How we learn:

Learning Concept Map
Learning Concept Map

For more concepts on learning, click on the above concept map.


Supporting Learning Theories

While the The Three Representational Modes and Self, Metacognition, Cognition, Knowledge Systems provide the basic background theories for learning, the following learning theories help to support them.


B. F. Skinner (1968) theorized that learners need to make active responses, and to do so regularly. These responses need immediate feedback and differential follow-ups; depending upon whether or not they are correct. Without immediate feedback, especially when the response is wrong, invites the student to learn a wrong response. These wrong responses then have to be unlearned. Critical training time is wasted by having the students unlearn wrong responses instead of learning new behaviors. When designing the learning activities, consider how to apply immediate feedback. Small student to instructor ratios, programmed learning, and well designed learning environments are just a few of the ways to accomplish this.


Guthrie's (1952) study breaks skills into acts. Acts are defined as complicated behavior patterns usually involving some goal accomplishment. Acts are made up of many individual movements. Movements are specific responses to specific stimuli. Acts are composed of muscular contractions that are the response to specific stimulus and are not dependent upon practice. But the learning of an act does depend on practice. Learning an act requires practice so that the proper movement is associated with its own cues.

Once acquired, associations are permanent (Good, Brophy, 1977), but they may not appear in every performance due to weak associations. These weak associations cannot be retrieved because of strong interference from other associations. Short practice periods develop weak associations which learners are not able to magnify into stronger ones.

Adams (1977) theorized that if we practice long enough we develop a mental image. For example, professional players are often known to utter sounds of satisfaction or expletives as soon as they hit a tennis ball or throw a football, because they can instantaneously tell by the feel of the act what the result will produce. Not having balanced practice periods prevents learners from becoming fully comfortable with the feel and use of the skill they are attempting to acquire. Learners must have enough time to develop a complete mental image of the sequence of correct responses. Often we see learners who could perform in the classroom and then not be able to perform when they return to work. When designing the learning activities be sure to include realistic practical exercise and enough time for these exercises!

Distributed Practice

Hull (1943) discovered that when practice periods are spaced apart (distributed practice), performance is superior to what it is when practice periods are close together (massed practice). Also, during practice periods, the learners' performance will gradually improve until some asymptotic (maximal) level is reached. If the learners are allowed to rest, and then resume practice, their performance will tend to exceed their previous asymptotic level (reminiscence effect). Learners that are provided rest or some other form of diversion between practice periods will reach higher levels of performance than learners who practice straight through without rest or diversion.


Wertheimer (1945) contrasts rote memorization with problem solving based on the Gestalt principles. In the former, the learner has learned facts without understanding them. Such learning is rigid and can be applied without truly understanding them. Learning in accordance with the Gestalt principles, however, is based on understanding the underlying principles of the problem. This type of learning comes from within the individual and is not imposed on by someone else. It is easily generalized and is remembered for a long time. When one performs upon memorized facts without understanding them, one often makes stupid mistakes.

Wertheimer told this story to illustrate the point: A school inspector was impressed by the children that he had observed, but wanted to ask one more question before departing. “How many hairs does a horse have?” he asked. Much to the amazement of both the inspector and the teacher, a nine year old boy answered “3,571,962.” “How do you know that your answer is correct?” asked the inspector. “If you do not believe me,” answered the boy, “count them yourself.” The inspector broke into laughter and vowed to tell the story to his colleagues when he returned to Vienna. When the inspector returned the following year for his annual visit, the teacher asked him how his colleagues responded to the story. Disappointedly he replied, “I wanted very much to tell the story but I couldn't. For the life of me, I couldn't remember how many hairs the boy had said the horse had.”

Reaching an understanding, according to Wertheimer, involves many aspects of the learners, such as emotions, attitudes, perceptions, and intellect. In gaining insight into the solution of a problem, a learner need not be logical. Rather, the learner should cognitively arrange and rearrange the components of the problem until a solution based on understanding is reached. Exactly how this is done will vary from learner to learner. In one experiment a piece of paper with the following 15 digits was handed to a group of subjects with the instruction that they study it for 15 seconds: The paper contained these digits: 1 4 9 16 25 36 49 64 81. After the subjects studied the digits, they were asked to reproduce the sequence of numbers. Most subjects were able to reproduce only a few of the numbers. After a week most of them remembered none of the digits. Another group of subjects were asked to look for a pattern among the digits. After studying them, some of the subjects were able to determine that the numbers are the squares of the digits from 1 to 9. These subjects were able to reproduce the series perfectly not only during the experiment, but weeks and months afterward.

Transfer of Learning or Training

See Transfer of Learning

Learning Environments (Learning Spaces)

Other pointers to consider for an effective learning environment:


The Gestalt point of view emphasizes that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For example, the whole (producing a document) is more than the individual acts:

  1. Turn on the computer
  2. Start the word processor
  3. Type information into the word processor
  4. Check the spelling
  5. Look up customers' names and addresses
  6. Insert columns into the document
  7. Print a letter
  8. Print envelopes

The above eight steps are meaningless unless the learner can put all of them together to produce a whole document that is ready for distribution. Help the learner to see that facts and ideas are part of a larger concept. Learners who are able to recite facts without seeing their interrelationship is meaningless. This can be accomplished by:

Next Steps

Return to the introduction: Self, Metacognition, Cognition, Knowledge Systems

Return to the main page: Introduction: The Three Representational Modes


Adams, J. (1977). Motor Learning and Retention. Fundamentals and Applications of Learning.Marx, Bunch, M. (eds.). New York: Macmillan.

Guthrie, E.R. (1952). The Psychology of Learning. New York: Harper & Row.

Good, T., Brophy, J. (1990). Educational Psychology: A realistic approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Hull, C.L. (1943). Principles of Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.

Skinner, B.F. (1968). The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton, Century ∓ Crofts.

Spence, K.W. (1966). Behavior Theory and Learning. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.

Wertheimer, M. (1945). Productive Thinking. New York: Harper and Row (1959).