How we learn: the learning process

Introduction to the learning process

If anyone has ever urged you to learn from their mistakes, how keenly have you followed their advice, if at all? Some psychologists advocate letting children make their own mistakes because warning a child by imparting information or received wisdom certainly has its limits.[1] The same might be observed for many adults too. If somebody is curious about something, it is likely that they will want to find out for themselves, to learn by doing, even if that means they encounter problems or even 'fail' along the way. Even then, learning from our own mistakes can be a time consuming process without anything guidance or structure.

Rather than regarding learners as receptacles, where information is imparted and then stored in the brain, this article explores the latest thinking on exactly how we learn. In particular, it draws on the work of Anderson and Schunn which advocates a procedural approach to learning[2] as well as the latest thinking on neuro-biology and how the brain works. These theories develop the notion of learning by doing to learning by example or imitation – something which has been shown to be a far more effective way of learning across the academic spectrum.


imitate1How we learn has been the subject of much interest and debate over many years within the field of academia, particularly those within the fields of psychology and education. Students learning how to teach are availed of numerous learning modes or styles as part of their studies. One model, by Honey and Mumford, outlines four different typologies of learners: activists, who prefer doing and experimenting; reflectors, who prefer to observe and reflect; theorists, who want to understand theories, concepts and relationships, and pragmatists, those who like to experiment and 'have a go' in seeing how things work.[3] Other learning models, such as the one proposed by Kolb, operate along similar lines. The lexicon used to describe the various methods of learning is different – concrete experience;reflective observationabstract conceptualisation and active experimentation[4] – but broadly speaking these mimic the learning styles proposed by Honey and Mumford and others.[5]

Such categorisations can be useful in understanding the various way we learn; however, they can also lead us into a way of thinking which is not always helpful. When presented with an entirely plausible diagram and a choice of four options, learners can fall into the trap of choosing just one option – I'm an activist because I like to experiment, or I'm a theorist because I like to see how things are connected. It seems unlikely that life is that straightforward: different contexts call for different approaches and rather than compartmentalising the different ways we learn, a broader perspective might be adopted instead.

Alternative perspectives have been proposed by academics such as Siegler and Jenkins who found that children used up to four different strategies when adding two single digit numbers.[6] The children either guessed, retrieved it from memory, counted up from the higher of the two numbers or simply held up their fingers and counted them. The study showed that many children switched strategies as they moved from task to task. Reder and Ritter found that when they performed similar studies with adults, again, many learners would switch strategies across a variety of tasks.[7] Across both studies, it was found that different strategies were used depending on the complexity of the task. How we learn, therefore, is not drawn primarily from one mode, method or style of learning, but many.

ACT-R's Theory of Procedural Learning

Anderson's Theory of Procedural Learning is based on extensive research which explores how we learn from a mathematical perspective through a process which uses computer algorithms and programming to write recursive programmes. The research provides additional insight into understanding the processes behind cognitive functions and how we learn.

Anderson comments,

"… mathematics and computer programming [are] fields in which the capacity to come up with abstract solutions to problems is one ability that is frequently cited with almost mystical awe."[8]

It is easy to agree with Anderson's statement although it certainly follows that, if a theory is based on a series of processes, mathematics can indeed provide insight into what might otherwise be considered abstract ideas. His paper, "ACT. A Simple Theory of Complex Cognition" seems in itself to be a contradiction in terms; however, it is accurate given that the idea underpinning the mathematics is indeed simple. Anderson expresses this as follows:

IF the goal is to identify the recursive relationship in a function with a number argument

THEN set as sub-goals to

1. Find the value of the function for some N
2. Find the value of the function for N-1
3. Identify the relationship between the two answers[9]

Viewed from this perspective, learning can be regarded as a mathematical process which relies on learning from experience; comparing a previous experience to a new experience and identifying the difference between the two. This idea in itself is not new and has resonances of Hegel's triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. According to his theory, the thesis is the intellectual proposition, the antithesis is the negation of the thesis or a reaction to proposition and the synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths and forming a new proposition.[10]

Bearing Hegelian hallmarks, ACT-R's Theory of Procedural Learning proposes that procedural skills are acquired by making references to the solutions to past problems whilst actively trying to solve new problems. It is therefore a "theory of learning by doing and a theory of learning by example".[11] Anderson notes that simply providing learners with examples is in itself insufficient: these must be understood and then developed – and this requires practice.

