Psychology of learners and learning

I continue to share brief lessons from the modules in Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching, a free massive open online course (MOOC) designed for new teachers, those who wish to enhance student learning or teaching practice and emerging leaders in higher education.There are 24 modules in total and 4 possible pathways through the MOOC.

The current semester ends on July 1st and we will shortly be opening Session 2, 2023 for enrolment. It is not too late to join Session 1 if you would like to check out the modules on offer! Sign up at and use the following join code: 64BHPE.

Psychology of Learners and Learning is Module 9. It is the first module in the ‘Enhancing student learning’ pathway through the course.

Developed by Penny van Bergen (University of Wollongong), Alissa Beath (Macquarie University) and Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University), this module introduces ideas about learners and learning that are drawn from educational psychology.

In a series of engaging videos, the module considers questions such as: How does learning work? What is memory? How do people initially store (encode) and later remember (retrieve) information?

Memory is a complex process. The modal model of memory shows three distinct types of memory: sensory, working, and long-term memory.

The module explores concepts such as cognitive load, shallow and deep encoding, evidence-based encoding strategies to optimise learning, self-efficacy, growth mindset, and motivation. Importantly, the focus is how educators can design, deliver and assess instructional material to maxi

Importantly, the focus is how educators can design, deliver and assess instructional material to maximise learning for all learners.

Ask yourself: How are you focusing your students’ attention and keeping things active in their working memory? Are you providing small amounts of information in working memory-sized pieces? How are you supporting students to encode knowledge and skills in long-term memory?

My favourite part of the module is when Penny and Alissa challenge five commonly held myths about learning and teaching. As the comments from participants in the course reveal, there is one myth that is widely believed.

Claim: Learners learn best through their preferred learning style, which could be visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic/tactile.

This is a persistent myth! The reality is that people are NOT split into visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic/tactile learners (Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones & Jolles, 2012; Nancekivell, Shah & Gelman, 2019). Everyone learns using the same brain processes and systems. Information from the world comes into sensory memory via all five senses, not simply vision or hearing. When we pay attention, that sensory information is drawn into working memory and processed for meaning. If processed deeply enough, it is then encoded from working memory into long-term memory and held in schemas.

Of course, people can and do have preferences for different modes of learning. While teaching that aligns with students’ learning preferences (like watching movies!) could help engagement, there is an unintended consequence: these same preferences may not always match well with the knowledge and skills that you hope for students to build (Carter et al., 2020). As educators, therefore, it is important to use a range of different modalities that best match what needs to be learned (Nancekivell et al., 2019).

Myth busted!

Image credits: Modal model of meory created by module authors. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

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