Learning is acquiring skills or knowledge.

Throughout history, several learning theories have guided psychologists, educators, instructional designers, and others who are concerned with providing knowledge and skills to children and adults. Among these theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, design-based learning, humanism, and twenty-first century skills. Although theories seem to matter little, they have guided the foundations for education systems, parenting, work skills training, and other types of learning. For example, B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning methods, a behaviorist approach, a parent might reward a child who brings home good grades with a small toy or ice cream.

Learning often is based on research that shows how people learn. For example, it would be unreasonable to expect anyone, no matter how intelligent, to learn how to repair a jet engine overnight. The person needs a set of basic skills that they build upon. Most formal learning is based on some concept of foundations, such as prerequisite courses in college before moving on to more advanced and focused courses. In addition, developmental psychologists have studied ages at which children are best able to learn certain skills. For example, Jean Piaget was likely the first psychologist to systematically study cognitive development. Based on his observations, he divided child development into stages according to age. He stated that a children could not manipulate ideas in their heads until they could reason about abstract ideas, at age eleven years and older. Of course, there always are exceptions to the rule, and some of these ideas are being questioned today, such as whether a child can reason at a younger age than was once considered possible. In addition, some people learn better by seeing concepts demonstrated, and some by actually performing them. Some can simply hear or read about a task and then perform it. Student-centered learning is a more recent approach that encourages instructors to address the individual needs of each student to meet his or her distinct learning needs and even cultural backgrounds.

Formal learning takes place in planned and structured circumstances, usually in some sort of classroom or lecture situation, including colleges and universities, public and private schools, and workplaces. Formal learning begins with set objectives, such as learning how to use a new medical device, and the learner attends the class, course, or workshop, or reviews the written or multimedia materials, with those set objectives in mind. Informal learning is unintentional and has no clear structure or objectives. The value of experience is a classic example of informal learning. A gardener might have no formal education in horticulture, but remembers watching and helping around the family farm as a child. The child absorbed learning from constant exposure to farming techniques with no intention of learning at the time.

Research into the psychology of learning has focused more recently on the brain and neuroscience. By studying how the brain, cognition, and behavior contribute to learning, psychologists can help teachers and other instructors be more successful. One of their findings is the importance of engagement, or how involved and interested the learner is in a learning activity. When students can solve problems in simulated examples, they tend to remember knowledge better. Other findings include how far a student can reach in understanding a concept explained by an instructor before it is too much information. Metacognition is a student's self-awareness, or one's own ability to monitor learning progress.

In the twenty-first century, there are calls from policy makers, employers, and others for children and adults who are learning formally and informally to think critically and creatively. Sometimes called “deeper learning,” or meaningful learning, the idea is to help people gain knowledge at the level that they can take what they learn in one situation and transfer that knowledge to a different situation. Instead of simply repeating or recalling facts and information, the learner can synthesize the information. Research also continues on how to test, or assess, deeper learning.

One reason for an emphasis on deeper learning is the increased need for young people and graduating adults with science and technology skills. Rapid advancement of new technologies means that some young people have greater knowledge or skills in some areas, but their parents and older co-workers have the type of knowledge gained from experience in the world. New ideas about learning discuss ways that people can improve how to teach and learn from one another. Technology supports sharing of information and is having an effect on nearly all aspects of everyday life and work around the modern world. It's also contributing to new methods of educational delivery. E-learning, or learning through the Internet and other electronic technology is now an accepted form of learning formally and informally, and will continue to gain acceptance.


A psychology theory that bases human behavior on conditioning.
Cognitive development—
Cognitive refers to the brain's functioning and thought processes. Cognitive development is the development of skills such as reasoning and problem solving, and processing of information.
The study of the brain and nervous system.
Combine, or work new information into existing information to make a rational whole.

What's more, learning should not stop with formal schooling. Many professions, such as health care and trades, require continuing education to maintain licenses to practice. U.S. employers invest at least $50 billion a year in training of their employees, including salaries of their employees for the time spent in courses or other training settings.Lifelong learning is the concept that an individual never stops seeking or gaining knowledge, but continues, helping adults master skills and tools.

See also Learning: e-learning and augmented learning ; Learning: formal and informal ; Learning: multimedia learning .



Brown, Peter C, Henry L. Roedgiger, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. New York: Belknap Press, 2014.

Dilemuth, Julie. Lucy in the City: A Story About Developing Spatial Thinking Skills. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2015.

Pellegrino, James W., and Margaret L. Hilton, eds. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, National Research Council. Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012.


Pierce, Matt. “Training for the New Year: Formal vs. Informal Learning.” Training Magazines. http://www.trainingmag.com/training-new-year-formal-vsinformal-learning (accessed August 24, 2015).

Wu, Po Chi. “How Is education Becoming Irrelevant? Education Vs Learning.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/jacobs-staff/201505/how-is-education-becoming-irrelevant-education-vslearning (accessed August 24, 2015).


Partnership for 21st Century Learning., 1 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC, 20001, (202) 312-6429, http://www.p21.org/index.php .