Educational Psychology: 20 Things Educators Need To Know About How Students Learn

October 1st, 2012 33 Comments Features

What makes a teacher successful?

Having an expertise in reading, writing, math or science is necessary, but the ability to transfer that knowledge into another person is what makes an excellent instructor stand out. What good is it if a teacher has all the facts, but cannot communicate them in a way that others can comprehend?

Educational psychology

Aside from comprehending the curriculum content, teachers should have a basic understanding of how people acquire and absorb knowledge.

The following list highlights 20 principles of educational psychology every teacher should know.

1. Students Learn Differently

It may seem obnoxiously obvious, but how many classrooms are currently designed with one learning style in mind?

Worksheets and flashcards work well for students who absorb knowledge visually, but for a child who needs to hear the information in order to grasp it, traditional methods of teaching force him or her to use a physical sense that is not as well-developed.

The visual learner doesn’t have the same opportunity to stretch his or her other senses. If a teacher comes to the classroom with the basic knowledge that students learn differently, they will be better equipped to arrange the lessons in such a way that all senses are activated.

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2. Reinforce

Take geography as an example. According to educational psychology, if a teacher is instructing a class of kids about the fifty states and capitals in the United States, it should be reinforced three different ways.

For the visual learner, use maps and worksheets. For the auditory learner, create a song that helps them remember what state and capital go together. For kinesthetic learners, activate the body. Perhaps a teacher could do hand motions with the song, or do a map game on the floor, where students have to hop from state to state as the capitals are called out.

3. Consider Kinesthetic Learners

Of all three types of learning, the kinesthetic learners are the hardest bunch to teach in a traditional setting. Oftentimes, they need to touch, taste, and move through knowledge in order to absorb it. This requires space and opportunity that many traditional classrooms do not allow for.

Kinesthetic learners need to be allowed to try something, watch it fail, and learn from the experience. While this can be difficult logistically with a large class, implementing kinesthetic strategies will not just help a few kids, but will stretch the other students who aren’t naturally bent towards that type of learning.

4. There Are Seven Learning Styles

Taken from Learning Styles Online.

  1. Visual: Using sight
  2. Auditory: Using songs or rhythms
  3. Verbal: Speaking out loud the information
  4. Kinesthetic: Using touch and taste to explore the information
  5. Logical: A more mathematical approach to concepts
  6. Interpersonal: Learning in groups
  7. Intrapersonal: Learning alone

5. Make It Relevant

Bored students

Information is only stored permanently when it relates to day-to-day living. For example, math concepts must be reinforced in real life examples or the student will have no reason to absorb the information beyond the exam.

History is one of the more difficult subjects to bring into the present, since it mainly deals with past events, dates, and people. Finding strategies rooted in educational psychology to bring it to life will help with learning.

As much as possible, history should be experienced through first-hand accounts, museums, field trips and other enrichment activities.

6. Failure Is a Fabulous Teacher

People learn from failure. In fact, ask any major successful person what helped them and usually it will involve a story that harkens back to a big “mess-up”. Failure teaches even better than a perfect score on a test.

Classic grading systems don’t help with this theory, as grades have become inflated, feared, and used as judge and jury about who learned what. Contrary to popular belief, learning from failure is anything but easy. It’s not just about “reflecting” upon what you did.

If you’d like to read about failure and learning, check out this Harvard Business Review article – the article is mainly about organizations but its lesson apply as much to classrooms.

7. Integrate The Curriculum

Rather than keeping each subject separate, curriculums that use thematic units work well to blend knowledge together in a way that is useful and memorable.

For example, a unit on Egyptian history could incorporate history lessons, a unit on linguistics and language (with the hieroglyphics), a science unit (physics and the building of the pyramids), a writing unit (a report on a child’s favorite Egyptian monument), and reading a book about the ancient culture.

8. Define “Learning”

Educational psychology teaches us to pause and consider what learning really means. The word “learn” has various definitions. In the classroom, it can be the ability to spout back facts and information on a test. While this is one form of learning, there are other forms of learning that are just as important. Taken from Route Ledge Education:

  • Memorization
  • Acquiring facts or procedures
  • Understanding reality
  • Making sense of the world

9. Care For Introverts

When Susan Cain released her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, earlier this year, it drew a lot of attention onto an important topic: introversion vs extraversion. The debate, of course, reached the classroom and according to an Edweek article, teachers might be against their introverted students.

Are you?

It’s easy to assume that “group work” is always the best approach. That students who raise their hands are attentive. And that students who prefer to work alone are loners. All of which, are not necessarily true. Take some time to read up on the latest educational psychology on the topic.

10. Create Space

Lecture hall

This is a psychological and logistical suggestion. Creativity is the birthplace of true learning, where a student can initiate thoughts, ideas, problems, and make connections between concepts.

