How to learn

Key message:


What is learning and what kinds of learning exist?

A well-known definition of learning is:


Definition: Learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills.


There are three principal ways of acquiring knowledge:


"Biggs (1987) distinguished between three major approaches [to learning], namely deep, achieving, and surface. Deep learners are intrinsically motivated and enjoy exploring the subject matter as much as they can. On the other hand, achieving students are extrinsically motivated and want to do well because of the rewards attached to high performance. Finally, surface learners are interested in learning the indispensable facts only and expend minimum effort to achieve this (Chamorro-Premuzic, Furnham, & Lewis, 2007)." (Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2008). Personality, intelligence and approaches to learning as predictors of academic performance. Personality and Individual Differences 44, p. 1597)


Which approach to learning makes sense is not just a question of motivation, but mainly depends on what goal I want to achieve  That's why I changed the names for the approaches.


1. Surface Learning

I have to pass an exam, but I don't have time to study much for it, or the subject is not important to me and I just want to pass the exam. Then surface learning makes sense. I learn all the facts and rules by heart and understand them only to the extent that I can apply them in the situation as required by the exam. I will quickly forget this "surface knowledge" after the exam.


2. Understanding Learning

I need to study for an exam and want to get a good grade. Then I try to understand the subject because I need to be able to apply the knowledge in the exam to several different situations. I will be able to remember this "understanding knowledge" for some time. (If I don't use it again, I will forget it one day.) "Understanding knowledge" is called skill or competence.


"Understanding is about transfer ... We are expected to take what we learned in one lesson and be able to apply it to other, related but different situations. ... It is an essential ability because teachers can only help students learn a relatively small number of ideas, examples, facts, and skills in the entire field of study; so we need to help them transfer their inherently limited learning to many other settings, issues, and problems." (Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, p. 40)


3. Experience Learning

When I want to understand a subject deeply, I apply my knowledge of the subject to many problematic situations. After a while, I have gained a lot of experience. I will remember this "expert knowledge" for a long time.


Conclusion: Only when we understand a subject deeply, we can apply this knowledge to many different situations and remember it for a long time.


The three types of learning result in three types of knowledge: surface knowledge, understanding knowledge, and expert knowledge. The boundaries between these three types of knowledge are fluid. 

3 types of knowledge - surface, understanding and expert knowledge -

How much effort is necessary to learn something depends on the level of knowledge that is to be achieved.


What is the definition of knowledge?

The German wikipedia presents a simple definition for knowledge:


"Knowledge is usually understood as a body of facts, theories, and rules available to individuals or groups ... (, 10.07.21)


Knowledge refers to facts and rules. However, the word "rules" is often replaced by other words, such as principles, concepts, patterns, equations, and laws. (I see the word "rule" as the generic term for the other words).


What is the difference between theories and rules? In science rules are often called "scientific laws".


"Scientific laws are similar to scientific theories in that they are principles that can be used to predict the behavior of the natural world. ... Usually scientific laws refer to rules for how nature will behave under certain conditions, frequently written as an equation. Scientific theories are more overarching explanations of how nature works and why it exhibits certain characteristics." (Poulsen, T. (2010) Introduction to Chemistry. CK-12 Foundation,, p. 15)


So theories are a combination of rules. Theories are therefore a combination of rules. Artificial intelligence also assumed that knowledge consists of facts and rules:


"An expert [computer] system is divided into two subsystems: the inference engine and the knowledge base. The knowledge base represents facts and rules. The inference engine applies the rules to the known facts to deduce new facts." (, 23.07.21)


"A fact is an objective observation or measurement, verifiable by any trained observer." (Moores, E. M., Twiss, R. J. (2014) Tectonics. Long Grove: Waveland Press, , page 248)


"In the broadest sense, a rule could be any statement which says that a certain conclusion must be valid whenever a certain premise is satisfied, i.e. any statement that could be read as a sentence of the form ‘if ... then ...’ " (Hitzler P., Krötzsch M., Rudolph, S. (2009). Foundations of Semantic Web Technologies. Chapman & Hall/CRC, page 213 - 216)


Rules are conditional statements that indicate what result is obtained if a certain condition is met (if this condition is met, then this result is obtained).


Example: When I want to calculate the area of a rectangle, I can use the formula A = L x W. The formula is a rule: If I multiply the length by the width, then I get the area of the rectangle. But that is only possible if I know the values for L and W. The values are facts.


The word "knowledge" has two meanings in everyday language:


1. Knowledge means having acquaintance with something. A person's knowledge are the facts and rules that the person has stored in his memory.


"knowledge’ means the outcome of the assimilation of information through learning. Knowledge is the body of facts, principles, theories and practices that is related to a field of work or study. In the context of the EQF, knowledge is described as theoretical and/or factual" (, 10.08.21)


2. Knowledge means "knowing how", i.e. the ability to apply facts and rules. This meaning is also called skill or competence.


"skills’ means the ability to apply knowledge and use know-how to complete tasks and solve problems. In the context of the EQF, skills are described as cognitive (involving the use of logical, intuitive and creative thinking) or practical (involving manual dexterity and the use of methods, materials, tools and instruments)" (, 10.08.21, p. 4)


Definition: Knowledge is on the one hand the amount of available facts and rules and on the other hand the ability to apply facts and rules.


to be continued