What is Learning?

See also: Learning Approaches

Almost every action we take is the result of past learning yet, for some people, learning still remains an activity undertaken in, or associated with, an educational context.

As babies we learn to eat, to gain attention, to crawl, to walk, etc. and as we develop into children, and our bodies become more functional, we learn an inordinate range of skills.

Traditionally, research and studies around learning focused primarily on early-years learning through childhood and adolescence.  However, it is now recognised that learning is a continuous process that commences at birth and continues until death; it is the process through which we use our experience to deal with new situations and to develop relationships.

See our page: Lifelong Learning for more information.

A lot of our learning occurs randomly throughout life, from new experiences, gaining information and from our perceptions, for example: reading a newspaper or watching a news broadcast, talking with a friend or colleague, chance meetings and unexpected experiences. 

Many experiences in life provide us with learning opportunities from which we can choose whether or not to learn.  This type of experiential learning is in contrast to more formal approaches to learning such as training, mentoring, coaching and teaching, all of which have some type of structure in that they are planned learning involving a facilitator.

Teaching, training and other structured learning opportunities are activities that one person does to another, while learning is something we can only do for ourselves.

Learning involves far more than thinking: it involves the whole personality - senses, feelings, intuition, beliefs, values and will.  If we do not have the will to learn, we will not learn and if we have learned, we are actually changed in some way.  If the learning makes no difference it can have very little significance beyond being random ideas that float through our consciousness. 

Learning needs to meet some personal need and recognising and identifying such needs enables us to evaluate whether the learning has been worthwhile and successful.

Learning occurs when we are able to:

  • Gain a mental or physical grasp of the subject.
  • Make sense of a subject, event or feeling by interpreting it into our own words or actions.
  • Use our newly acquired ability or knowledge in conjunction with skills and understanding we already possess.
  • Do something with the new knowledge or skill and take ownership of it.

Key Principles of Learning

There are a vast range of theories that attempt to explain and demonstrate the way that people learn.

Such theories can often contrast with each other depending on the type of learning they describe, for example traditional learning theories associated with children and adolescents engaged in ‘schooling’ may differ from theories associated with adult learning.

The following list is generic and identifies the key principles associated with all types of learning and can be applied to group situations as well as when learning alone or with a mentor, tutor or trainer.

This list is not exhaustive but it should, however, help you to understand some of the key concepts of learning.

  • People learn best when they are treated with respect and are not talked down to or treated as ignorant.  Establishing ground rules at the start of a training session will reinforce this important principle However, for the training to be most effective and to involve full participation, the trainer should model such exemplar behaviour.

  • Learning opportunities should, when possible, be linked to previous positive experience - this involves self-awareness on the part of the learner and understanding and empathy on the part of any facilitator. Learning can be blocked by past negative experiences - some people who hated school cannot bear to be in a classroom situation, for example.

  • When possible learners should take part in the planning of learning activities. Learners should be encouraged to be self-directing in terms of goal-setting since this usually improves commitment and motivation and increases participation. Facilitators should examine the expectations of the learner at the start of a course or session to help to encourage self-direction.

  • People learn best when their physical environment is comfortable.  In group situations a positive emotional and supportive environment is also important; individuals in groups tend to learn best when they can socialise and interact with other group members.

  • Interaction with a facilitator is vital.  People need to be able to react, question and voice opinions on what they are learning. Generally, in group situations, quieter members should be gently encouraged for their input.

  • Learning activities and/or delivery need to be varied, to cover the range of different learning styles and help the learner maintain interest and motivation.  In a classroom setting, for example, including discussions or other activities, especially some sort of problem solving, as part of a lesson or lecture will enable learners to interact and engage with the subject.

  • Instant rewards help.  People learn best if the results and/or rewards of learning are made clear and can be demonstrated during or immediately after the learning experience.

  • Self-evaluation and reflective practice is important.  Learners should be encouraged to reflect on what they have learnt and think about ways that they can further their knowledge. See our page: Reflective Practice for more information.

The PACT Learning Cycle

Many attempts have been made by academics and others to map and explain the learning processes. It is generally recognised that learning takes place in a repetitive cycle, an ongoing series of processes.

The diagram below represents a generic learning cycle and uses the acronym PACT. The cycle is relevant to all types of learning.

The PACT learning cycle stages are:

  • Procure. New knowledge (theory) or ability (skill) is acquired.
  • Apply. The new knowledge or skill is then practiced in some way.
  • Consider. The results of the practice are evaluated and/or assessed.
  • Transform. The original knowledge or ability is modified accordingly.

The cycle then continues and repeats.

PACT Learning Cycle


The PACT cycle should help to demonstrate that learning is an iterative process: our learning evolves as we develop and we utilise early knowledge for later understanding.

There are many examples of these processes in action - usually we learn the basics of a subject or skill before progressing to intermediate, advanced and ultimately expert levels.  At each stage we build on the knowledge and experience we have already acquired, gaining further knowledge, experience or techniques and repeating the learning cycle.

Learning Capacity

Our individual learning capacity varies considerably and will depend not only on ability but also on motivation, personality, learning style and an awareness of our own learning processes. 

Working on an awareness of your own learning processes means 'learning how to learn'. For example, in university settings students are usually taught some study skills, which include learning how to seek information when needed and how to use it appropriately.

In Summary

Learning is an internal activity and a key personal development skill.

Learning is not something that can be directly observed in others. We can, however, observe the results of learning in ourselves and others – this is why, in formal learning situations, assessment is such a crucial part of the teaching process.

The results of academic assessment, essays, exams etc. are simply attempts to measure how much an individual has learnt but they cannot measure the actual process of learning.

Learning brings about changes in the way we act, think and/or feel about ourselves, other people and the world around us. Such changes may be permanent or temporary depending on our own perceptions of the importance and relevance of the gained knowledge.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

Skills You Need

Develop the skills you need to make the most of your time as a student.

Our eBooks are ideal for students at all stages of education, school, college and university. They are full of easy-to-follow practical information that will help you to learn more effectively and get better grades.