How we learn 1/2: The basics

How we learn 1/2: The basics

When I start to create learning experiences, as a coach, lecturer or facilitator, I usually get busy right away.

I start to collect material about a topic, already have a cool activity on my mind, so let's go! But while preparing for a successful learning experience I sometimes forget the bigger picture - what learning truly means. What makes learning experiences successful? How do we learn?

The following list is taken from researchers in the field of education (see sources below) who collected insights from neuroscience, behavioural science, biology and so on. The individual learner may still learn differently, everybody has his or her favourite way to learn things! But the research found some clear patterns and evidence of how most of us learn best. It's obvious that I can only create successful learning experiences when I know how people learn.

Spoiler alert: The last point in the list is the most important. It has, in my opinion, the biggest potential when it comes to creating learning experiences.

Learning experiences should be authentic

When we create learning experiences, these experiences should be close to the real-world experience. A flight simulator comes to my mind, it perfectly simulates the real experience of flying a plane. But nothing beats real practice. A sales representative should practice sales conversations during a learning session, not watch a video. Let's go where the action is - it's called immersive learning.

Simulating a real plane in the flight simulator.
Simulating a real plane in the flight simulator.

Learning experiences should be about all senses

Research shows that the more senses are stimulated, the more we learn. This could be an immersive learning experience, but it starts with simple things: Text should be combined with relevant images, animations or video. But be aware of cognitive load! When too many senses are stimulated, it's hard to focus.

Help learners to explore patterns

A pattern is a way to structure information, like a mind map or a memory hook. We see A and recognize B and C. We remember sequences, rhythms and steps. We can help learners to work with patterns, too, e.g. make mind-maps or structured notes. But every learner has to create his or her own patterns because their individual knowledge and memory connections differ.

A learner takes notes and thus creates patterns.
A learner takes notes and thus creates patterns.

Repetition and elaboration

Language learning is a good example here. Our brain connects and reconnects constantly, but only if we focus on the thing we want to learn. One seminar in French is not enough, we have to talk and write for years to learn it eventually. No one is born a master! By the way, it's not about doing something for 10,000 hours. Sure, repetition is important. But doing something slightly different and in great detail is much more important.

Repeating the moves like a player in a football team.
Repeating the moves like a player in a football team.


We are not meant to sit at our laptops all day. Humankind is used to move around physically, do exercises and sports. We learn best while moving and sports helps our brains to consolidate and make connections. Learning experiences can be combined with physical activities, like making breaks or listening to a podcast when riding a bike.

Learner-centred learning experiences

The last point on this list is the most important one. And the most challenging for us learning designers.

Learning takes place when people feel it's relevant for them and they are emotionally involved. Learners cannot sit back, they have to do the work. We have to create learning experiences where everybody has their freedom and responsibility to learn new things.

How can we do that? What's the research behind this? The second part of "How we learn" answers these questions. Click here.


Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice, Doyle 2012

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Medina 2014



Education Technology, made simple