16Things Teachers Need to Know about How Students Learn

What makes one teacher different from the next? What makes a teacher stand out from the crowd producing brilliant results? Yes, it’s all about having the right knowledge but it goes much deeper than that. An outstanding teacher knows exactly how to transfer knowledge to young minds and make that information stick. They know how to talk to students and they also know exactly how students learn. Their craft is further honed when they build effective communication strategies which work for both teacher and educator. But one of the most important things that make an outstanding teacher is when they know how students actually learn and they apply that knowledge in the classroom.

We’ve put together a list of 16 things that teachers need to know about how students learn.

  1. What is “Learning”?

Before even starting the journey it’s important to understand what learning really is. This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s not. There is so much more to learning than students being able to get the right answers on test papers. Learning is defined in a number of different ways which include memorization, the art of obtaining information, understanding reality and also being able to make learning relevant to their everyday lives, helping them to make sense of the world around them.

When teachers truly understand what learning means they will be able to apply a number of different strategies in their classroom to be able to cater to various student needs.

  1. The 7 Learning Styles

There are 7 distinct learning styles and it’s important for teachers to consider all of these in all their lesson plans and try and cater to how different students learn:

  • Visual: learners respond to seeing information like pictures, diagrams, images and colors
  • Aural: these learners respond well to sound by using songs or rhythms
  • Verbal: these learners learn from speaking and using words out loud to help them
  • Kinesthetic: these learners use a lot of movement and learn by ‘doing’. They also use touch and taste to gather knowledge
  • Logical: they learn in a very structured way, similar to how math problems are presented. They like to understand the reasoning behind facts presented to them
  • Social: these learners like to learn in groups
  • Solitary: you will always find these learners working alone

It’s important to get to know your students and what learning style they fit into so that you can tailor your lesson planning to suit these different types of learners. Try and observe them or get them to fill out a questionnaire in order for you to understand their learning style better. You can find out more about the different learning styles here.

  1. Not all Students are Created Equally

No two students are the same and it’s a fact that within our current education system, classrooms are not set up to cater to different learning styles as we’ve outlined above. Once you understand what learning styles each of your students have why not put them into groups that fit the 7 learning styles. Of course the solitary learner will still want to go it alone. Once you’ve managed to accomplish this you’ll find it makes a massive difference to how information is stored in those young minds.

It’s an important part of being a successful teacher to understand that not all students are created equally and to cater to them as best you can.

  1. Putting Psychology into Practice

Let’s take a history lesson for example. If you are teaching kids about the Ancient Egyptians you can get your message across by presenting the information in the following ways to help each learner absorb it:

  • Use great worksheets and flash cards for the visual learner
  • Create some type of rhyme or song for the aural learner
  • For kinesthetic learners, get those bodies moving. Perhaps you could find a big map of Egypt and they can jump onto the pyramids and name them, name the Nile River or even name the different pharaohs that are buried in each pyramid
  • Speak out loud about the information for the verbal learner
  • For the logical student give them the facts and the figures
  • For social learners put them into groups to discuss and debate the lesson
  • The solitary learner will do best studying on his own at his own pace

  1. Considering a Kinesthetic Learner

This is one bunch of learners that are the hardest of the lot to teach. Also, traditional classroom settings don’t cater to kinesthetic learners. They need space, which you don’t find in traditional schools. Perhaps try and incorporating a couple of ideas similar to what we’ve mentioned above to help them get the best out of their learning experience. These kids need to move their bodies – they also like to try something and watch it fail and this is how they retain information.

If you can come up with a couple of ideas to cater to them, you never know you could be teaching other students different ways of learning too and they could love it!

  1. Relevance is Key

As adults we can’t make sense of stuff if we don’t understand how it fits into our daily lives. Well the same is true for kids. When teaching them, always try and make your lesson relevant to everyday lives. How often do you hear the words, “This is boring,” or “How will I use this is my everyday life?” We’re guessing quite often. As an example math concepts should be reinforced in real life examples, where they understand that numbers are used for budgeting in a household, or stats are used in polls. If you provide these everyday examples they will absorb the information more easily.

  1. Failure is a Good Thing

If you think about yourself, you’ve probably learnt the most important lessons in life through failure, and this is also true of students. If you talk to any entrepreneur they’ll most likely tell you that their biggest asset in making a success of their business was through failure. Failure is the perfect teacher.

Read up a bit more about failure and learning by checking out this Harvard Business Review article – the article is largely related to organizations however it’s certainly relevant to the classroom as well. Create an environment in your classroom where failure is not feared but celebrated as an opportunity to learn.

  1. Blend The Curriculum

This is a great strategy to use in the classroom and more and more schools are catching onto this trend of blending curriculums. Blended curriculums are all about integrating subjects as opposed to teaching them in a silo. Lessons become more memorable and interesting too. As an example, a unit on Roman history could combine a unit on linguistics and language teaching about Latin and where it came from. You could then combine a science unit combining physics on how the Romans built their cities, as well as a writing unit where a child writes a report on their favorite Roman emperor and then reading a book about the Roman culture.

Learn more about blended learning here.

  1. Take Care of Introverts

Susan Cain released her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and when it hit the shelves it hit the classroom too drawing a lot of attention to introversion vs extroversion. According to an Edweek article and research teachers quite possibly ignore their introverted kids, seeing them as being academically inferior to their more outgoing peers according to a 2011 study. Classrooms by nature are loud and extroversion is encouraged for students to take part in class discussions. However, for introverts this could be a nightmare for them.

When the study was done, there were teachers who rated themselves as shy and they all concurred that their shy students were less likely to succeed academically when compared to their more outgoing students. Even though they had rated themselves as shy they interestingly didn’t rate themselves as any less intelligent.