A pitfall which many learners often fall into is practicing the wrong skills in the first place. Anderson and Schunn venture that in some instances, practice makes imperfect.[12] In order to learn in the most effective way, learners should be provided with explicit guidance in the form of relevant examples. Why this is the case moves beyond the field of mathematics and computer programming into the realm of neuro-science and understanding more clearly how the brain works when acquiring information.

Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys prompted neurological Scientist V.S Ramachandran to suggest it was so significant that:

"it will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments".[13]

Ramachandran speculates that mirror neurons are the driving force of evolution, responsible for 'mind-reading' empathy, imitation learning and language change.[14]

"Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds".[15]

Sierra supports Ramachandran's assertions and develops them in an article where she reflects on the notion that "angry/ negative people can be bad for the brain"[16] because we subconsciously mirror the people around us. Drawing on Ramachandran's argument she suggests that our mirror neurons have both a conscience and subconscious effect on our behaviour and even our language. Accents and dialects are quickly picked up – a sign mirror neurons might be in play – and whilst there may be no such thing as an average family, humans broadly act in similar ways to each other. Indeed, there is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the existence of mirror neurons in humans, from the belief that hanging around with the wrong crowd will have a bad influence to the advice sometimes dispensed to recovering alcoholics: fake it 'til you make it—a process which involves imitating everyday routines until they become established and ingrained in every day life. In addition, there seems to be something innately infectious about a big yawn, again – a sign perhaps that mirror neurons in operation. Additionally, the notion of 'learned behaviour' within psychology further supports the idea that mirror neurons are in operation in our brains.

Developing these idea further, Sierra cites mob behaviour, also known as crowd behaviour or crowd psychology, something of huge interest to psychologists dating back to Freud, all keen to understand what it is that makes people behave in a manner out of their usual 'character' amidst civil unrest and disorder.[17] The most recent example, and perhaps the best, is the London Riots of 2011 in which normally law abiding citizens took to the streets on a looting rampage which lasted over five days.[18] Rather than psychological phenomena, it may more reasonably be speculated to be neurological – mirror neurons activating and motivating individuals into imitating the behaviour of those around them. At the very least, it is an interesting legal defence!

Learning by Imitation in Academia

ImitationTo take advantage of the powerful mirror neurons in our frontal lobes, educators might reasonably be expected to draw on teaching processes which rely on providing examples for learners to imitate. Rather than this being regarded as a pioneering approach, however, educators of old will point out that learning by example and imitation was once a staple of the western education system.[19] In a journal article on reforming student writing, Butler notes that:

"many formal aspects of composition instruction have disappeared because they are associated with the much-derided "product" approach to writing, the cornerstone of a traditional rhetoric that has been apparently locked away for good".[20]

Imitation connotes little more than a mere copy, something stale and lacking individuality or creativity.

The rejection of learning by imitating examples is ironic considering that all kinds of writing are process-driven. A short story, for example, requires a condensed plot-line, a setting, characters, conflict and resolution, an essay requires a rigid structure, a formal tone and the passive voice. When setting various writing activities, educators will not exploit their learners' full potential if they provide check-lists such as these. How-to guides, without examples students can work with, limit potential and limit the overall outcome. Students who have no guidance whatsoever are expected to acquire the rules, as if by osmosis.

Butler underlines this argument by suggesting that "expectations are sometimes "hidden," that they remain invisible to students as we encourage them to explore their ideas and work within the process model of teaching".[21] He references Delpit who notes that:

"[although] intended to address the situation of minority students, this also applies to students in composition classes around the country".[22]

She goes on to claim that it is "the height of hypocrisy to use strictly process techniques when we expect high quality "products" from our students' writing"[23] and it is certainly true that a double standard is at play.

