Teaching and Learning Resources

How Students Learn

All students have different ways of processing, assimilating and understanding information. In other words, they have different "learning styles", approaches to learning, as well as varying levels of natural intelligence.

Developed out of research in the disciplines of psychology and education, learning theories, have been advanced in an attempt to describe how people learn in order to aid in our understanding of the complex process of learning.

Learning theories fall into three main categories or frameworks:
(1) behaviourism; which focuses only on the objectively observable aspects of learning;
(2) cognitivism; which looks beyond behaviour in order to explain the brain’s role in learning, and;
(3) constructionism which views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs new ideas
     and concepts.

Based on theories of learning, psychologist Edward Thorndike (1913) defined six principles or laws of learning which suggest strategies for faculty to help promote student learning.


    The Principles of Learning     

    • Readiness - students must be ready to learn in order to succeed at the task. Readiness includes eagerness to learn, focus or concentration, getting enough sleep and eating properly so that the student has enough energy, and understanding the value of the material being learned.
    • Exercise - exercise as it relates to learning refers to practice and drill instead of physical exercise. The student practices what they are learning, and drills until they can repeat the  information correctly, or can perform the skill properly. Things that are most often repeated are most often remembered.
    • Effect - effect refers to the emotional state of the student, and relates to motivation. Positive reinforcement that gives the student a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is more likely to result in learning than negative reinforcement or punishment. Not every learning experience will be 100% successful, but the student should have some positive feelings in order to learn best.
    • Primacy - primacy means being first. This refers to the fact that the first things encountered are better remembered than later things.
    • Recency - recency means that things encountered later are better remembered than earlier things. Usually, if a student is trying to learn a series of facts, the first and last facts will be easiest to remember.
    • Intensity - a learning experience that is vivid or dramatic, or exciting will each more than a boring experience. A student will also learn more from the real thing than from a substitute.

    Related Resources

    What we know about How Students Learn from the perspective of cognitive science and neuropsychology.

    How People Learn. Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. (2000) In recent decades the study of the mind has had important implications for education. A new theory of learning for the 21st Century focuses on aspects of high literacy including reading and thinking critically, clear and persuasive expression, and complex problem solving. This book focuses on research on human learning from neuroscience, implications for the design of formal instructional environments and an exploration of the possibility of helping students reach their fullest potential.  The full text is available online.


    An interesting paper from the perspective of a cognitive scientist that questions how technology influences today’s learner.  http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/summer2010/Willingham.pdf

    An intriguing and informative video that summarizes important characteristics of how students today learn, and what they need to learn.

    This PDF from RoutledgeFarmer describes many theories of learning and discusses how students learn in these contexts.


    Bransford, John D. et al, ed. (2000) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.
    Available in the CLL Library, Mills Library 504. Call Number LC038

    Donovan, S. (2003) How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press. 

    Available in the CLL Library, Mills Library 504. Call Number LP035