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How People Learn

Discover more on how people learn.
Learners in computer lab with the trainer
© Wellcome Connecting Science

Learning theories translate into and influence educational practice.

The theories of how people learn have changed throughout history, from seeing a new-born human as a ‘tabula rasa’ (a clean slate) onto which life experience and learning are to be inscribed, all the way up to today’s notion of humans as having both biological predisposition and active psychological drive to learn throughout their lives. The modern science of learning, supported by the research of different fields such as cognitive, social, and developmental psychology, neuroscience, as well as the evaluations of different learning environments and emerging learning technologies, provide evidence for our current understanding. We now appreciate that learning is a process that takes place in specific settings, where learners are seen as goal-directed agents who actively seek understanding and knowledge building

In their article summarising learning theories which include a historical perspective, Taylor and Hamdy (2013) developed a helpful guide that shows different learning theories combined into several categories. They also developed a schema for potential use in education. They assume a constructivist approach, which states that every human comes with a range of prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and habits that significantly influence their further learning and their personal knowledge construction. This view of learning states that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge, rather than the pure acquisition of information.

Learning occurs through social interactions, and others play an important role in the process of learning. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) for every learner refers to the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving, and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under guidance or in collaboration with more knowledgeable others. This points to the important role of the teacher/trainer, in providing careful scaffolding for learning, so that learners can learn at an appropriate pace and develop their potential.

From Novices to Experts

Learning has a ‘vertical’ dimension – to develop competence in some area, a learner first has to have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, then to understand the material taught and be able to organise their knowledge in a way that facilitates retrieval and application across different contexts. Further progression on this cognitive ladder builds upon these foundation levels – with the development of the higher-order cognitive abilities, which include analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Bloom’s simplified model of cognitive development, in practice better known as Bloom’s taxonomy, is another theoretical framework widely used in education. We will mention it here, and will also demonstrate its use later, in the context of course design. This taxonomy consists of six levels, with the three lower cognitive levels (knowledge, comprehension, and application) upon which higher levels (analysis, evaluation, creation) are built, as illustrated in the picture:

Picture courtesy of Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

The original Bloom’s model dates back to the 1950s and has been updated by others since then. In this course, we will use the revised version presented above. This will be used in the context of defining the intended learning outcomes of a course. You can find a text-only version of the pyramid illustrated above in the Downloads section.

© Wellcome Connecting Science
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