Graff and Berkenstein underline the point that writers routinely rely on a stock of established moves that are crucial for communicating sophisticated ideas.

"What makes writers masters of their trade is not only their ability to express interesting thoughts, but their mastery of an inventory of basic moves that they probably picked up by reading a wide range of other accomplished writers […] Less experienced writers, by contrast, are often unfamiliar with these basic moves, and unsure how to make them in their own writing".[24]

Graff and Berkenstein advocate providing templates to learners and, rather than stifling creativity, they found that learners who had previously struggled to express themselves performed better when given certain prompts.[25]

Butler notes that many composition scholars originally lodged complaints about imitation being rote and unchallenging. He explores the work of Bender who suggests, "Imitation is still tarred with epithets: `copying' or, worse still, `slavish copying'". Roberts alludes to imitation's undeserved reputation of being static when he defends the use of models against charges of constituting "mere" imitation. He makes this claim in stating that he designedWriting About Literature as a "rhetoric of practical criticism" for students:[26]

"I believe that true liberation in a liberal arts curriculum is achieved only through clearly defined goals. Just to make assignments and let students do with them what they can is to encourage frustration and mental enslavement. But if students develop a deep knowledge of specific approaches to subject material, they can begin to develop some of that expertise that is essential to freedom".[27]

The process of learning by being provided with examples is therefore much more than rote learning; the process behind the acquisition of the knowledge is being taught. It may more commonly be thought of as creating a pastiche, although this term in itself may be laden with value-judgements. Rather than regard learning by adopting such methods as old-hat, a fresh approach in academia might be to reintroduce imitation-based learning processes to mainstream education, especially considering the frequently aired complaints within academia of a general decline in standards.

Bridging the Gap

student-worriedA recently concluded 18-month research study, carried outCambridge Assessment, surveyed 633 academics across English Universities on a range of questions pertaining to student performance upon admission to University.[28]Many of the findings were surprising. Around 50 per cent of lecturers believed first year students were not prepared for the demands of higher education, and in most cases, academics said students struggled to write essays, use correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, study by themselves, carry out independent research and develop arguments.[29] Some six-in-10 said they had been forced to provide tuition in basic skills to enable new undergraduates to catch up and crash courses were most often provided in writing skills, particularly for students taking degrees in English. Other academics provided tuition in "independent learning", numeracy skills and basic subject-specific booster lessons.[30]

It is telling that most degree courses in the UK are structured so that the final classification of the degree is largely based on work produced by students in their third year of study. Typically, 75% of a student's final year work will count towards his or her degree, with the other 25% based on work assessed in his or her second year. Mathematics students will note, therefore, that nothing handed in during a student's first year at University will count towards their degree and this recognises that the gap between A' Level and Undergraduate work is not insignificant.

As well established and renowned as many Universities are, it is a cause for speculation whether they too contribute, in part, to the underperformance highlighted by the Cambridge Assessment study. Whilst the study notes that many Universities provide additional support for students, exactly what is being taught is arguably secondary to how it is being taught. Many undergraduate students are compelled to take a short elective on Research Skills or Research Methods when they first begin studying at University. Theories of argumentation are taught, course-readers are interpreted, many mysteries of the library are explained on a guided tour, but even this only goes so far.

Taking the analogy of cooking a meal for the first time by following a recipe, being provided with the right ingredients is only a part of the process. The ingredients must be prepared and the meal assembled in the right order: boiling the vegetables before the chicken goes in the oven will invariably lead to a waste of time and a waste of ingredients, not to mention either overcooked vegetables or undercooked chicken. Getting a recipe right is as much about the process as having the right ingredients, much in the same way that learners also need a process to follow if they want to be successful. Providing students with theories of argumentation or showing them how to access journals articles harks back to the notion that learners are receptacles which can be filled with knowledge: blank memory sticks on to which information can be copied and pasted.

