top of page

What is Learning?

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

What are the definitions of Learning?

  1. “A change in human disposition or capability that persists over a period of time and is not simply ascribable to processes of growth.” — From The Conditions of Learning by Robert Gagne

  2. “Learning is the relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behavior due to experience. This definition has three components: 1) the duration of the change is long-term rather than short-term; 2) the locus of the change is the content and structure of knowledge in memory or the behavior of the learner; 3) the cause of the change is the learner’s experience in the environment rather than fatigue, motivation, drugs, physical condition or physiologic intervention.” –From Learning in Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Richard E. Mayer

  3. “We define learning as the transformative process of taking in information that—when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced—changes what we know and builds on what we do. It’s based on input, process, and reflection. It is what changes us.” –From The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner

  4. “It has been suggested that the term learning defies precise definition because it is put to multiple uses. Learning is used to refer to (1) the acquisition and mastery of what is already known about something, (2) the extension and clarification of meaning of one’s experience, or (3) an organized, intentional process of testing ideas relevant to problems. In other words, it is used to describe a product, a process, or a function.” –From Learning How to Learn: Applied Theory for Adults by R.M. Smith

  5. “Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.” (Listen to an interview with one of the authors.) From Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

  6. “A process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential of improved performance and future learning.” From How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose, et al.

  7. “The process of gaining knowledge and expertise.” From The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles

  8. “Learning involves strengthening correct responses and weakening incorrect responses. Learning involves adding new information to your memory. Learning involves making sense of the presented material by attending to relevant information, mentally reorganizing it, and connecting it with what you already know.” From eLearning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth C. Clark and Richard E. Mayer

  9. “A persisting change in human performance or performance potential…[which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world.” From Psychology of Learning for Instruction by M. Driscoll

  10. “Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.” From Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by George Seimens

Learning is “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning” (Ambrose et al, 2010, p.3).

The change in the learner may happen at the level of knowledge, attitude, or behaviour. As a result of learning, learners come to see concepts, ideas, and/or the world differently.

Learning is not something done to students, but rather something students themselves do. It is the direct result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences.

While there are disciplinary differences in what students learn, it is important to keep in mind that learning content or information constitutes only one part of learning in school. Regardless of the field of study, students need to have significant opportunities to develop and practice intellectual skills/thinking processes (e.g. problem-solving, scientific inquiry), motor skills, and attitudes/values that are important to their fields of study. In addition, students need opportunities to develop interpersonal and social skills (often referred to as soft skills) that are important for professional and personal success. Examples of these skills include teamwork, effective communication, conflict resolution, and creative thinking. As teaching assistants and instructors, we need to keep in mind that there is much more to learning than content and that we should pay attention not only to the content but also to thinking processes and other types of learning.

Learning is a process that:

  1. is active - a process of engaging and manipulating objects, experiences, and conversations in order to build mental models of the world (Dewey, 1938; Piaget, 1964; Vygotsky, 1986). Learners build knowledge as they explore the world around them, observe and interact with phenomena, converse and engage with others, and make connections between new ideas and prior understandings.

  2. builds on prior knowledge - and involves enriching, building on, and changing existing understanding, where “one’s knowledge base is a scaffold that supports the construction of all future learning” (Alexander, 1996, p. 89).

  3. occurs in a complex social environment - and thus should not be limited to being examined or perceived as something that happens on an individual level. Instead, it is necessary to think of learning as a social activity involving people, the things they use, the words they speak, the cultural context they’re in, and the actions they take (Bransford, et al., 2006; Rogoff, 1998), and that knowledge is built by members in the activity (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006).

  4. is situated in an authentic context - provides learners with the opportunity to engage with specific ideas and concepts on a need-to-know or want-to-know basis (Greeno, 2006; Kolodner, 2006).

  5. requires learners’ motivation and cognitive engagement to be sustained when learning complex ideas, because considerable mental effort and persistence are necessary.

The conditions for inputs to learning are clear, but the process is incomplete without making sense of what outputs constitute learning has taken place. At the core, learning is a process that results in a change in knowledge or behavior as a result of experience. Understanding what it takes to get that knowledge in and out (or promote behavioral change of a specific kind) can help optimize learning.

George Roberts at Robert Gordon University runs a workshop on designing and supporting learning:

Learning is any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change and which is not solely due to biological maturation of ageing.

Learning involves ongoing, active processes of inquiry, engagement, and participation in the world around us (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000). We do it from the moment we’re born and it takes place in schools, beyond those walls, and throughout our lives. Regardless of ability or background, everyone has the potential to learn. Learning experiences literally shape the brain. So, it’s important to know our abilities are not fixed, but continuously developing (Hinton, Fischer, and Glennon, 2012, p. 4). Lifelong learning should be seen as the foundation of an effective school, an active community, and a fulfilled and meaningful life.