Creativity requires the activation of the right side of the brain. Space allows the opportunity for creativity to ignite. Logistically, give students a place to stretch out, move away from a desk, or gaze at the sky outside. In the context of a lesson, allow for brainstorming sessions. Leave gaps in the order so students can create their own projects using the facts and theories in the lesson.

A teacher enables a student to learn when he or she becomes a quiet mentor on the sidelines, rather than the dictator of every move or step.

[Read more about how space affects learning]

11. Brief And Organized “Bites”

When a person wants to memorize a phone number, they divide the digits into easy to remember patterns.

This is because the brain struggles to hold onto a long list of numbers, but can do so when they are organized meaningfully. The same principle applies to lectures. Educational psychology tells us a 30-minute lecture that is not structured with categories, or organized into easy-to-recall bullets, will not be as effective.

Using another example, the media produces the news in sound bytes because they know they only have a small window of time in which to grab a person’s attention; teachers would do well to study the marketing techniques of media in order to assemble information that is retainable.

12. Use Several Different Angles

For example, if a science teacher is lecturing on photosynthesis, the students will benefit from hitting the same concept at different angles.

First, the teacher explains the overarching concept. This provides framework and context. Second, he explores each part of the process in greater detail. Third, he explains the whole process again, this time encouraging students to ask questions. Fourth, he asks the students to explain it back to him.

Finally, he takes the process and inserts it into a relevant everyday situation that stretches the students to apply the information in a real life example. As he reinforces the concept with different angles, the brain is better able to organize the information. Trying to hit all of the points in one explanation will overwhelm most students. This tip has been confirmed throughout the years in literature on educational psychology.

13. Proper Method For The Material

In the quest for deeper learning, some professors might dismiss the concept of shallow learning; the simple recall of theories, facts, and rules. However, educational psychology tells us there is some validity to rote memorization and the ability to regurgitate rules and facts, depending on the information.

For example, to learn the multiplication tables from 0-12, shallow learning is helpful (flash cards, timed quizzes, etc.). However, implementing this technique for a history lesson will not serve the subject matter.

A student may know all the dates of important world wars, but without understanding the social themes and lessons learned from these atrocities, have they really absorbed the importance of studying history?

14. Use Technology


Never before in human history has there been such unparalleled access to knowledge and information. With the tap of a tablet or smartphone, a student can get instant answers to questions that used to mean a trip to the library’s dusty encyclopedia section.

This means that memorization is no longer as necessary as it once was 100 years ago. Oral traditions and the passing along of information verbally are nearly extinct. Rather than resist the advance of technology, teachers can take the opportunity to go deeper with students, since they do not have to waste time trying to drill facts that are a fingertip away.

Rather, explore themes, study deeper sociological issues, teach the art of invention and creativity, discover the philosophy of critical thinking, and encourage innovation. This is less educational psychology than it is paying attention to the times.

15. Let Them Teach

One of the most effective methods for absorbing knowledge is to teach the knowledge back to another. Provide students with ample opportunity to give lectures, presentations, and develop lesson plans of their own.

Teachers can instruct students to create a lesson plan for a much younger child, even if the concept is difficult. This forces students to simplify the theory, find relatable stories and real life examples, and deconstruct the concepts into bite size pieces.

16. Create Hunger And Curiosity

We know from educational psychology, as well as simple observation, that when students are interested in a subject their ability to learn greatly increases. They have more focus, tenacity, initiative, engagement, and investment in the material. Teachers can give students the freedom to choose their own topics, which enhances a class that may be stuck in a rut or lacking motivation.

Learning how to whet a student’s appetite for information sets them up to go after the answer with a sense of hunger.

17. Brainstorming: Not Always Effective


The age old saying, “Two heads are better than one,” is very true. Brainstorming is thought to be the birthplace of profound ideas.

But new studies in educational psychology suggest that that may not be true. Brainstorming introduces groupthink – a psychological phenomenon where the group forms its own beliefs – and when it doesn’t, the most charismatic individual tend to take over.

In fact, Jeremy Dean of Psyblog wrote about the subject,

“… Why not just send people off individually to generate ideas if this is more efficient? The answer is because of its ability to build consensus by giving participants the feeling of involvement in the process. People who have participated in the creative stage are likely to be more motivated to carry out the group’s decision.

In other words, groups are not where ideas are born. Groups are where ideas are evaluated.

18. Educational Psychology: Forming Habits

Psychologists agree that it takes approximately 30 days for a new habit to form. Parents who are teaching children a new routine (like brushing their own teeth) have to help their child for at least 30 consecutive days before the brain turns to “auto-pilot”.