Process-driven methodologies, where students are provided with examples to learn from, are perhaps even more derided at Undergraduate level, however. Such models apparently undermine the ethos of 'independent learning'[31]but, lacking the required ingredients to practice these skills in the first place, many first year undergraduates are left to go it alone and work things out for themselves, often by trial and error. Level 1 essays are often heavily critiqued for language problems, poor structures and inadequate referencing and although much of the blame is directed towards a general decline in educational standards, in the case of referencing (which is seldom required at A' Level) students are faced with something entirely new which they must work out for themselves.

If Anderson's Theory of Procedural Learning is accepted, that learning is process driven and relies on comparing examples and imitating those examples, and it is further accepted that we do possess powerful mirror neurons in the brain which drives the imitation process, it follows that we learn most effectively when we have examples to work from and with. An undergraduate working on her first essay, mindful that the reader recommends the inclusion of journal articles, may find an appropriate source – but with no experience of structuring this into her essay, she must either guess or find an example to guide her. Logically, this also follows. A best man writing his speech, having no prior experience in such matters, may find the pad remains blank with no guidance. Searching the internet for 'best man speeches' will ultimately provide the examples which can then be imitated – the basis of a structure and, returning to the food analogy – the key ingredients.

A controversial Channel 4 documentary screened in 2009, which explores the genetic links between race and intelligence, found that across American Universities the highest performing race were the Vietnamese and, particularly, Vietnamese women.[32] The documentary tested the assumption that genetics was in some way responsible but, upon further investigation, another reason was posited which was just as plausible as a genetic link. When looking at the studying habits of the Vietnamese women, it was notable that this group spent the longest amount of time together studying outside the classroom. Much more than independent learning, the group learned most effectively by learning from each other, each providing examples of their own to be shared and imitated.

Sharing and imitation may, for some, be terms which give cause for concern. To what extent is a piece of work original if it is the reworking of another? This is not an argument which stands up to reasoning, however. The best man looking up other best man's speeches cannot reasonably copy word for word someone else's speech – he is piecing together the conventions of the brand, the structure, the content, and adapting this for his own purposes. The student, tasked with writing her first undergraduate essay, is well advised not only to research her essay, but to also find out how such essays are commonly structured. This is not a symptom of a lack of originality, it is common sense.


getty_rr_photo_of_baby_talkingHow we learn, as a concept, is one which runs across academia: it is pertinent to every discipline, without exception. How we learn can be explored from the field of mathematics through the use of complex algorithms and may equally be explored from a psychological perspective, even a philosophical perspective. Theory gives rise to a lexicon and, notably, diagrams. How we learn, or what type of learners we are, can be labelled and—it is anticipated—more readily understood as a result. However, compartmentalising learning can also have its drawbacks if it leads us into thinking in ways which are too narrow.

ACT-R's Theory of Procedural Learning considers the learning process to be based on comparing experiences, using existing examples when considering new ones and reconciling the difference between the two. Anderson's theory, considered alongside the proposition of mirror neurons operating in the brain, raises many interesting and plausible arguments for a return to process-driven models, a methodology which is often derided, considered old fashioned and largely rejected by academics teaching across the education system today.

Common sense approaches of old certainly have their merit and, as noted, mimicking existing frameworks is something we all do throughout our lives, even if we do not always realise it.  Learning by trial and error, or by reinventing wheels can be a slow and timely process, a process increasingly unsuited to the demanding lifestyles of the modern day learner. Whether following a recipe, writing a best man's speech or drafting an undergraduate essay, following a process which involves learning by example, by following a model or aping an existing framework, is an effective way to learn, and far more effective than either being told what to do or being given no guidance at all.

Whether such thinking will catch on remains to be seen; however, learners the world throughout can make use of the theories explored in this paper by adapting their own learning methods. When researching assignments, the researching process ought not to end when the background reading on the topic has been completed: this provides just the ingredients. Instead, with the knowledge to hand, a process should be adopted which mimics existing examples or frameworks and thus teaches the form: a process which drives creation, not stifles it, and one which is more likely to produce work of a superior quality to that of its counterparts.


John R. Anderson, ACT. A Simple Theory of Complex Cognition. American Psychologist,1996, (51), pp. 355-365.

