are willing to go the extra mile. Show your pupils your interest, put time and effort into getting to know them, boost their self-esteem, and make sure they don't feel like a number but are safe and calm. It will pay off.

Put time and effort into creating a great atmosphere at your training location

It starts with controlling the lighting, good ventilation, right temperature, and humidity. But you could also have an impact on how you present your classroom. It should be inviting but not distracting.

Color use 

Using yellow in your classroom will encourage your pupils to be creative

Like the use of colors in instructional materials has proven to play an important role, the color use in a classroom has too. For example, green is associated with calmness, and black is associated with sadness. Using yellow in your classroom will encourage your pupils to be creative and help you maintain their attention. So, suppose you host a training day about drawing and visual thinking. In that case, you can add yellow accents to your training location. 


Nowadays, learning happens online a lot; you can have a positive impact on learning by choosing a tool, like an LMS, that supports distraction-free learning. When using an electronic device, the temptations are great. Still, if the learning tool leaves no space for distraction, at least one obstacle has been taken care of. For example, distraction-free learning tools don't show a logo in the corner. Only the learning content is visible in warm colors and an easy-to-read font.

Now you know more about the learning basics; you are well equipped to create the best learning experience in the world possible! Good luck!

Useful resources

  1. Ambrose, Susan A. et al. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.
  2. Dixon, 1994. The Learning Cycle. 
  3. Sternberg, R. J. 1994. Thinking Styles: Theory and Assessment at the Interface between Intelligence and Personality.
  4. Reid, J. M. (1995). Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom.
  5. Newton & Salvi, 2020. How Common Is Belief in the Learning Styles Neuromyth, and Does It Matter? A Pragmatic Systematic Review
  6. PSB Academy, 2020

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