How People Learn: “Learning Styles” and Memory

posted in: How People Learn | 1

How do you learn best? By watching, listening, doing? You likely have a preference. You might even refer to that preference as your personal “learning style,” a concept that states each unique brain learns things in a unique way.

The truth is, though, that individuals are more alike than they are different because human brain development is very consistent.

And in fact, learning styles have been debunked, over and over! Yours truly even has a Twitter dedicated to making up absurd learning styles.

Anyhow! I don’t wish to completely pop anyone’s bubble, because teaching content in a variety of ways is a great way to mix up teaching and help learners remain engaged. Universal Design for Learning principles dictate that course content should be provided in a variety of formats for learners to choose from, and assignments should have options as well.

There are also subjects for which teaching in a certain way is the best way to learn it – for instance, no one is going to learn to perform complex mathematical equations just by watching someone do them. This is a topic in which learners need to be completely hands-on, to practice over and over.

In fact, the only “learning style” that is a real thing is active, hands-on practice. Without doing, there is no learning!

Learning experiences are effective when learners are active and engaged. And feedback is critical to the learning process!

Memory and Learning

The words “active and engaged” are worth repeating. Learners have to be paying attention to be able to learn. Learners have to be motivated to pay attention.

Here’s an overly simplified model of how the brain works:

Box containing text "short-term memory" has an arrow pointing to box with text "long-term memory." There is also an arrow pointing to the arrow between boxes, with a note "where learning happens"

I spared no expense on this graphic – you’re welcome!

Learning is a process. The learner takes in information, briefly stores and works on it in short-term memory, but the real work is done when the information is transferred to long-term memory. Motivation and attention paired with active learning help learners transfer new knowledge from short-term to long-term knowledge.

Short-term memory is used for active, readily available information you retain temporarily (no longer than one minute). It holds the information you are thinking about or are aware of at any given moment

It’s also know as:

  • Short term storage
  • Temporary memory
  • Primary memory
  • Working memory

Short-term memory does two things:

  • Stores new information briefly
  • Works on that (and other) information

There is a “magic number” of things that the average learner is able to work on at one time in short-term memory. Most people can only store about 7 things in short-term memory, plus or minus two. Think about your to-do list, phone numbers, addresses – you can’t hold on to too much at once! Oftentimes I can hardly remember what I went into the next room to get! That’s a function of how short-term this memory is.

This means that short-term memory is extremely limited, and educators and instructional designers need to account for that in their designs.

Make your design simple so that learners can focus on the task at hand! Build in motivation and opportunities to engage with the content.

Next time, we’ll talk about cognitive load, and specific strategies to help your learners focus on the learning!