What do we mean by 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” (Ambrose et al, 2010, p. 3). The change in the learner may happen at the level of knowledge, attitude or behavior.

We know that the human brain is immensely complex and still somewhat of a mystery. It follows then, that we understand learning—a primary function of the brain—in many different ways. If you are searching for a definition of learning, these ten explanations show the multitude of ways that learning can be understood and described.

The Definitions

  1. “A change in human disposition or capability that persists over a period of time and is not simply ascribable to processes of growth.”
    — From The Conditions of Learning by Robert Gagne
  2. “Learning is the relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behavior due to experience. This definition has three components: 1) the duration of the change is long-term rather than short-term; 2) the locus of the change is the content and structure of knowledge in memory or the behavior of the learner; 3) the cause of the change is the learner’s experience in the environment rather than fatigue, motivation, drugs, physical condition or physiologic intervention.”
    –From Learning in Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Richard E. Mayer
  3. “We define learning as the transformative process of taking in information that—when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced—changes what we know and builds on what we do. It’s based on input, process, and reflection. It is what changes us.”
    –From The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner
  4. “It has been suggested that the term learning defies precise definition because it is put to multiple uses. Learning is used to refer to (1) the acquisition and mastery of what is already known about something, (2) the extension and clarification of meaning of one’s experience, or (3) an organized, intentional process of testing ideas relevant to problems. In other words, it is used to describe a product, a process, or a function.”
    –From Learning How to Learn: Applied Theory for Adults by R.M. Smith
  5. “Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.” (Listen to an interview with one of the authors.)
    From Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. BrownHenry L. Roediger IIIMark A. McDaniel
  6. “A process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential of improved performance and future learning.”
    From How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose, et al.
  7. “The process of gaining knowledge and expertise.”
    From The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles
  8. “Learning involves strengthening correct responses and weakening incorrect responses. Learning involves adding new information to your memory. Learning involves making sense of the presented material by attending to relevant information, mentally reorganizing it, and connecting it with what you already know.”
    From eLearning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth C. Clark and Richard E. Mayer
  9. “A persisting change in human performance or performance potential…[which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world.”
    From Psychology of Learning for Instruction by M. Driscoll
  10. “Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.”
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