Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

How Students Learn

Research in cognitive science and educational psychology continues to illuminate for instructors how students learn. These resources integrate key findings to highlight how instructors can consider the prior knowledge that students bring to the classroom, and cultivate environments that encourage student construction of new knowledge, reflection on learning, and transference to other scenarios.

Students entering university possess years of educational experience, as well as personal stories, which research in educational psychology demonstrates can directly impact their responses to teaching and learning in class. As such, instructors should assess such knowledge and strategize how this information can inform pedagogy.
Metacognition is the process of "thinking about thinking," or reflecting on personal habits, knowledge, and approaches to learning. In higher education it is valued for the ways it charges and motivates students with self-regulation of their learning, and enables transference of skills and content through reflection and abstract comprehension.
Learning Styles refer to the idea that students learn best when course content is pitched to match students’ self-reported media preferences (i.e. visual, auditory, kinesthetic learners). Researchers deny that this “matching” practice works, and encourage instructors to adopt resources and strategies rooted in evidence from cognitive and adult learning theory.
Over a century of research in cognitive and educational science confirms that students make significant learning gains in social classroom environments. Stemming in part from Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development," social activities help students work together to articulate understanding, recognize misconceptions, and hone communication.
Students learn by connecting new knowledge with knowledge and concepts that they already know, most effectively in active social classrooms where they negotiate understanding through interaction and varied approaches. Instructors can help students learn to build conceptual frameworks that are deeply interconnected, transferable, and rooted in a solid memory and skills foundations.
Transfer is a cognitive practice whereby a learner's mastery of knowledge or skills in one context enables them to apply that knowledge or skill in a different context, and is often considered a hallmark of true learning. Learning theory suggests that a variety of teaching strategies can help students reach the intellectual maturity to transfer their learning.