4. How people learn

‘Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.’ Psychologist B.F. Skinner

Understanding how people learn is a complex subject. This chapter briefly looks at the neuroscience behind learning.

Making connections

In order to learn, people need to make connections between new and existing memories and review learning several times.

The information stored in the brain is a vast connection of ideas that are joined together. To make and retain a new memory, the new memory needs to be connected to an existing memory.

For example, if I tell you:

 ‘Thurso is named after the legendary Thor. Many years ago, it was owned by the Vikings.’

You will find this very difficult to remember. However, if I tell you:

‘My home town is called Thurso. It is named after a mythical god called Thor. Many years ago, it was owned by a tribe called the Vikings.’

This is much easier to learn. You can now connect this new knowledge with existing knowledge you have. You know about towns, gods and tribes, so you can connect this new knowledge into your brain.

It is important to try to connect new knowledge with existing knowledge. There are many ways to do this:

  • Point out connections between new and existing knowledge as you teach. For example, if you are teaching about the political system in South Africa, you should compare it with the more familiar political system in Madagascar.
  • Ask students to work in pairs to discuss what is similar and different, for example:
    • What are the similarities and differences between prime numbers and integers?
    • What are the similarities and differences between an exothermic chemical reaction and an endothermic reaction?
  • Use mind maps to link ideas together. Some students love them, others hate them. Making a mind map is a great revision exercise. Below you’ll find a mind map summarising this chapter.


Neuroscience tells us that we have two parts to our memory:

Short-term memory which stores memories for a short period of time then forgets them.

Long-term memory which stores memories for a long time.

Our goal is for students to move things from their short-term memory to their long-term memory. Some tips for this:

  1. Recap the key points of the lesson at the end of the lesson. You could ask questions that all students need to answer or discuss in groups.
  2. Ask the students to review what they learnt at home on the same day as the lesson. This could be by homework questions or making notes or mind maps of the important points. If students review what they learned within 24 hours of learning it, it is much easier to remember it long term.
  3. When you start a lesson, recap the previous lesson. You could use some quick questions for all students written on the board, or any other method that engages the whole class.
  4. A weekly quick quiz and monthly test will review what the students have learnt and help them strengthen their long-term memories. Students should revise for the tests.
  5. Most knowledge needs to be reviewed more than once to move it into long term memory. Reviewing it frequently then with increasing gaps in time helps. For example, if I learn something new and review it five times: 1) same day; 2) next day; 3) 1 week later; 4) 1 month later; 5) 3 months later, there is a good chance I will remember it for a long time.
  6. Doing something active, such as teaching the information or answering a question about the lesson is a much more useful review than simply reading.
  7. Finally, motivation makes a big difference. If students are interested in what they are learning, then they will learn it much more easily. You need to think about how you will inspire the students to learn.

In summary, to learn best it is important for students to make connections with existing knowledge and review their learning regularly.


1) Think about some lessons you are going to teach this week. How can you connect the learning in those lessons with things students already know? Put this into practice this week.

2) Think about one of your classes you are teaching. How can you plan so the students review their new knowledge regularly? What activities are you going to use? Put this into practice this week.

3) Try making a mind map for a topic you are teaching. When you are confident, teach your students how to make mind maps. Then ask them to make a mind map for a topic you have taught – not copying your mind map. They will all be different.

4) Critical Thinking: How will you know if the changes you make in your lessons improve the learning of your students?