How People Learn

How do people learn? 

There’s a lot of information out there, so it’s difficult to filter out the myths from the facts on how to best facilitate learning. It’s a seemingly simple question – how do people learn? – with an intricately complicated answer. Educational psychology and behavioural and cognitive sciences attempt to guide pedagogy using scientific methodology – evidence-based approaches to identify and promote successful teaching strategies. The most effective strategies I’ve considered as part of my teaching toolbox are:

Teacher-Centred Approach

The teacher is the main authority figure. The students are there to learn through lectures and direct instruction, and the focus is mainly on passing tests and assessments. A teachers’ role in this approach is to pass on the knowledge and information needed to their students. Even using this approach, you can still use technology to teach.

Direct Instruction

Related to teacher-centred approach, direct instruction is used to define traditional teaching, which includes lectures and teacher-led demonstrations. The idea is that only the teacher can give students the knowledge and information they need to succeed.

Student-Centred Approach

In this approach, the teacher is still the authority figure, but the student plays an active role in what is learned. The idea is that the teacher will advise and guide the students down a learning path. Assessment involves informal and formal methods – tests, group projects, portfolios, and class participation. The teacher continues to assess a student’s learning even throughout the lesson. The students are learning the information the teacher is giving, and the teacher is learning how best to approach his students. There are two subcategories in this approach – inquiry-based learning and cooperative learning.

Inquiry-Based Learning

This teaching style focuses on letting the student explore and actively participate in learning. Rather than being a dictator, the teacher is more of a guide, giving the students advice and supporting their efforts. Students are expected to participate and play an active role in their own learning. The Ontario Ministry of Education documents Growing Success and Learning for All outline this approach as teaching for, of, and as learning.

Cooperative Learning

The idea behind this kind of teaching style is community. Much of the work in the classroom is group projects, and the students are responsible for their own learning and development. The theory behind this style of teaching is that students learn best when interacting with their peers.


Teaching is an art, and it’s ultimately within the teacher’s judgment on the style they adopt. Their judgment is best informed through experience and an understanding of the related psychological aspects. The book, Powerful Learning by Ronald Brandt, further explores the cognitive science related to how students learn. The principles in this infographic are drawn from that book.

How People Learn

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