Learning Better Blog | How to learn


Learn how to Learn

By ACS Distance Education on November 16, 2022 in How to Learn Better | comments

Learning is a process – it’s more than simply memorising and reciting facts. It’s about gathering knowledge, then learning how to work with that knowledge to analyse situations and apply what we know to: 

  • solve problems
  • build new things
  • create experiences
  • teach others.

The process of learning is an essential part of our everyday experience. Every new habit we form, from birth to adulthood, is the result of a learning process. A child learns to identify its parents, to cry for their attention, to love them, to fear the neighbour’s dog, etc. They also learn how to control their bladder, to respond to verbal instructions and to derive people’s meanings from interactions. Even talking is a learned skill.

How well we learn each of these skills varies according to many factors, including environment and genetics. Children with insecure attachments to their caregivers, for whom crying does not result in care and attention, have different learning experiences to children with secure attachments to their caregivers, for whom crying does result in attention and care. These differences can create a long-term neurological difference in learning patterns and behaviour. Similarly, neurodiverse people and people may interpret non-verbal cues in social interactions differently, which affects their social learning, and people with learning differences learn best with different, or mixed, ways of presenting information. In short, there is no single way to learn, because there are so many ways that people differ, and so many ways this affects how information is taken in.

It’s a common misconception that the ability to learn is closely related to the process of memory. While memory contributes to the act of learning, it is not the sole factor that determines an individual’s ability to learn. Indeed, there are learning differences, such as dyslexia, which can affect working memory – with appropriate adaptations and adjustments, individuals can be empowered to succeed at learning. This is because true learning revolves around one’s ability to integrate knowledge into experience and apply it – simply recalling facts is not enough. Some people may integrate knowledge through factual recall and use this to help them arrive at a set of principles; others may integrate knowledge through learning principles, and use the principles to help them work out solutions. 

In other words, learning involves the capacity to adapt one’s mind and behaviour to the task.

There are different ways of approaching learning, and different learning needs, but some consistent principles for most students. These include:

  • relating ideas to existing experience
  • active retrieval
  • problem solving and feedback
  • learning in context
  • spaced learning
  • motivation

Relating ideas to existing experience

Learning new concepts can be challenging, even for the most enthusiastic students. When a student can relate new ideas to familiar ideas, concepts, or experience, it becomes easier for the student to understand the content and begin to internalise it, until they ultimately integrate it into their knowledge model. Having an existing framework for new knowledge and ideas also makes it easier for students to commit new learning to memory.

Active retrieval

It’s a common misconception that the only way to effectively learn new material is to simply drill it over and over with repetition. In the past, many teachers thought this was necessary to build fluency. Twenty-first century research, however, shows that the process of active retrieval is far more effective than this “skill and drill” model.
In active retrieval, students learn the material, and are then given multiple opportunities to actively recall and apply that learning. When asked to recall the learning, the students have to think about their knowledge, what it means, and how best to use it

Students learn about the role of coral reefs as barriers and how they are instrumental in protecting shorelines against flooding. 
Later, they complete an exercise that asks them to list four key ecological functions of a coral reef; this helps cement their original learning. 
At another time, they are asked to complete another task wherein they must sketch a shoreline and label its features, then write two paragraphs explaining how the shoreline is related to the prevalence of damage from natural disasters. 

Finally, students are asked to participate in a discussion about the economic value of coral reefs, and part of the discussion raises that the protection reefs offer from flooding saves townships a significant amount of money in terms of preventable damage. 

This series of exercises after learning gives students the opportunity to recall their learning and practice applying it, which helps cement it. 

Problem solving and feedback

Problem solving is an essential part of learning. It helps develop analytical and critical thinking skills, both of which are higher order learning skills.

It’s difficult for students to learn how to solve problems without help. Skilled teachers help students learn to solve problems by providing scaffolds, i.e., examples and frameworks that outline the steps in solving a simple problem. Once students have learnt to follow the steps, they begin to solve problems on their own. At this point, teachers give the students feedback, helping them identify where they need help and suggesting places for improvement.
This becomes a dialogue between the student and the teacher, where they both work together to help the student learn. Eventually, the student is presented with increasingly complex problems – this earlier dialogue process has helped them develop the skills needed to work out the best way to solve problems on their own.

One of the key components of the problem solving process is to remember that problem solving generally hinges on principles, not facts. Many students start out looking at problems only in the context of facts. While it’s important to understand what is known, this often acts as a trap – they become bogged down in the idea of what is known, instead of looking at the principles that underpin the problem. This is important: looking at the principles that define the problem, and that define the concept, is most often the most effective way to solve a problem.

Learning in context

In a learning setting, students are often given information out of context, or in a “perfect” situation. This can make it very hard to transfer learning and knowledge to the real world. The best courses, programs, and teachers ensure that students have opportunities to learn in context by

  • presenting real world scenarios via problem-based learning
  • encouraging students to get out and network with industry professionals
  • providing practical tasks for building a portfolio of work, collection of resource files, or similar.

Seeing problems in context makes it much easier for students to recognise many of the nuances of a problem that are harder to see in a classroom or via a textbook, and then think about how to apply their learning in a realistic manner. 

Many courses on education focus on the theory of teaching, including how to write worksheets, and assessments. Some courses talk about how to encourage learners and deal with so-called “problem learners”. Yet very few education courses provide practical advice on behaviour management in a classroom setting, i.e., how to set and manage expectations for how students should behave, and what to do when the class as a whole is misbehaving. Many programs expect that people studying education will learn these skills during their practicum. However, the lack of actual clear instruction makes this quite difficult – even when out actually in a classroom learning from another educator, many beginners don’t officially learn how to manage a classroom because there’s no “set way” to teach it, no framework, no context.

A skilled educator who understands how to teach new educators, however, is aware of this problem, and will prepare their students for this reality by providing them with real world scenarios like:
It’s Monday, first class of the day, and your class is out of sorts. Everyone’s energy is down, and when you ask the class to open their textbooks, they keep talking instead of listening. How do you bring the class to order?
By presenting this scenario during learning time, the educator lets the student explore potential ideas in context. They can then offer feedback drawing on their experience, and the two can dialogue about ways the student can best solve the problem.

Spaced learning

Spaced learning is a technique in which students are taught the material at one time, then given a break. They then revisit the material again at a later date, to help reinforce it. This process continues over the term of the course or the program. Most times, the material is simply revisited as a new, related concept is introduced, as a type of reminder. This stands in contrast to assuming prior knowledge.
Spaced learning is quite effective because it asks the student to retrieve information over and over again. It is, however, separate from active retrieval because it isn’t asking the student to apply the learning.


Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from outside the student, e.g., the student wants to please someone else, or they are taking the course because it’s a job requirement. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from within the student, e.g., because the student loves the subject or loves learning. Students who love to learn are much more engaged in the learning process, and are generally more active learners.

Choosing what to study

Not all schools, teachers or courses are the same. Some focus on assessing the student and awarding a qualification -but that's not what learning is.

Some are all about the learning, and offer diversity and depth of learning along a well designed learning pathway. That journey is led by people who understand not just what is being taught, but also understand educational psychology and how to properly engage with and motivate the learner.  This is what we do through our courses at ACS Distance Education.