This is the point at which it becomes a regular habit.

In learning, the same concept applies. Teachers can explain to students the importance of daily study rather than cramming information the night before. The small, incremental, and daily rehearsing of information paves a path in the brain that remains permanently.

Study habits can become regular with guided encouragement to keep going while the brain catches up to the new norm.

19. Feedback: Not Just What, But When

In the same way that failure stretches a person, feedback is crucial to how students learn. When they can understand their strengths and weaknesses, accept and receive constructive criticism, and be redirected to the areas that need assistance, the overall process of learning is enhanced.

That much you probably already know.

But studies have shown that when you give feedback matters just as much what feedback you give. Imagine taking a pill now and being able to see its effect in 5 years vs in 24 hours.

20. Teach How To Learn

“Learning” is an abstract concept to many.

By helping students understand the art of learning, the techniques of learning, as well as the different learning styles, they will be empowered by the process. It can be discouraging when a new topic or theory is evasive or difficult.

Students who understand how to learn will have more patience with themselves and others as they grasp new material.

Images by 50 Watts, Andy Mangold, Woodleywonderworks and


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

33 Responses

  1. Terry Joyes says:

    I have used Brainstorming on many occasions, and always with success. Successful usage depends upon the common understanding by everyone involved that certain necessary constraints are involved and that those constraints are not negotiable, although they vary according to the phase of the Brainstorming session. Essentially, Brinstorming allows every contribution initially to be acceptable, to be celebrated by recording, yet without comment; evaluation is delayed to a later phase. In this way everyone feels involved and significant. From this they grow in ownership of the exercise and in its propositions.
    The group leader’s role in taking particpants through the whole process is of paramount importance. It is his/her skill that brings successful fruition, the development of ideas.

    • Andrianes Pinantoan says:

      Hi Terry, this one’s a bit controversial. There are lots of anecdotal evidence of brainstorming’s effectiveness, but few studies actually showing it. For every study that show it’s effective, there’s another that shows it isn’t – that the latest ones support the latter.

      Have you tried the alternative? The fact that brainstorming did generate new ideas doesn’t mean working alone isn’t just as effective – or perhaps even more so.

      • Tammy says:

        I like to have students brainstorm their own ideas on paper for themselves then share their favorite ideas rather than using the pure form of everything goes.

      • jennifer G says:

        I use brainstorming with my class, but I ask them to think aalone for a couple of minutes, then combine.

  2. Adam Creelman says:

    Learning styles – really? The evidence is not there.

    • Melisa Warr says:

      Agreed. What research is this article based on??

      • rolledmint says:

        I’m not sure if you two are serious since the evidence is in living life every day. It’s common knowledge that there are different learning styles people use to learn a whole sort of things–visual being big one.

        Examples (with help from the site that was linked) for each on how each can be used to learn math:

        Visual: Physical objects such as a ball to explain trajectory. You could just label everything with a variable, but for most people it’d be much easier if you gave them something to visualize.

        Auditory: Catchy rhymes, mnemonics, to help learn formulas, etc.

        Verbal: Again, mnemonics, rhymes, etc. to memorize formulas.

        Kinesthetic: If possible, it can help to understand how a formula or an equation works by reproducing it yourself.

        Logical: For most people (including me) it helps to understand what the parts in a formula means and how they work together. The formula for the area of a circle for example, πr², didn’t mean anything to me when I was “taught” it and therefore I would get frustrated on why it was needed every time. Why pi? r²? What was the relation of these with the area of a circle?

        In regards to math, I see interpersonal and intrapersonal as just learning methods to suit extroverts and introverts (learning best with others vs alone). However, I think learning without aid from others is best unless you really need the help.

        Anyway, it’d really surprise me if you both have only used one method of learning throughout your life up till now. You can’t expect a person to learn to play baseball by getting him/her to watch a video on it.

        • jennifer G says:

          Here is a presentation from the 2014 IATEFL (International Association for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) about learning styles, and other examples of pseudo-science.

          ‘A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching’ by Russell Mayne.

    • Andrianes Pinantoan says:

      Hi Everyone, here’s a follow up post Saga wrote about this issue:

      • Carl Piaf says:

        You may want to take a look at this critical review of learning styles. This is a very thorough review and while it is focussed on post-16 education it shows that there is no conclusive evidence for learning styles per se, that there are a multitude of conflicting models and that other areas deserve much more focus. The multiple intelligences theory that you have posted is not about learning styles, but something else entirely. Respectfully, it seems that there is some confusion in the article over these concepts.

