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Approach to Teaching Large Classes:
Overview of learning theory

All faculty are experts in their research fields.  However, when it comes to teaching, few are familiar with current theories of how people learn or with teaching and learning methods that are designed to maximize learning based on these theories.  As a result, most faculty approach teaching exactly the way they were taught. 

Familiarity with the general ideas of learning theory can help inform faculty as they begin or try to improve their teaching.  Instructors can better understand how their students learn and, perhaps, structure classes to improve students' learning outcomes.  Faculty in Chemistry, English, Pharmacy, Electrical Engineering or any other department would never rely on outdated practices or shaky theories in their academic pursuits.  Likewise, faculty should build their classroom teaching efforts on solid, tested learning theories and practices now available.

In 1999 the National Research Council published How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Academy Press, Washington DC).  This book was authored by a committee of scholars from the areas of psychology, education, physics, and mathematics; the book includes 60 pages of references.  How People Learn is available free online at http://books.nap.edu/html/howpeople1, or it can be purchased.  Another excellent reference is an article by Richard E. Mayer, Cognition and Instruction: Their Historic Meeting Within Educational Psychology (J. Educ. Psych., volume 84, 1992, pages 405-412).  Key points from both of these works are summarized here.


  • Learning Theories: scholarly ideas, often based on tested research, that describe how students learn.
  • Instructional Theory/Pedagogy/Teaching Methodology: prescriptive practices and methods of instruction used by teachers to induce learning in students.  These practices may or may not be research-tested or consistent with Learning Theories.


According to Mayer, educational psychology and theories of learning have grown during the twentieth century. 

  • In the first stage (early twentieth century), learning is considered "response acquisition": reward correct answers, punish wrong answers (Pavlov's dog). 
  • In the second stage (mid-twentieth century), learning is considered "knowledge acquisition": he who knows the most facts wins.
  • In the third (most current) stage, learning is considered "knowledge construction": it's not the facts, it's what you do with them, that counts.
  • The first educational psychologists looked for one theory or paradigm to describe learning in all contexts. 
  • Modern educational psychologists recognize that learning theories may be different for different fields.


True learning changes the brain.  The number and the variability of the connections of synapses in the brain increase in environments of learning.  (Synapses are the connections between cells in the brain.)

  • The physical structure of the brain changes.
  • The way the brain is organized changes.
  • Different parts of the brain learn at different rates.


How does it work?  Results from neuroscience and educational psychology research suggest that

  • Memory is active, not passive.  The brain immediately attempts to order new information.  The brain tries to fit that information into pre-existing memories and patterns of those memories.
  • Memory occurs in different locations in the brain
  • There are different types of memory: memory for facts and events vs. memory for skills.
  • Memory of real and false events (or word) occurs in the same place in the brain. 

Experts versus novices:

Question: We get it; why don't they?  Answer: Experts and novices learn differently and apply new knowledge differently in the field of expertise.

  • Memory 1: Experience counts.  Experts have pre-existing memories, and memory patterns, in which to fit new ideas.  Novices don't. 
  • Memory 2: Experts' knowledge is organized according to the precepts of that content, and the content whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  That is, experts remember content not as isolated facts or events but as part of a whole.
  • Experts retrieve facts and events without needing to 'pay attention.'   Novices recall facts and events sequentially,
  • The timing of fact retrieval varies for experts and novices.  Novices recall facts sequentially, equally spaced in time.  Experts recall facts or events in a fluently, because those facts are linked.
  • Experts retrieve facts more efficiently than novices because experts' knowledge is contextualized.

Transferring Knowledge: The Holy Grail of Education

  • Initial Mastery: If you don't learn it to begin with, you can't transfer the knowledge.
  • Learning concepts that are tied strongly to one specific environment limits knowledge transfer.  Good cooks are not necessarily good chemists - and vice versa.
  • Transfer of knowledge is already happening any time new knowledge is acquired because the new knowledge must fit in with the old.
  • Meaningful time-on-task is vital to learning that can be transferred.
  • Transfer of knowledge is active, not passive.

To conclude, all learning is active even if that learning occurs in a passive environment.  Previous learning is crucial to acquiring new knowledge.  The single most important prerequisite for learning is the active participation of the learner.  Thus, the primary goal of teaching should be getting the learner to actively participate in the process.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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