How Does Learning Work?



What is learning? Is it the acquisition of knowledge? Is it the development of skills? What about changes in values, beliefs, and behaviors? Are these part of learning, too? Yes, all of these are part of learning and they all work together to create deep change in people. Do you want change to occur in the people of your organization? Let me ask that question a different way: Is everyone on your team prepared, today, for what the organization will be facing a year from now? Two years? Five years? Obviously, change is required for people to be prepared for the future and learning is the process that facilitates that change.

Let me get back to my original question: What is learning?

Traditionally, learning has been viewed as a product or an outcome. In the traditional view, learning occurs after a series of activities such as lectures, reading, practice, quizzes, etc. Afterward, learning has either occurred or not. The product has been produced or not. The desired outcome exists or it does not. The convenient result of this approach to learning is that it is easy to measure through objective tests and demonstrations.

The reality of learning, though, is not so convenient. As a leader you’re well aware that pouring knowledge into people’s heads, and then challenging them to prove they got the “data dump” through some form of assessment, provides no indication about whether their behavior will change, whether their attitudes and beliefs will adjust, or that they are prepared to help your company overcome its challenges in the coming years.

Becoming prepared for the future involves far more than increasing and measuring new knowledge.

What we need is a different understanding of what learning is. We need new ways to look at learning and develop learning strategies in our organizations.

A very helpful and insightful look at learning comes from the book, How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching, published by Jossey-Bass in 2010.1 The book is aimed at academic institutions, primarily higher education. However, it also has wisdom for other learning contexts, including corporate education as well as personal learning and growth.

One of the best gold nuggets in this volume is its definition of learning. Learning is, “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning.”2

Let’s break that down definition down and explore three of its components.

First, learning is a process, and it is a process that occurs only in the mind. The actual locus of learning is not the hands, or a notebook, or some chart, or any physical artifact. Because learning is a cognitive process, it cannot be directly observed.

What this means is that we must infer that learning has occurred by observing the resulting changes in that person’s behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and perhaps other personal characteristics. It requires that we consider new ways of assessing knowledge and skills prior to and after training.

For example, most organizations conduct their ethics training in a classroom setting or through an online training module. After the training, a quiz or test is administered, and a score is presumed to indicate whether or not learning has occurred. However, the quiz measures only what someone knows. It does not provide any indication about changes in attitudes, beliefs, and future behaviors.

Second, those changes in behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs occur over time. Change is not instantaneous. Therefore, learning is a process, not an event.

This means that various strategies and experiences must be planned for the building up of knowledge and the development of new attitudes and beliefs.

For example, organizations that desire to be more innovative must develop a culture that values risk-taking and collaboration. However, these are two values that are commonly “bred out” of career-focused leaders. Teaching people at any level in an organization to adopt the values of taking risk and collaborating with others is a long-term process. That change does not occur with one consultant-led seminar, or having the team read a book, or as a result of an inspirational message from the president.

Finally, the learning process must be student driven. Learning is not done to students. It is deeply dependent upon their interpretation and response to the learning experience.

This means that we need to carefully consider the perspective of the student. We need to know how they interpret the context, purpose, and goal of learning. The learning process needs to facilitate the opportunity for students to integrate what is meaningful to themselves and their work. This gives them the opportunity to interpret the process and results of learning in a deeply personal manner, thus resulting in change.

All of this has significant implications for the design and delivery of training. And it goes deeper than that. It requires that we reconsider our very understanding of what it means to learn and to grow.

As proof of this, think back to one of the most significant learning experiences in your past. Recall how it changed you. Think about how you understood yourself or your world in new ways. Remember the impact it had upon how you dealt with people, problems, and opportunities.

What made that learning experience so impactful? Was it the new knowledge or the skills that you gained? Or, was it more about the process that you went through, the experiences you had, and the resulting change in who you are?

I am confident that that learning experience was important to you because of the process, experiences, and resulting change. I am also confident that you would like others to experience that same level of deep learning and change. It is our responsibility as leaders to provide that opportunity to others.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo “Change.” by Courtney. Available at

1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
2: Ambrose et al., How Learning Works, 3.

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