The Art of Instruction logo.

What is Learning?

Cognition mind map thumbnail.

Cognition Mind Map - an information-processing view of the cognitive processes which interact in order for learning to occur.

Table of Contents


As long as you are a sentient being with a fully functioning anatomically correct brain, you will always learn. Smilkstein (2011) exclaims this fact; "We're Born to Learn." Sounds easy, but can you describe what learning is, how to enact it, how to observe it, how to intentionally evoke it? These questions can all be answered by reading the Art of Instruction.

We are actually learning all the time. Each and every millisecond of every day of your life you are receiving and processing information; most of the time without even realizing it. Thousands of physiological processes are occurring within you as you read this sentence. Most are occurring automatically; partially due to the body's attempt to maintain homeostasis, partially due to routines (habits) you have learned during your lifetime to the point of automaticity, and possibly a few processes you actually gave thought to. I'm guessing you didn't have much trouble reading and comprehending the previous sentence in less than only a few seconds. This would mean that most likely you didn't have to read each letter, or symbol if you will, individually to recognize and recall its meaning and context from memory in just milliseconds of time.

In general, cognitive psychologists profess learning to be a physiological modification to the brain. In theoretical terms it is a schema modification in long-term memory. To a neuroscientists this would mean adding, changing, or pruning neural pathways in the brain. It really depends on the point of view that you are coming from. The behaviorist camp would describe behavior as an observable change in behavior. Mayer (2011) writes that  "learning is a change in knowledge attributable to experience" (p. 14).

Defining Learning

Let's start with the standard dictionary definition of learning: "A persisting change in human performance or performance potential" (Driscoll, 2005, p. 9).

"Learning is a change in knowledge attributable to experience"
Mayer (2011). Applying the Science of Learning.

The Processes of Learning

  • Sensation = Reception of input stimuli
  • Perception - Recognition of input stimuli
  • Learning = Encoding of input information
  • Memory = Retrieval of input information
  • Thinking = Manipulation of perceived, learned, and remembered information
    (Mayer, 1992, p. 8)

"Learning is a change in human disposition or capability that persists over a period of time and is not simply ascribable to processes of growth" (Gagné, 1985, p.2).

Throughout history many of civilization's great thinkers have dedicated much of their lifetime learning how to learn and how to analyze human thinking and how it relates to interactions with their environment in order to answer the question "what is learning?" Defining learning is tricky; there are a lot of theories and even empirically researched studies demonstrating connections between learning events and learning outcomes. The differences when it comes to learning is the theoretical perspective one has about learning. If you are a behaviorist then learning requires an observable outcome. If you are a cognitivist then learning changes knowledge in the learner which can be inferred from behavior (Mayer, 2011). I'm reminded of the old adage "perfect practice makes perfect," this saying says a lot about the bigger picture of learning which some would contend involves cognition, affection, and conation. This definition describes a learning outcome as well as the conditions which need to exist for an optimal learning experience to occur. Hence the use of the modifier perfect with practice instead of just practice. Ultimately, we should critically analyze every thought or situation and apply the best informed behavior toward it each and every time; assessing the consequences and advancing towards a more evolved solution with every attempt. The key to that last statement is that we must apply the "best informed behavior," as these are three important concepts of learning. First, it seems clear that most agree that learning is always an attempt to modify behavior whether done consciously or subconsciously and whether it's done intentionally or not. At some point our mind receives input, records it, evaluates it, and adapts to it. This might be displayed in the form of observable behavior or it might not, but undeniably learning is a physiological adjustment of behavior. Second, the behavior must be informed behavior, meaning one should not just flip a coin to make a decision. This is where experience comes into play. If the experience is a first time encounter with a particular stimulus it must be analyzed to see if it matches up with anything already stored in memory. So being informed is being experienced and knowledgeable about a particular artifact or event. Finally, you need to determine what to do with the input. Theoretically you will make the best decision for you. That is to say that ultimately most people's decisions are influenced by their own self-interest (Smith, A., The Wealth of Nations, 1776). However, for various psychological reasons, you may make a choice that is not best for you, but is best for someone else or some other group of people, plants, or things. You could even make a decision that makes no sense at all; if done so repeatedly the psychological diagnosis would be that you are clinically insane. Decision motivators then fall into one of four categories: self-centered, altruistic, coerced, or insane.

When it comes to learning there is also some debate about the question of nature or nurture. Nature refers to your biological makeup and some argue that you are born the way you are and that your genetic composition will dictate your fate in life. To some extent this is true, your genes will most likely determine your eventual height, the color of your eyes and hair, and whether you will eventually go bald or not. Nurture refers to the environmental influences including that of your parents, your peers, where you live, mass media exposure, even if or where you go to church will sway the way you act and think. These environmental influences won't change the natural color of your eyes or your hair and unless you take up smoking or eat in an unhealthy manner, it most likely won't hinder the height you grow to. A reasonable person should see that neither nature nor nurture exclusively impacts our lives, instead it is a combination of both influences that shape who we are and why we are the way we are. Gagné says "once a person's genetic stock has been chosen at the moment of conception, growth cannot be altered very much, except by extreme measures. But members of human society, which itself is responsible for the care of a developing person, have a tremendous degree of control over events that effect learning" (1985, p. 1).

Essentially, in human beings, learning occurs when the human body receives stimuli  physiologically via our senses or chemically by way of the central nervous system as we experience the millisecond by millisecond activities of everyday life. In order for it to be actual learning, the result of processing the stimuli needs to change our behavior. The change some would say must be observable, but others argue that we can learn metacognitively as well and neither a metacognitive process nor it's resultant behavior would necessarily be observable. Another shortcoming of this definition is that it does not indicate that the learning is either beneficial or deep. Which is why learning has been defined by researchers who study learning as stimulus processing which alters behavior in a positive way. This definition of learning is generally how most people think about learning. In this general statement of the meaning there is no mention of education. Education is considered to be induced learning as opposed to experiential learning where you are constantly adapting to the environmental and social interactions around you.


"From an evolutionary perspective, there are two categories of human knowledge: biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge (Geary, 2007, 2008). Biologically primary knowledge is knowledge we have evolved to acquire over many generations. Examples are general problem-solving techniques, recognizing faces, engaging in social relations, and listening to and speaking our native language. Primary knowledge is modular in that we have independent, cognitive modules that allow us to acquire the relevant knowledge unconsciously, effortlessly, and without external motivation simply by membership in human society. . . Biologically secondary knowledge is culturally dependent. We have evolved to acquire such knowledge in a general sense rather than having evolved to acquire particular knowledge modules such as speaking" (Plass, Moreno, & Brünken, 2010, pp. 29-31).

Our Goal

There may not be any perfected system yet, but the goal of this book and its supporting Web site is focused around giving you the proper tools and the knowledge needed to tackle any instructional situation. We are going to introduce you to the Art of Instruction.