J.R. Anderson & C.D. Schunn, in R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in Instructional Psychology (Vol. 5). (New Jersey: Erlbaum, 2000).

BBC News, As It Happened: London Riots, 2011).

Paul Butler, Imitation as Freedom: (Re)Forming Student Writing. The Quarterly, (24) 2 (Spring 2002).

Channel 4, Race and Intelligence, Science's Last Taboo. (13 October 2009).

Dr. Peggy Drexler, Why It's Important To Let Your Child Make Mistakes, (September 2011).

Gerald Graff & Cathy Berkenstein, They Say/ I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academia. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, The Learning Style Helper's Guide. (Essex: Peter Honey Publications, 2006).

David A. Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 1984).

Charles Nelson, Learning with Examples, Notes on writing, teaching, and learning (online blog). (July 2006).

Graeme Paton, Spoon-fed' students given tuition in basic skills at university, The Daily Telegraph (online), (April 2012).

V.S. Ramachandran, Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind "the Great Leap Forward" in Human Evolution, (n.d.).

L.M. Reder & F. Ritter, What determines initial feeling of knowing? Familiarity with question terms, not with the answer.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition2009(18), pp.435-451.

R.S Siegler & E.A Jenkins, How Children Discover New Strategies. (New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1989).

Kathy Sierra, Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain, (April 2006).

Picture credit:


[1] Dr. Peggy Drexler, Why It's Important To Let Your Child Make Mistakes, (September 2011).

[2] J.R. Anderson & C.D. Schunn, in R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in Instructional Psychology (Vol. 5). (New Jersey: Erlbaum, 2000).

[3] Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, The Learning Style Helper's Guide. (Essex: Peter Honey Publications, 2006).

[4] David A. Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 1984).

[5] Separate models proposed by Anthony Gregorc and Christopher Dovakhin explore how learning is achieved from the point of view of an individual's perspective: learners evaluate the world by means of an approach that makes sense to them. These perceptions form the foundation of our specific learning strengths, or learning style.

[6] R.S Siegler & E.A Jenkins, How Children Discover New Strategies. (New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1989).

[7] L.M. Reder & F. Ritter, What determines initial feeling of knowing? Familiarity with question terms, not with the answer. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition2009(18), pp.435-451.

[8] John R. Anderson, ACT. A Simple Theory of Complex Cognition. American Psychologist,1996, (51), pp. 355-365.

[9] ibid.

[10] It is worth noting that several academics, including Walter Kaufmann (1966) maintain that Hegel did not present the triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in the manner it is commonly presented; Kaufmann further notes that Hegel used Kant's terminology in formulating this theory.

[11] op. cit. Anderson & Schunn, p.5.

[12] Ibid. p.16.

[13] V.S. Ramachandran, Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind "the Great Leap Forward" in Human Evolution, (nd).

[14] Ramachandran further speculates that it is the lack of mirror neurons, or a malfunctioning of them, which is responsible for Autism, a mental illness in which suffers fail to grasp a range of human emotions and lack the capacity to read the intentions of others from their body language.

[15] op. cit. Ramachandran, p.1.

[16] Kathy Sierra, Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain,

2006/04/angrynegative_p.html (April 2006).

[17] ibid.

[18] BBC News, As It Happened: London Riots, 2011).

[19] Paul Butler, Imitation as Freedom: (Re)Forming Student Writing. The Quarterly, (24) 2 (Spring 2002).

[20] ibid.

[21] op. cit. Butler.

[22] Delpit in Butler.

[23] op cit. Delpit.

[24] Gerald Graff & Cathy Berkenstein, They Say/ I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academia. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007) p.1.

[25] ibid.

[26] Bender in Butler.

[27] ibid.

[28] Graeme Paton, Spoon-fed' students given tuition in basic skills at university, The Daily Telegraph (online), (April 2012).

[29] ibid.

[30] op. cit. Paton.

[31] op. cit. Butler.

[32] Channel 4, Race and Intelligence, Science's Last Taboo. (13 October 2009).