As many as half of all Americans are introverts according to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type. Due to these rather surprising statistics, it’s really important for teachers to consider those quiet students sitting in the corners of their classrooms.

There is however a difference between being shy and being an introvert. Being shy is often related to fear or anxiety in social situations whereas an introvert is related to a person’s comfort with different levels of stimulus.

This is an interesting fact. If a shy student overcomes their fear, they could land up becoming an extrovert as they revel at being the center of attention.

On the flipside of the coin, an introverted child could be quite comfortable speaking in class or socializing with a couple of friends but recharges when they’re alone. They could also become more energized when they’re in a learning environment with less stimulation and that is less social.

Here’s a great article on ways to excite and inspire your reserved students. Click here to get some great tips to apply in the classroom.

10.   Bite Size Information

Think about how you remember something like a phone number when it’s given to you. Most of us would normally break it up into bite size bits of information and create some sort of pattern out of the number so that we can remember it.

The reason for this is due to the fact that the brain struggles to hold onto a long list of numbers, but can do so when they are organized in a pattern that makes sense to us. The same principle applies to the classroom and lectures. A 30-minute lesson that is not structured with categories or organized into easy-to-remember bits of information will be less effective than one that is broken up into bite size pieces.

While you’re in the classroom, try and break up information into small memorable pieces in order to give your students the best chance at remembering those details!

11.   Using Different Angles

Using different angles is a great way for students to retain information. As an example, if a science teacher is doing a lesson on the human body, the students will benefit from receiving the same information but from different angles.

The first thing to do is to explain the overall concept. This provides the outline for the lesson and the context. Moving on from that you can study each part of the process in greater detail. Lastly, the whole process is explained once again and this time students are asked to participate by asking questions. They also then get to explain the lesson back to the teacher.

Finally, and most importantly, the process is then put into context of everyday life. This pushes students to apply the information into real life instances. This is an extremely effective approach as the brain can actually organize the information. If you try and do an entire lesson in one foul swoop it will just overwhelm students. Breaking it up like this also helps to appeal to different learning styles.

12.   Technology at our Fingertips

Long gone are the days of taking a walk over to the library to search amongst a multitude of books to find the information that we need. Now students can get the information that they want instantaneously due to technology.

Due to this, memorization is no longer as important as it once was. Also, verbally passing on information has been kicked out the back door. It’s a good idea to really embrace technology in your classroom and allow students to really dig deep to find out extraordinary facts and information.

Due to this, think about how you can incorporate technology into the classroom – you can study different themes, look into sociological issues, teach the art of invention and let your students be creative in their thinking processes. It will also encourage innovation. Technology is here to stay and it’s important to bring it into your classroom for a more enriched environment.

13.   Student Teachers

One of the most effective approached to absorbing information is to teach the knowledge back to another. An exceptionally powerful technique to use in the classroom is to let your students be the teachers. Let them give a lecture, present information to the class and even develop lesson plans on their own. You’ll be surprised at what they come up with.

14.   Inspire Curiosity

It almost goes without saying that when students are interested in a subject the more they will retain information. They are more focused, they persist, take initiative, engage more in the classroom activities and they invest their time into what’s being taught. So how do you inspire this curiosity and hunger to learn? One of the ways to do this is to give students the opportunity to choose their own topics to explore – if your class is stuck in a rut or you’re all lacking in a bit of motivation this is a great tactic to explore.

Ever heard of school agency? Well it came about in a new Harvard study, where they asked, “How do distinct components of teaching influence the development and expression of agency-related factors in sixth to ninth grade classrooms?” So what exactly is it? It is the ability and susceptibility to take determined initiative—in other words it’s the opposite of helplessness. Students with high levels of agency respond actively to circumstances as opposed to passively – they are constantly on the lookout for meaning and they act with purpose to achieve what they want in their own lives as well as others. Developing agency within students could become as important an aspect in schooling as standardized testing is.

15.   The Importance of Feedback


Feedback is absolutely critical to the way that students learn. The process of learning is improved immensely when students know their strengths and weaknesses, can accept strengths and weaknesses, accept constructive criticism and are able to be redirected to the areas where they need help with most. When this happens learning improves.

Studies have shown that when you give feedback matters just as much what feedback you give. This new research shows that the best time to give feedback is in the middle of a project not at the end like we traditionally do. This can have a much greater impact on the student and their success.

16.   Guide them on How to Learn

Students will often understand ‘what’ needs to be learnt; however they probably don’t know ‘how’ to learn.

In our schools, “the emphasis is on what students need to learn, whereas little emphasis—if any—is placed on training students how they should go about learning the content and what skills will promote efficient studying to support robust learning,” writes John Dunlosky, professor of psychology at Kent State University in Ohio, in an article published in American Educator. However, he continues, “teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content, because acquiring both the right learning strategies and background knowledge is important—if not essential—for promoting lifelong learning.”

Teaching students good learning strategies ensures that they know how to acquire new knowledge, which leads to improved learning outcomes, writes lead author Helen Askell-Williams of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. And studies back this up. Askell-Williams cites as one example a recent finding by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which administers academic proficiency tests to students around the globe, and place American students in the mediocre middle. “Students who use appropriate strategies to understand and remember what they read, such as underlining important parts of the texts or discussing what they read with other people, perform at least 73 points higher in the PISA assessment—that is, one full proficiency level or nearly two full school years—than students who use these strategies the least,” the PISA report reads.

So the takeout here is it’s extremely important to teach kids how to learn not just what to learn.

Do you know any other tips or hints about what teachers need to know about how students learn? Please post your comments below, we would love to hear them.