How Do We Learn?

One of the online educational news sources that CER staff follow is Tomorrow’s Professor, edited by Rick Reis, a professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University.  Tomorrow’s Professor is a newsletter with twice weekly postings. covering a range of topics having to do with faculty development, including academic careers, the academy, research, graduate students and postdocs, and teaching and learning.

Close up view of university students in a lecture setting.A recent posting (#1495) was a reprint from Ralf St. Clair, “Engaged and Involved Learners,” chapter two from Creating Courses for Adults: Design for Learning, Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. In it St. Clair poses the questions, how do we teach people to learn and how can we design education that will facilitate learning. To get at the answers, he examines how people learn. St. Clair discusses two groups of ideas on learning, behaviorism and sociocultural learning approaches.

Theories of behaviorism share the concept “…that all learning always produces a change in behavior.” It’s precision appeals to educators “…because our actions as educators have demonstrable results and the outcome is absolutely clear.” Behaviorism has provided educators with valuable tools for curricular development (i.e., backward design) and assessment. The perceived downsides are that its approaches can seem mechanistic, and that it may appear to discount learning without a defined outcome. And, behaviorism does not give much guidance for social aspects of learning.

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.Another area of learning theory addresses those concerns. “Sociocultural learning approaches represent an attempt to understand the ways that people learn from others.” The key points are that “learning is always social,” communities of practice play a critical role, apprenticeship is an important model, learning is a dynamic process, and teaching should be flexible to accommodate differing applications. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an example of sociocultural learning.

St. Clair also mentions the theory of transformative learning. “In this model of adult learning, people possess schema, or ways of looking at the world, that help them make sense of what they see… .” When things change, the person experiences a “disorienting dilemma.” The only way to resolve the dilemma is “…to learn so that their world makes sense again.”

In this chapter, St. Clair proposes taking aspects of each of these ideas to create a new model for learning. “Such a model would have these beliefs at its core:

  • Learning is a social process conducted, either more or less directly, with other humans.
  • People begin to learn by trying peripheral activities, then take on more complex activities as they grow in confidence and see other people perform them.
  • Individuals will repeat actions that are associated with a reward, including the approval of peers.
  • Even if the aim of the learning is not behavioral, having an associated behavioral outcome can make it easier to communicate and assess.
  • People learn most, and most profoundly, when faced with a dilemma or need to understand something relevant to them.”

St. Clair goes on to describe what teachers need to do to support learning under this model. Using active learning exercises, scaffolding content, and encouraging student understanding and mastery are crucial concepts. He notes that this model allows students to have control over their learning, to build connections and move from simple to more complex ideas, and encourages collaboration.

Suggestions for adhering to the model are offered. St. Clair notes that “The primary role of educators is to create the relationships and the context that can bring about this type of engagement.” The article is well worth reading in its entirety.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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