Learning Theory

Below are several modules created for a study skills course for students that review the brain and how it works, current theories of how memory works with an associated memory quiz, and current theories of how learning works. There are also several great recently published books that you may wish to read about learning and memory; see the Books section of this website. Brief written descriptions on this page include learning approaches, learning styles, information processing theory, cognitive load theory, social learning theory, adult learning, and experiential learning.

Study Skills Course Modules

Learning Approaches

Three learning approaches are described. Surface learning is focused only on achieving what is expected, with little attention paid to true understanding of the material. The student's primary motivation is fear of failure. Strategic learning is an organized form of surface learning, where students pick and choose what they will attend to by choosing those things that are most likely to help them achieve a good grade. Deep learning is what all instructors hope for from their students. The student's motivation is to master the material and they do so by actively working to relate new information to prior knowledge. Generally, students find deep learning most challenging, exciting, and rewarding. Information processing theory (see below) suggests that deep learning also is associated with best retention. As instructors, we can encourage students to practice deep learning by demonstrating our own enthusiasm in the topic and by creating engaging mechanisms to help students address the material.

Information Processing Theory

This theory is described in How Memory and Learning Work, posted below. Out of all the input with which we are bombarded, we select some to which we pay attention. This enters our short-term memory, from where it is either processed through conscious or unconscious effort, or lost. Once information has been processed through short-term (working) memory, it is encoded for storage in long-term memory. The more links we make between new information and information already in memory, the more likely it is that we will be able to retrieve that new information later. As instructors, we can help students remember information by supporting methods to consciously link new information to old and by enforcing regular recall of material. Examples include creating brief assignments to help students review background information before presenting new material; challenging students to articulate previous knowledge on a given topic; and enforcing regular recall, perhaps through regular quizzes or short assignments.

Learning Styles

Learning StylesLearning styles are preferred methods of taking in and processing information. While there is a fairly extensive body of literature on learning styles, educational research disagrees on the validity of this theory. As instructors, it may benefit us and our students to recognize our own preferred style and to make sure we are not only presenting information in that one way. It is suggested that students be aware of their preferences to ensure that if they are having trouble understanding or remembering a body of information, they try a different technique or engage the material through another method that has proven useful to them in the past. See the illustration below from Toolbox.com.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory is descriptive of how much information we can juggle in our short-term memory at any given time. Current research suggests that we can handle 7 +/- 2 facts at a time. As instructors, this means that when teaching in a didactic course, we have to give students time to digest and work through information; there is little value in rushing through sets of slides just to "get through it all" when students cannot possibly take it all in. When teaching in a clinical setting, we have to remember that to a student how is still a novice at diagnosis, every fact they collect from the history and physical examination remains discrete and they are easily overwhelmed. This varies from the thought process used by an expert, who can more readily decide which information is valuable and what can be discarded, and who quickly lump pieces of information, leaving them "cognitive room" to consider other facts. 

Adult Learning

"Pedagogy" refers to the teaching of children. Teaching of adults is andragogy, defined by Knowles as "the art and science of helping adults learn." Adult learners have a wealth of knowledge and experience to which they can link new information. They generally are motivated to learn and have experience working in groups. As instructors, effectively working with adult learners often includes giving them more choice in what and how they learn, supporting their ability to access outside resources, using peer-teaching as a way of tapping into the experience in the classroom among the students, and stressing to learners the value of metacognition, or knowledge of their own learning, described in How Memory and Learning Work, below.

Experiential Learning

Learning kolbExperiential learning, as described by Kolb, is learning by experience in a cyclical pattern that takes into account the learner's cognitive, emotional, and physical needs. "Effective learning is seen when a person progresses through a cycle of four stages: of (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences." (SimplyPsychology.org). As instructors, experiential learning can be supported by ensuring students are taking time to work through all of the steps. It is least useful for students to perform the same task incorrectly over and over.