If you are interested in learning a subject, here’s how and where it happens. This section reviews various processes associated with learning.

Some definitions:

  • Learning: Learning is the process by which our experiences make physical changes in our brain that change our behavior (Carlson, 2007; Kandel, Schwartz & Jessel, 2000). Our brains are composed of neurons; these are specialized cells which communicate with each other along pathways. Learning may add new paths, connect existing paths in a new way or strengthen or weaken existing pathways. For example, we are not born knowing what a stop sign is, but we learned that the color red, combined with the letters S, T, O, and P in the middle of an eight-sided shape (octagon), should halt our forward progress. We connected this information together in a new path that represents a stop sign. We stop moving when we see this combination because we learned this new set of connections, this new path, as a stop sign and what it means.
  • Memory: Learning and memory go hand-in-hand, since the learned information must be recalled in order to be effective. Memories are these new pathways (Carlson, 2007). In order for an experience or information to be established in memory, for this new path to be formed, we must pay attention to or focus on the material. That is the beginning of building or strengthening the path. If we want to access the information more easily and quickly, then we must go over that path again and again and identify other connections that lead to it. We must practice going to our destination, the information. If we do not learn (connect) and store the color, the letters and the shape, then we cannot recall it in time and the stop sign has no meaning and does not change our behavior. For a driver or a pedestrian, this is not good.
  • Individual Learning: Some information is easy for us to learn, while other information seems to take more effort. Similarly, some people have an easier time learning material that we ourselves, find hard to learn. So we see that each one of us differs in our ability to learn different types of material. The material we like seems easier to learn but then, maybe we like it because it’s easier to learn! These differences are the result of our genes, our unique personal history, our individual interests and our background knowledge (Riener & Willingham, 2010). People talk a lot about “learning styles”, but “learning preferences” is probably a more accurate approach (Curry, 1990; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2009; Riener & Willingham, 2010). Each of us may have different learning preferences, such as seeing pictures or listening to explanations, but our ability to learn material is not dependent on them. However, the more associations that we can make to the information we’re learning, the better. Whether we like the material or not, learning takes some effort, it requires that you pay attention and practice. Remember you are making changes in your brain and while some changes may be easier than others, they are not automatic. For example, many of us learned to drive; that takes practice and paying attention and we improved the more we drove. At first, you may make some mistakes, like missing a turn or two, but with practice the connections get stronger and the task, whether it’s driving or multiplication, becomes easier.

As we mature we add experiences to what we’ve already learned and remember, both in the form of information and consequences. These experiences provide us with a framework to which we can connect pathways about new information. It is easier to learn material if we’ve seen something similar to it before, because some of the connections in the pathway have already been established, more associations again. New information reinforces some of these pathways while adding other connections. Sometimes we have to weaken some old pathways when we incorporate new information. Making these changes may seem easier for some types of information than others, but with some effort and some practice, you can acquire the information you are trying to learn.

Carlson, N. R. (2007). Physiology of Behavior 10th Ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Curry, L. (1990). A critique of the research on learning styles.  Educational Leadership. 47(2). 50-56.

Kandel, E., Schwartz, J. & Jessel, T. (2000). Principles of Neural Science. 4th Ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Krätzig, G. P. & Arbuthnott, K. D. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 238-246.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

Riener, C. & Willingham, D. (2010). The Myth of Learning Styles. Change, (September/October), 32-35.