Teaching And Learning Center

How Learning Happens


All activities of the mind, including learning in college, are activities of the brain. Understanding some of the basic processes of memory can illuminate the tasks we have as teachers.


Our goal as teachers is essentially to convert temporary brain activity in the classroom into permanent changes in the students' brains that they can access freely in the future. Psychologists who study learning and memory have identified 4 key overlapping steps in this process: attention, understanding (also called encoding for meaning), storage and retrieval. Strategies for teachers to use to help students successfully attend to, understand, store and retrieve complex ideas form the core of this website.


When sensory organs are stimulated by what we say or show in class, brief changes in neurons are maintained for a fraction of a second.  During this time the brain searches for patterns and determines the relevance of the stimulation. Any stimulation for which no pattern match is found (a word or image that is completely unknown) or which is deemed of low importance is not attended to and thus, immediately lost. Attention is therefore the necessary first step in learning.


Once stimulation is converted to recognized patterns, it can be attended to and thought about. The typical brain can handle 7 simple chunks of information at a time by maintaining temporary electrochemical changes in relevant neurons. Since many college level concepts must be constructed from at least 7 smaller chunks (things our students already know), most college learning demands undivided attention-divided attention is a major obstacle to college level learning. When a new concept is understood (its chunks have been related to each other) it has been encoded for meaning, the second required step in learning. At this point the new information has been related to other existing information already stored in the brain.


Storing information requires the brain to convert these temporary neural changes to permanent changes. Permanent changes in brain cells must be made. Effortful rehearsal (flash cards, self quizzes, etc.) and organizing (outlines, and concept maps, etc.)  are 2 of the most successful strategies for creating these permanent changes.


Even when information has been stored, it may not be retrievable when it's needed. Frequent use of information, retrieval, is the final important step.  Repeated accessing of information does 2 things that facilitate learning: it tells the brain that this information is important, and thus making the permanent changes is indeed required, and it helps the brain to establish efficient retrieval pathways. Testing is thus a very important learning tool in and of itself.


The strategies you will find on this site are specifically designed to help you help students attend, encode, store, and retrieve information actively changing their own brains in the process.




What's a chunk?


Any meaningful unit of information can be a chunk. The letter 'b' or the number '3' are both chunks.  But the letters FBI  are also a chunk if you are an American.  Once you have learned to read, all the words you can read effortlessly can be considered chunks. The numbers 561 form a chunk for most Plattsburghers. And, your birthday, all 8 digits of it, form a chunk for you.


How does something become a chunk?


When something is so well known that recognizing it is automatic, it has become a chunk.  Learning to read and memorizing our times tables are examples of the critical importance of automaticity in college learning.




  1. Written by June Foley, Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Clinton Community College, Copyright (c) 2011 Permission is expressly granted to use the information found on this site for educational purposes with proper citation of this site and any sources used here.