Understanding The Science Of Learning And Our Role In The Process

It is a blessing and a curse.

Over the past 10-20 years, there have been numerous books, articles, and videos centered around the idea of cognitive science—or the science of how we learn.

Still, many of those books and videos focused on one specific stage to the learning process and did not give a full overview of what it looked like to not know something, to know something, and then be able to use that knowledge and understanding in the world.

This (to me) is one of the most important pieces of information we can have as a teacher, coach, or leader. It should be the foundation of our practice.

If we want to teach to the best of our abilities, we should have a clear understanding of how our students learn, and what helps them learn best.

But, we tend to only hit the science of learning in one (maybe two) undergraduate courses, before losing much of that information by the time we actually start working with students. It is rarely brought up in professional development. I have almost never seen it mentioned at the numerous education conferences around the world.

And, when I’ve asked the question to teachers and leaders, most don’t have a clear understanding of how we learn.

To be honest. Neither did I.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I did (and still do). It’s that I was filling my mind with all other types of information relating to teaching and learning, without starting with the first principles of why we learn and how we learn.

So, when I stumbled on the work of Peter Nilsson, I was blown away to see the science of learning made so clear. Nilsson is a teacher and school leader who works at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, and he has read extensively on the field of cognitive science. His 14-part series on “The Cognitive Science of Education” is a must read for any educator (or parent) serious about understanding the way our brain process all this information we get each day.

Here is Peter Nilsson describing the four stages to learning on his blog, Sense and Sensation:

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So how do people learn? What are the mechanics of memory? Can we distill thousands of articles and books to something that is manageable, digestible, and applicable to our classrooms?

Yes. In brief, the cognitive process of learning has four basic stages:

1. Attention: the filter through which we experience the world

2. Encoding: how we process what our attention admits into the mind

3. Storage: what happens once information enters the brain

4. Retrieval: the recall of that information or behavior

Almost everything we do or know, we learn through these stages, for our learning is memory, and the bulk of our memory is influenced by these four processes: what we pay attention to, how we encode it, what happens to it in storage, and when and how we retrieve it.

How We Learn

Let’s start with Attention. Going back to a previous post on why we learn, it all begins with attention. Most of the time we pay attention for two reasons: Interest or Necessity.

Our brain is flooded with information from a multi-sensory world that is throwing sounds, sights, feelings, and everything else at us in rapid succession. With all of this information coming at us we tend to pay attention to things that we are curious and interested about, or information that has a direct correlation to our physical, emotional, or psychological well-being.

Then comes the Encoding. Our senses are being hit with so much information that when we finally process that information we begin to categorize it as a new experience or a connected experience with prior knowledge.

After we’ve successfully paid attention and made some connections (or created new information) we come to the Storage stage. Here we store this new or connected information in our short-term, working, or long-term memory. Where it is stored and how it is stored is associated with how powerful of an experience it is/was, and how often we bring that experience back into our daily lives.

Retrieval is the final stage. This is when we pull information out of the memory to help us in learning something new, or adapting to a situation, or connecting the dots on an experience. Retrieval also allows us to “re-encode” which starts the learning process all over again. It’s like a mini-version of the unlearning/relearning cycle we discussed in the last article.

You can think about how this cycle of learning works in all different types of contexts and experiences. From real-world applications like driving a car, to classroom situations like understanding photosynthesis, the more we retrieve information and connect it to new experiences, the stronger our understanding becomes around that topic and idea.

Which is why most of you reading this post have a better sense of how to drive a car then how photosynthesis works. Even though photosynthesis happens every day all around you, it does not impact you, or in other words, it does not grab your attention. Driving a car, on the other hand, is connected to your daily life as an adult for work, pleasure, and all other kinds of reasons.

Our students, just like all of us, tend to prioritize the learning of things that will impact them. It is in our nature to pay attention (and kick off the learning process) to information that is connected to our interests and needs.

Our Role in the Process

I spent five years in a band around musicians who could play multiple instruments and I never learned how to play guitar, or the drums, or the piano. I spent countless hours writing lyrics but was too scared to really spend time learning an instrument. Want to know why? I had bad experiences. Whether it was the trumpet in fifth grade or the piano at my house, I categorized myself as someone who could never learn an instrument.

I didn’t follow through the entire learning process, as described in this diagram of Kolb’s Learning Cycle.

Note: Kolb’s Learning Cycle is important, in that it shows us what is happening outside the brain when we are learning. Sure, we learn internally through attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval. But, how do we get there? What experiences propel that process?


I would play the guitar (concrete experience), have little to no success (reflective observation), and then conclude I was bad at playing the guitar and would never get any better (abstract conceptualization). So, active experimentation never truly happened because I’d already pegged myself at a skill level…

Does this sound like you at all? Does it sound like any students in your class? Does it sound like any of your children?

It’s why learning in isolation is often so difficult. We have little-to-no feedback to rely on except for how we perceive the process. It’s also why teachers, coaches, mentors, and guides are so vital to learning. Let’s look at the diagram again, but this time with a mentor available and willing to help guide you along the way:


Learning changes with a teacher/coach/guide/mentor. Teachers inspire, challenge, and help push learners to active experimentation, even when we as learners aren’t sure about our perceived skills.

I see this all the time with my own kids. Whether they are learning to ride a bike, talk for the first time, or understanding the basics of math, the feedback is critical to their learning process.

Our role then is to be that guide on the ride. We are a part of the learning journey, understanding the science of how people learn and applying that theory to our daily practice as a teacher, coach, mentor, and leader.

The science of learning can show us practical ways to be a better guide, and provide a higher-level learning experience.

Over the past year, I’ve been busy developing, creating, and putting together a new course all about how we learn. Here are all the details:

Theory to Practice: The Science of Learning

In the course, we share 10 Research-Backed Ways to Boost Learning and Performance. 

You’ll get access to:

  • 10 Modules (each focused on one key area of learning research)— Work through the course module-by-module focusing on the research and the practice.
  • Benchmarks and Action Items — Every learning module has specific actions for you to try out.
  • Online Community — Join the Private FB Group and get 24/7 access to our community.
  • Downloads and Templates — We share many templates and downloads throughout that you can tweak and modify to make your own.

It is definitely NOT content overload. Each video is 11 minutes or less with specific ways the research can impact your practice as a teacher, coach, or leader. The course has two main objectives:

  • Goal #1: Understanding the Research — First, we need to see what works.
  • Goal #2: Putting It Into Practice — Next, we need to understand how to apply the practice to our situation.

We just released the course for the first time.

And, for a limited time.

It will be free.

Yep, that’s right. FREE.

The Science of Learning Course is part of the new PBL Academy.

More on the Academy in the coming weeks, but for now check out our new course, Theory to Practice: The Science of Learning. 

Join 76,000 other learners (and teachers)

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Susan Close says:

    Thank you. I love to learn with people interested in applying cognitive & neuroscience findings . Can’t wait to start.

  • Suzanne Hill says:

    Theory to Practice: The Science of Learning is right up my alley as a special educator! Please allow me access if possible to the course!
    Thanks a million,
    Suzanne Hill

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