Researchers, teachers, policymakers, and parents have typically judged the success of learning in terms of how much knowledge a student had acquired. Today, it’s understood the quality of knowledge is just as important as the amount one can possess (De Corte, 2010, Linn, 2005).

There was also a time when learning was understood as a linear process, a progression through different ages and stages. Today, researchers and educators see growth, development, and learning as a more dynamic system (Fischer and Heikkinen, 2010, p. 260). It’s influenced by neurology, psychology, social and cultural factors. Learning is adaptive – we build new knowledge and skills on the basis of what we already know (De Corte, 2010). Research has also shown the changes that underlie learning in the brain do not occur when learning experiences are not active (Hinton, Fischer, and Glennon, 2012, p. 5). We learn best by acting on, thinking, and actually participating in the world.

Learning solely through the direct transfer of information, then, needs to be replaced with a focus on the active construction of knowledge (Fischer and Heikkinen, 2010, p. 253). This involves work that is meaningful, has a necessary depth of study, and assesses students’ deep understanding rather than factual memory (Bransford et al., 2000). The task has an authenticity and a sense that what’s being accomplished in the classroom is real work that “reflects the living realities of the discipline being taught” (Friesen and Jardine, 2011). When students and teachers pose guiding questions, problems, or tasks that professionals in the field would recognize as important, they can work and learn from experts towards responses and performances of learning that are meaningful, sophisticated, and powerful.

Students must be able to work creatively to generate new ideas, theories, products, and knowledge. They must gain the competencies required to fully participate in and make meaningful contributions locally, provincially, nationally, and globally – not for someday in the future, but now (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 5).

Investing time and effort in practicing problem-solving and extending knowledge are among the most important factors influencing the success of learning (Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer, 1993). But achievement is more than a function of ability (Dweck, 2006). Other drivers of achievement include motivation (the will to learn), metacognition (understanding how to learn), and resilience (the stamina for lifelong learning). An understanding of how these factors develop is useful for all learners (Hinton, 2005).

There are many theories and so-called success stories on how learning should be conducted in the classroom. Some self-proclaimed experts say students can become competent without investing serious time and effort if only the teaching was more fun, more brain-adequate, more computer-based, or if it occurred earlier in life. None of these claims is justified by the results of empirical research (Schneider and Stern, 2010). What we do know is that knowledge is multi-faceted. There is knowledge about abstract concepts, about how to efficiently solve routine problems, knowledge about how to master complex and dynamic problem situations, knowledge about learning strategies, knowledge about how to regulate one’s own emotions, and so forth. All these factor in contributing to a person’s overall competence (De Corte, 2010).

Further reading

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017) Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659–701.

Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (2017) Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory, 25(6), 764–771.

Allen, B. and Sims, S. (2018) The Teacher Gap. Abingdon: Routledge. Baddeley, A. (2003) Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature reviews neuroscience, 4(10), 829-839.

Berliner, D. C. (2008). Research, policy, and practice: the great disconnect. In S. D. Lapan & M. T. Quartaroli (Eds.), Research Essentials: An Introduction to Designs and Practices (pp. 295–326). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009) Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5-31.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Bransford, J., Stevens, R., Schwartz, D., Meltzoff, A., Roschelle, J., Vye, N., … Pea, R. (2006). Learning Theories and Education: Towards a decade of synergy. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 209–244). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Chi, M. T. (2009) Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 89-110). Routledge.

Clark, R., Nguyen, F. & Sweller, J. (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. John Wiley & Sons.

Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

De Corte, E. (1995). Learning theory and instructional science. In P. Reimann & H. Spada (Eds.), Learning in Humans and Machines: Towards an Interdisciplinary Learning Science (1st ed., pp. 97–108). Oxford, U.K.: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

De Corte, E. (2007). Learning from instruction: the case of mathematics. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 19–30.

De Corte, E. (2010). Historical developments in the understanding of learning. In H. Dumont, D. Istance, & F. Benavides (Eds.), The Nature of Learning: Using research to inspire practice (pp. 35–68). OECD Publishing. Retrieved from

Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Accessible from: .

Depaepe, F., De Corte, E., & Verschaffel, L. (2007). Unraveling the culture of the mathematics classroom: A video-based study in sixth grade. International Journal of Educational Research, 46(5), 266–279.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58. .

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from:

Eisner, E. W. (2001). The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.

Fischer, K. W., & Heikkinen, K. (2010). The Future of Educational Neuroscience. In D. A. Sousa (Ed.), Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom (1st ed., p