How We Learn New Things

How We Learn – What can go Wrong? What can be done to maximize learning efficiency?


How We Learn New Things – A Conceptual Model


  1. Something gets our attention
    1. We orient toward a stimulus
    2. Stimulus quality drives affinity to stay focused
    3. What could go wrong?
      1. Must have relevance to the learner
      2. Must not be too easy so it creates interest
  • Must not be too difficult to understand
  1. Must not be competing with other stimuli that may be of greater interest
  2. Must have the cognitive processing sophistication to manage the incoming information effectively


  1. Central Executor is awakened
    1. One’s awareness becomes engaged with the stimulus (new information). Frontal brain regions enlisted to increase attention and “we become aware” (working memory is activated)
    2. We start to accumulate/package new information into bundles for analysis
    3. Consciousness is aroused, and old memories related to the new situation are summoned from long term memory
    4. What could go wrong?
      1. Short term memory/working memory limitations (i.e., cannot hold enough of the necessary information in awareness)
      2. One may need more time than average peers to process information
  • Weaknesses in sensory systems may impede listening skills, writing skills, auditory processing skills, language skills, etc. to manage incoming information
  1. Weaknesses in attentional vigilance, a low threshold for becoming distracted, or difficulties with attentional shift may impede this stage
  2. Weaknesses in “inhibitory control.” Top down processing may result in not recognizing what the stimulus is not, which results in careless, impulsive decisions


  1. Old Memories are surveyed and compared to the new situation (Long Term Memories)
    1. The more old knowledge related to the new situation at hand, the easier the understanding and learning
    2. Cognitive systems (processing abilities) necessary to manage the load and sensory information must efficiently continue to manage incoming information and begin to integrate new stuff with old stuff
    3. Information being presented for learning has some intrinsic value to the learner (they care) or maintaining attention will be easily compromised as ones shifts to something with more intrinsic reinforcement value
    4. What could go wrong?
      1. No adequate prerequisite knowledge
      2. Old information is not easily accessible
  • Limited space in working memory
  1. Difficulty establishing relationships or seeing consistencies/links between new information and old information


  1. Subtypes of Long Term Memory
    1. Declarative
      1. Episodic – refers to memories and experiences from real life; events often referred to as autobiographic memories
      2. Semantic – refers to how much you know about new learning situations (fact-based)
    2. Procedural – These are memories you are not aware of that have become so ingrained that you do not even have to think about them (e.g., the ability to chew, drive a car, ride a bike, throw a ball, use tools, remember math procedures, spell words, write without thinking of how to form the letters, read fluently without thinking about the words, etc.)


  1. Association and Insight (the “ah ha” phase)
    1. What is actually going on here and how can I load this information into what I already know about this topic?
    2. Can one see novel ways to use this information to problem solve and add to their personal reservoir of knowledge?
    3. What could go wrong?
      1. Difficulty with cognitive processing requirements to see relationships between seemingly unrelated variables
      2. Difficulty holding enough information in immediate awareness (consciousness) to be available for inductive and deductive reasoning
  • Lack of prerequisite knowledge (general knowledge)


  1. Short Term Storage
    1. New information being positioned for long term consolidation
    2. This is where newly learned information is stored for moments or days, not forever.
    3. What could go wrong?
      1. We don’t have enough prerequisite knowledge to make sense of what we are trying to learn
      2. We don’t have the cognitive processes (typically nonverbal reasoning abilities) to see abstract, implied relationships between variables
  • We lack the mental imagery abilities to see and understand concepts and how they relate to other concepts and old knowledge


  1. Long Term Memory Consolidation
    1. Information stored in temporary storage is sorted and moved to discrete locations in the cortex for later use. What is irrelevant or deemed unimportant is discarded. There is change in neuronal patterns (rewiring of neuronal pathways) to reflect new learning. This process is termed long term potentiation. Neuronal cells are reorganized to understand and integrate new information into existing circuitry (new memories are laid down)
    2. This process occurs primarily at specific stages and phases in the healthy sleep cycle
    3. Sleep spindles – longitudinal neurons that project long distances compare what is being learned to other distance concepts; searching for overlap
    4. Once understood and deemed worthy of remembering (subconscious process) these memories should be available for future use
    5. What could go wrong?
      1. Limited ability to conceptualize, compare, and contrast new information to existing knowledge
      2. Limited short term/working memory abilities; not much available to move to LTM
  • Difficulty quickly retrieving information from LTM
  1. Poor sleep hygiene – not enough time sleeping, not cycling through sleep phases appropriately, etc.
  2. Too much anxiety present – cortisol levels are too high, and this inhibits learning


  1. A new basis of knowledge is now available for future learning
    1. The cycle repeats itself with a stronger foundation to load new memories (learn more)


Memory, Learning, and Early Exposure

If one can grasp the key components of the “How We Learn New Things” model described above, they will recognize that the key concepts to learning are as follows:

  1. Having adequate levels of attentional skills to stay engaged with what is being presented to be learned:
    1. Recommendations for improving attention
      1. Teaching children to “attend” for longer and longer blocks of time to neutral stimuli or slightly non-desirable stimuli (boring stuff) can be incorporated into parenting styles
      2. Games that require sustained attention can be incorporated into play time
  • Clinical applications through “computer exercises” are available to assist with increasing/improving attentional vigilance and attentional shift


  1. Having strong working memory abilities (so as to have information adequately stored in short term storage for later consolidation):
    1. Recommendations for improving working memory
      1. Cogmed Working Memory Training (
      2. Games that encourage short term memory and working memory demands
        1. Battle Ship
        2. Card Games
        3. Simon Says
  1. David Newman’s book, Working Memory Activities: A workbook to develop memory skills (
  1. Long Term Memory Sophistication:
    1. Recommendations for improving declarative and procedural memory
      1. Talk to your children a lot
      2. Take your children to lots of places (e.g., zoos, parks, nature trips, vacations, historical sites, etc.)
  • Play games encouraging science, math, geography, and history
  1. Play games that encourage vocabulary skills development
  2. Introduce your children to harder words whenever possible – don’t wait for school to do it


  1. Having adequate cognitive processing abilities in order to learn:
    1. For some children, the processing abilities to manage the sensory input, recognize relationships between seemingly unrelated variables, store memories, retrieve memories, process sound, generate written language, listen, etc. are compromised due to break downs in other cognitive systems
    2. If things are not going well, DON’T WATCH AND WAIT! If you have the time and resources, seek out a sophisticated school neuropsychological evaluation
    3. The more comprehensive the evaluation, the more clarity that can be shed on what is impeding new learning. All evaluations are not the same!


  1. Developing good Executive Function Skills:
    1. Do not provide immediate gratification (see this video for a replication of Stanford University’s “Marshmallow Experiment”:
    2. Seek out Executive Function Coaching
    3. Seek out a free Executive Function screening through the use of rating scale forms at Child Provider Specialists (contact Sandy at 954-577-3396)


  1. Having good sleep hygiene:
    1. Sleep hygiene is now being seen as the third wave in healthy living. Exercise and diet have been much more in the spotlight over the last 20 years. Sleep hygiene is the newest frontier. Proper or improper sleep patterns contribute enormously to memory consolidation, seeing abstract relationships, problem solving, and brain chemistry (restorative process). It is not a coincidence that the phrase “I’ll sleep on it” has emerged in our cultural vernacular
    2. Check out Matthew Walker’s latest book, Why We Sleep (



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