How to learn

Key message: Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skills.


(The two texts "How to Learn" and "How to Study" on Learn-Study-Work belong together, which is why you should also read "How to Learn")


What is learning?

"In addition to the acquisition of knowledge, in everyday life we also understand learning as the acquisition of certain motor skills. ... In psychology, we speak of learning only when a change has occurred compared to a previous state. ... [The change] must be based on experience and/or exercise of the organism and must be permanent, i.e. available for a longer period of time. ... Depending on the viewpoint, learning can be defined as a change in behavior or behavioral possibilities or as a change in cognitive structures." (Schermer, F. J. (2006) Lernen und Gedächtnis. Stuttgard: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, p. 9-12)


By "cognitive structures" is meant a person's thinking, which is changed by learning (e.g., the acquisition of knowledge).


Learning outcomes "means statements regarding what a learner knows, understands and is able to do on completion of a learning process, which are defined in terms of knowledge, skills and responsibility and autonomy ..." (, 14.11.20)


Learning has two goals with regard to knowledge:

  1. I want to be able to remember something.
  2. I want to understand something.

When I have learned something, I don't want to forget it right away. But forgetting is a natural process:


"Forgetting is an important, even essential process that is actively controlled by our brain. Otherwise, it would not be possible to organize the continuous changes and the enormous amounts of information that constantly comes at us. ... Forgetting is ... the active attempt to reduce the complexity of reality around us by making outdated or irrelevant things no longer accessible, explains Karl-Heinz Bäuml, professor at the Department of Developmental and Cognitive Psychology at the University of Regensburg. ... Forgetting means separating the important from the unimportant ... " (, 05.11.2021)


 "How to store information in a way that it is well remembered?

  • Exercise [learning by repetition = learning by heart].
  • Distributed learning [learning something not 8 times in one day, but twice a day for 4 days = refreshing again and again is better than trying to learn everything at once]
  • Elaboration [= understanding through processing]
  • Memory aids [the information is combined with spatial, personal, surprising, physical, humorous or other information e.g. with a mnemonic sentence]

... Elaboration is crucial" (, 05.11.21)


In the quote, Elaboration means processing a piece of information in such a way that it is understood. Knowledge that has been understood is best remembered.


Understandig Learning

Learning works best when it is associated with positive emotions.


"People perceive above all what they are interested in and what they already have prior knowledge about. That's the reason why all facts that are related to one's own preferences are learned so easily." (Rost, F. (2018) Lern- und Arbeitstechniken für das Studium. Springer VS, Wiesbaden, p. 43)


If we have to learn a lot of details about a topic we don't have much prior knowledge about, then we know that we will forget these details anyway. If, on top of that, we don't see how this detailed knowledge can be useful to us, then learning is no fun.


"Why do we often find learning so difficult, even though it's a fundamental property of our brain? ... Our brain is actually not designed to learn and retain knowledge, especially rarely used detailed knowledge. Every human brain is evolutionarily more adapted to skill and the accumulation and generalization of experience that enables survival in its environment." (Rost, F. (2018) Lern- und Arbeitstechniken für das Studium. Springer VS, Wiesbaden, p. 34)




Conclusion: What we should learn logically structured, analytical and application-oriented. If these three conditions are met, then it is understanding learning. 


What does this conclusion mean? First, this question is explained in simple terms (then the scientific explanation follows):


If I want to learn a lot about a topic, I first have to get an overview. In the case of a longer text, the outline or table of contents shows this "overview". If the outline of the text is meaningful (logical), then the text is more easily understood and better remembered. The same is true for learning.


"Structured information is easier to remember and recall than random one." (, 09.01.22)

How to learn? Hierarchically and logically (meaningfully) ordered statements are easier to understand and better to remember -

2. Analytical Learning

"As well as studying the problem of deduction in logic (that is, what follows from what), philosophers were also interested in the problem of induction (that is, generalising from instances). Induction is fundamental to an understanding of the philosophie of science, since much of science involves discovering general laws by generalising from experimental data." (Lloyd, J. W. (2003). Logic for learning. Springer-Verlag, p. 9)


"Since there are limits on the amount of information that people can hold in short-term memory, short-term memory is enhanced when people are able to chunk information into familiar patterns  (Miller, 1956). ... Lacking a hierarchical, highly organized structure for the domain, novices cannot use this chunking strategy. ... expertise in a domain helps people develop a sensitivity to patterns of meaningful information that are not available to novices. ...
Experts’ thinking seems to be organized around big ideas in physics, such as Newton’s second law and how it would apply, while novices tend to perceive problem solving in physics as memorizing, recalling, and manipulating equations to get answers. ...
An emphasis on the patterns perceived by experts suggests that pattern recognition is an important strategy for helping students develop confidence and competence." (National Research Council. (2000) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, S. 33/37/48,


to be continued ...



"There is good reason to suppose, however, that a strong drive would be precisely the wrong arrangement to secure a flexible, knowledgeable power of transaction with the environment. Strong drives vause us to learn certain lessons well, but they do not create maximum familarity with our surroundings. 

This point was demonstrated ... in some experiments by Yerkes and Dodson (1908). They showed that maximum motivation did not lead to the most rapid solving of problems, especially if the problems were complex. For each problem there was an optimum level of motivation, neither the highest nor the lowest, and the optimum was lower for more complex tasks." (White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66(5), 297–333)




"The first stage of sport involvement, the sampling years, occurred between the ages of 6 and 13 for all the participants.
Parents provide opportunities for their children to enjoy sport. Parents of children in the sampling years were responsible for initially getting their children interested in sport and allowing them to sample a wide range of enjoyable activities without focusing on intense training.
Some important elements of playing sport during the sampling years are
that it involves the child’s active participation, is voluntary and pleasurable ..." /
Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The sport psychologist, 13(4), 395-417)