How Students Learn

By Joan Rooney,’s Vice President of Instruction

The educational world has increasingly looked to neuroscience to expand our knowledge on what actually happens in the brain when students learn. Learning involves growing brain connections. Some key points are:

  • how students learnLearners need to be able to connect new information to something they already know. In other words, new material must connect to existing “material” in the brain.
  • Learners who engage with the material are more likely to retain that information.
  • Use it or lose it – it’s true.
  • The more ways something is learned, the more memory pathways are built.

What are the ramifications of these ideas for our work with students?

Our goal is to encourage and support the student in understanding and seeing the relevance of the concept with which he or she is struggling. We encourage our students to relate this material to something they already know, whether that be a similar type of problem, concept or life experience.
We also engage the student with the learning by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • What do you think we are trying to solve here?
  • Why do you think you should take that step?
  • What do you think would happen if…,
  • What if we looked at it this way?
  • How could we test your idea, solution, theory?

Each time the student articulates information about the topic, the student is reflecting and processing information. This is a good thing!

We also use all of the tools at our disposal to help the student. Drawings and diagrams on the whiteboard, chat, the use of web resources with pictures, manipulatives, varying colors – any of these might resonate with the student’s particular style of learning.

5 Responses to How Students Learn

  1. Henry Lane October 25, 2012 at 4:45 PM #

    “Learners need to be able to connect new information to something they already know. In other words, new material must connect to existing ‘material’ in the brain.” This is especially important for students who are having trouble grasping a subject outside of their comfort zone. I remember a math teacher who taught simplifying radicals by using a house analogy and that whenever 2 numbers were paired up were allowed to go outside of the house (radical sign) and those not in a pair had to stay “inside” the house. After approaching radicals this way, the entire class performed better on the section overall.

  2. Ann Conolly October 23, 2012 at 11:11 AM #

    Every student has a different learning technique and the trick is not to generalise them. However in a classroom setting it is not possible to cater to each student’s learning needs. So, a universal approach like visuals, to leave a long impact, might work well in such cases. Relating what is being taught to general everyday stories is also a helpful idea.

  3. EonlineTutors October 12, 2012 at 2:59 AM #

    Teaching student in a way he wants would be very effective and that will definitely bring out the positive results. Teaching can be made interesting by adding some multimedia aids in it.

  4. Dr. Fred Young October 10, 2012 at 2:06 PM #

    It is so important to teach to a student’s learning style. Open ended questions help to do that. The questions may have to be reframed from student to student. “What if we looked at it this way?” might have to be couched as “What if we felt about it this way?” for kinesthetics, for example.

  5. John Stanton October 4, 2012 at 11:38 AM #

    I agree that open-ended questions help students to learn new material. However, as Appleton points out, real students all have very different ways of learning new material and interacting with the world around them.

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