How does learning work?

About Learning

The term learning is understood in multilayered way and is put to multiple use. Basically, all definitions have one idea in common: Learning is the acquiring of knowledge, skills, behavior or similar abilities.

The process of learning

New information is saved in the brain by building connections between neurons (neurons are nerve cells that are electrically excitable and can communicate or connect with other neurons). We call these connections engrams. A typical problem is that the connection is dissolved after a short time (if you do not use this connection again). What you have learned is now forgotten.

This video shows the creating of engrams in the brain (during the learning prozess).
Please watch the first two minutes of the video “What is learning and how does it occur?” (RSA Animate Video Project for Theories of Development and Learning EDUC26000). This video was made by: – Dayna Petrie – Carina Raisin – Justin Hunter – Kaisha Harders – Talyse Cameron in the frame of a WOOSTER seminar (College for Mentored Undergratuate researc). The complete video can be found at YouTube

The difference between learning and sustained learning

Learning works typically as described above:

  • You hear something new (or get some new information, see something …)
  • Your brain processes the information (which always is a “small” information)
  • The connection of the neurons is built
  • After some time, when you have not used the new gained knowledge again, the connection is dissolved – you have forgotten what you have learned

Basically, what is learned can be classyfied as “knowledge”. Skills or behavior result from further connections (using the knowledge).

Sustained learning means that you remind the information for a longer time – this should be the “actual result” of learning.

The connections between the neurons can be enlarged (or deepened) by specific environmental conditions. This leads to better reminiscence of what you have learned. This type of learning is called sustained learning (in the frame of the TIBL project).

Increase learning

A lot of possible frame conditions exist to enable the learning or increase the learning capacity. The same way obstacles can occur that prevent (or block) you from learning.

Positive factors are (short selection)

Positive mood or positive images: In this situation dopamine (a neurotransmitter – which is a chemical – that sends signals to nerve cells) get produced and they create a sense of well-being. This “opens the gate to learning”. So, emotions can enable or enhance the learning success (by creating “stronger” engrams).

Short information packages: The brain is used to “work with small pieces”. Information split to small units can be processed better than large units (this is the reason of the success of micro learning where you have short information packages to process).

Learning in group situations works a little bit differently and may be more efficiently than to learn in isolations (does not work in any group situation).

Negative factors

Negative mood, stress, angriness, bright rage or similar extremely mood can even prevent the brain from any learning.

The release of cortisol (that is produced during anger mood or in “fear situations” where you get heavily frightend) leads to a resistance of the brain to learn.

Information dependency: If you give people too much information or you spread out the information to quickly (or to slowly) will also bring people to resist learning. They “switch off” and you cannot reach them anymore. The reason is that too much information overloads the processing ability of the brain.

Micro learning

Micro learning means short-term learning activities combined with small learning units. Micro learning is best fitting to the standard processing of information of the brain.

Here is an example of “brain learning standard”: If you watch a video, where each scene or action is registered by the brain and brought into context, the brain is creating continuously the neuron connections. Therefore, you remember in the middle of the vide what has happened at the beginning. If you want to tell the content of the video the next day this will work. Many people have difficulties to tell the content of a film some weeks later – this is typical because the neuron connection have got released.

This standard processing is used in micro learning. A problem is that the release of the neuron connection also let you forget what you have learned within some hours (or days).

Advantages of micro learning

  • Especially VET learners have limited time to learn. Small packages enable an essay learning also for them.
  • Micro learning enables personalization (you may drop a package due to the fact that you just have the competence that’s taught in this micro learning unit).
  • It supports better mobile learning
  • Micro learning enforces the use of multimedia (A picture is worth thousand words) and multimedia impact to the brain is processed producing deeper or “broader” engrams.

Sustained learning methods

Several ways exist to enable sustained learning. In the TIBL project we use active learning, implementation of multimedia based content or interactive content and micro learning as well. If you have to be active during the learning process more areas of the brain are involved in processing the information and the brain is creating deeper or more intensive engrams.

Here is an example to differ between passive and active learning:
If you watch a video, you are passive. Your brain processes the visual and audio information and creates the typical engrams.
In an active video, you have to do something additional to watch the video. For example, you have to answer some questions after the first minute of the video. What does this change in your brain? By watching the video, you just got some engrams. By answering the question, you have the first use of these engrams. Your brain recognizes this, estimates these engrams as important (because they are used within a short time twice) and deepens this engram. So you have created – with a single blow – deepened engrams and this increases the outcome of your learning.


Sustained Learning includes several important issues that create a promising approach to learning. In the case of the TIBL project, the viewpoint is on professional development, nevertheless, the approach cam be used in other fields of education (with minor changes) as well. Here are some cornerstones of Sustained Learning::

  • The concept of sustained learning is based on self-directed learning (called Heutagogy) and some elements found in Adult Learning (Androgogy).
  • Learning must not be linear or planned (this can be  realised for example by using Micro Learning).
  • The currently available research results of brain research are used to enable longer lasting learning outcomes.
  • In the center of the learning specific tasks or problems often can be found.
  • The motivation to learn is a blend of increasing self-esteem, need for the personal and professional development and the desire to use the new gained competences in familar situations as well as in novel situations.
  • Self-efficiency and the knowledge how to learn, combined with creativity (for example in solving problem) are typical characteristics of learners.
  • The trainer’s role is a blend of facilitator, expert, and capability developer.
  • Collaboration and active involvement in the learning are typical elements of sustained learning.

In the TIBL MOOC you will find several examples of active learning, as well as in the toolbox.

About the author: Peter Mazohl is researcher and educator.