  3. […] more I study education and psychology, the more convinced I become that failure is one of the most important tools for learning. As […]

  4. […] of students that are virtually strangers. The time you take at the beginning to understand HOW they learn is not wasted. Try out Diane Heacox’s book called Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom for […]

  5. […] Equally as important, consider what the student has been learning in her other classes. Can you make it easier for her to grasp the French Revolution by cross-referencing A Tale of Two Cities, which she just read for a literature course? Better yet, can you help your entire class analyze March by Geraldine Brooks by asking the History instructor to cover the Civil War in the same week? These are great ways to provide customized, organizing schemata for your students’ ongoing cognitive activities. […]

  6. […] Because standardized tests are, by definition, meant to be administered, scored, and interpreted in a standardized and consistent manner, they ignore differences in student learning style and background. […]

  7. […] Many children are visual learners, and it helps to write on the board what the day’s schedule entails. This will allow them to know what book needs to be ready at what time, and should help transitions be easier on everyone during the day. […]

  8. […] learning styles. An instructor can also present these materials in many formats to accommodate different types of learning styles. For example, if an instructor puts both lecture notes and slides online, both visual and auditory […]

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  10. […] analysis and prediction of behavior across a huge variety of demographics, personal backgrounds, learning styles, thinking processes, IQ levels, academic intentions, genetic predisposition, environmental factors, […]

  11. […] The final piece (and associated website) come thanks to Rachel Allen. Educational Psychology: 20 Things Educators Need To Know About How Students Learn.  […]

  12. Adam Creelman says:

    Of course people learn in a variety of ways and there are differences between them, but the learning styles hypothesis is that one should cater instruction to the specific style that is inherent in each learner. There is virtually no evidence showing that intervention based on this has any significant effect. Look at the research.

  13. Fabulous article, Andraines, which I’ve posted as a link in Global Learning XPRIZE — and have suggested there that you be contacted to participate.

  14. Gergana Gerova says:

    Brainstorming should not be underestimated. It has two good effects in the classroom. First, it helps students see the whole picture of an issue, as everybody conrtibutes with their own idea, but they can always miss an element. It’s probably the best example of group work. The other effect is psychological: as everybody is invited to give their share of ideas and participate, even the introvert or just shy students are more likely to do it.

  15. […] in educational psychology tells us that we learn a concept or skill best when we have to teach it to someone else. With Adobe […]

  16. You offer many good points, Andrianes, but as an educator and researcher in Educational Psychology, I feel a responsibility to point out that there is little empirical evidence to support the notion of ‘learning styles.’ If you would like, I can point you to the relevant research. It’s been difficult to disabuse teachers of notions, so I would ask you to consider looking into the research further and posting more recent findings.


  17. lynn oliver says:

    I hope we learn how to free ourselves from the hardwired approach to learning and try to see how there are at least two very large, wonderful environmental variables/tools which may help many students and adults. I hope we can learn to redefine our average stress in a very new way as many maintained layers of mental work from many areas of our past, present, future experiences, circumstances along with many weight and values developed which may maintain and attract other maintained mental conflicts. I feel all of us have very different amounts of maintained layers of essential and non-essential mental work which take up real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think and learn new mental work thereby forcing some students to work harder to learn information. I feel situational stress goes on top of these average layers. Try to visualize an upright rectangle representing a finite amount of mental energy for thinking and learning. Now draw in from the bottom, narrowly spaced, horizontal lines to represent many layers of mental work taking up real mental energy. This will leave more free space for some students in more stable environments and much less for students in more unstable environments. I feel many of those layers are still “non-essential and can be more permanently reduced. Relaxation will not work because afterwards, when we approach a new mental work, we turn on our mental faucet and recharge all of those layers. There is a second, large variable/tool involving dynamics of pace and intensity in approaching newer mental work. I feel for many students, higher layers of mental work or higher average stress feeds into improper pace and intensity in approaching new mental work. I feel the proper dynamics of approaching newer mental work needs to be taught to even very young students – understanding that as our pace and intensity in approaching a mental work exceeds our immediate knowledge and experience “or present mental frames for that area” we intensify our average stress and make it harder to learn. I feel such variables/tools and others are essential to free students and adults from the very harmful genetics models and provide hope for all students. I feel knowing these large environmental variables exist and are at work in our lives will also do a lot to raise the esteem and hope for many students and remove that god awful weight given by the myth they may feel somehow less able than others.

  18. Vivian Sekaname says:

    I would like to know more about this topic.

    • Saga Briggs says:

      Hi Vivian, thanks for reading. Let us know which area you’re interested in and we’ll be sure to cover it in a future article.

  19. amina says:

    i’m pretty sure that failure is an opportunity to reach success. students should learn from their mistakes and creat new area for their skills. Moreover, Physical objects can be useful to tansfer the information easily, papers and drawing pictures also are important .

  20. Saiyed Ayaj Jamadar says:

    Thanks for the information.

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