Seven Principles of learning for training and education providers:

Principle 1: Utilize and stimulate the senses

Mental activity is stimulated through our five senses. Research suggests the following as percentages of how much each sense contributes to our learning:

The greater the combination of our senses that are stimulated in learning, the more successful the learning is likely to be. For example, it is estimated that we learn:


of what we read


of what we hear


of what we see


of what we see and hear


of what we discuss


of what we experience


of what we teach

It is for this reason that an active approach to learning is advocated. The need to engage students in thinking, questioning and doing real work activities is central to promoting effective learning.

Principle 2: Recognize the learning curve

Learning is a continuous process, but it does not progress at the same rate. For example, when you start to learn something new, there is often little progress for a while, then you are likely to experience a spurt in learning when you seem to learn quite a lot quickly.

However, you then often experience a plateau in your learning when little progress seems to be made, even though you are working just as hard as before. At this time you are consolidating what you already have learned. Usually sustained effort is needed to create a new learning spurt.

It is important, therefore, to help students to become aware of these spurts and plateaus in their learning. This will help them to maintain their confidence and motivation when experiencing plateaus in learning.

Principle 3: Don’t abuse the attention span

Attention plays a crucial role in learning. Without good attention, learning is likely to partial and ineffective. Of course, our ability to maintain attention is greater if we are motivated.

The implications of this for teaching are very important. It shows that long periods of talk by the instructor, without opportunities for student participation, are likely to be ineffective as a method of teaching. This is a typical mistake made by instructors who think that more input by them equals more learning. This is clearly shown to be incorrect. Your own experience of being a student will fully bear this out.

Principle 4: Encourage the effective use of memory

As pointed out earlier in this unit, the acquisition of knowledge is a key component of effective learning. We need both to memorise and understand knowledge. In this section we will focus on how memory works, the problem of forgetting and the implications for how we teach.

How memory works

It is useful to think of our memory systems as possessing two interrelated components:

  • A short-term memory system (STM), which can only cope with approximately seven bits of information at one go.
  • A long term memory system (LTM), which has almost an infinite capacity for storing information. This contains all the information we can recall.

The effective transfer of information from STM to LTM is crucial for the acquisition of knowledge. In order to achieve this transfer, it is essential that the information makes sense to the learner (is meaningful); is in manageable chunks (around seven bits); is organized; and is sufficiently rehearsed (repeated a number of times until easily recalled).

How forgetting occurs

There are a number of theories concerning forgetting. Most important for our purpose as instructors is that over 60% of factual information will be lost within 48 hours if there is no subsequent rehearsal or review of what was learned. Skills and understanding are much more resistant to forgetting. For example, once you learn to swim, it is unlikely that you will ever forget how to swim, even if you do not swim for many years.

The more information is reviewed in the first day or so after it is ‘learned’, the more likely is the chance of it becoming established in long term memory.

Implications for teaching and learning

It is most important that students are made aware of these basic principles of memory. This will save them making the typical mistake of trying to memorise too much too quickly. From the point of view of teaching, we must recognise that if we speak for long periods, there is little likelihood that much information will actually be memorised. It is important to keep information well organised and allow students time to digest the content, either through question an answer sessions or activities.

(NB. Module 2 ‘Instructional Methods’, considers the various ways to in which learning can be made more effective).

Principle 5: Try to motivate students in their learning

Motivation is crucial for effective learning. Students can learn effectively and independently when they are interested in what they are learning. However, much of classroom learning is often perceived as uninteresting, which make the learning process more difficult.

Principle 6: Accommodate different learning styles

There is a body of evidence to suggest that as individuals we have our own characteristic ways of processing information, feeling and behaving in learning situations. In basic terms this means that while all of us learn through acquiring knowledge, thinking and doing, we have different approaches and preferences in terms of how we do these activities.

One area of research has shown that there can be significant differences in the ways in which people approach a learning task. For example, some people will try to get an overall picture or understanding of the task before they focus on more specific details and linkages. In contrast, other people will approach the task in a more sequential manner, making linkages gradually and methodically, and only building up to an understanding of the overall task much later in the learning process. The most effective learners seem to be able to adopt both of these styles simultaneously and in a versatile manner.

Another main area of research in this area has identified preferences in terms of learning modality. Some people clearly have preferences in terms of using the following sensory modalities in learning:

  • visual seeing pictures, words, diagrams
  • auditory listening to explanations
  • kinesthetic actually doing the activity

There are important implications in different learning styles and modality preferences for the ways in which we teach. These differences clearly suggest the need for learning to involve the range of senses and provide many different ways in which learners can go about their learning. Of course, it is not possible for instructors to cater for all preferences all the time. However, it serves as a reminder to use a range of instruction methods and provide a variety of learning sources for students whenever possible.

Principle 7: Ensure effective feedback in the learning process

Feedback is crucial to effective learning in the following important ways.

  • Feedback identifies the present state of learning.
  • Feedback highlights what needs to be learned and suggests how to proceed with such learning.
  • Feedback monitors progress in learning, helping to diagnose problems quickly and find effective solutions.
  • Feedback provides positive reinforcement for learning achievements.
  • Many students suffer frustration and may lose self-esteem if they find that they are not succeeding in learning a particular subject or skill. Very often they lack a prior competence or are employing incorrect technique. Without skilful feedback and guidance from the instructor many students may lose motivation and fail in their learning.