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Understanding how students learn is key to helping them succeed

Understanding how students learn is becoming crucial, particularly as school attendance decreases and the need for additional student support grows amidst a slew of examinations.

In today’s challenging educational environment, the process of learning has become increasingly complex.

Education expert Alex Quigley emphasizes the critical need to shift our focus from merely what students are learning to how they are learning, to effectively overcome these challenges.

Reevaluating educational techniques

Quigley points out that while there has been considerable emphasis on refining curricula, perhaps not enough attention has been given to the actual process of learning. He believes that understanding and adapting to the learning needs of students can significantly enhance their educational success.

In his recent book “Why Learning Fails,” the expert draws from the latest research to provide practical advice for maximizing student engagement and retention.

“In focusing so hard on curriculum – and considering what teachers teach – have we given sufficient attention to how pupils learn? Have we considered pupils’ motivations and emotions as much as their prior knowledge and memory capacity?”

The complexity of learning

Quigley explains that a high-quality curriculum is essential, but it needs to be paired with a deep understanding of the diverse learning profiles students bring into the classroom.

“When we focus on creating the conditions for how pupils learn best, we recognize that pupils attend school with different levels of prior knowledge (and misconceptions), different motivations and interests,” he says. “Different beliefs about themselves and what they can learn also play a crucial role.”

Moreover, Quigley delves into the myriad ways learning can falter, suggesting that by understanding these pitfalls, teachers can better support their students.

Among the challenges are the constraints of working memory, gaps in foundational knowledge, and the distractions that lead to wandering focus.

Addressing working memory limitations

Alex Quigley also discusses the critical role of working memory in learning, noting its limitations and the impact on student performance.

“A problem for many teachers is that they don’t have a strong understanding of working memory – its limits, factors that inhibit its functioning, along with practical supports.”

Strategies for effective learning

To combat these challenges, Quigley recommends strategies that cater to the inherent limits of working memory.

Engaging students through emotive storytelling, chunking information into manageable segments, and employing worked examples are just a few techniques that can enhance learning.

Reiterating information multiple times also helps in reinforcing and correcting misconceptions.

Enhancing focus and planning

The expert further suggests methods to improve student concentration and planning skills, which are vital in a world full of digital distractions.

“Pupils can struggle for focus and concentration in a world of mass distraction. Successful teaching becomes a complex matter of making the curriculum ‘clever and vivid’ for pupils,” explains Quigley.

Additionally, he emphasizes the importance of explicit modeling in teaching students how to manage their attention effectively.

Empowering teachers through adaptive expertise

Ultimately, the effectiveness of these strategies depends on the support systems available to teachers.

Quigley argues that to convert educational challenges into successes, teachers need extensive support, including time, training, and appropriate tools.

“Crucially, teachers need ample support – time, training, and tools – to move from experienced teachers to adaptive experts,” he states.

Furthermore, adapting teaching methods to accommodate the varied and complex needs of students is essential for overcoming the current challenges in education.

By focusing on how students learn and providing teachers with the necessary tools and knowledge, we can foster a more effective and engaging learning environment.

Methods used to help students learn

Education systems often use a variety of methods to help students learn. These methods cater to the diverse needs of students, ensuring a more effective and comprehensive learning experience.

Visual learning

Visual learning involves observing pictures, diagrams, videos, and demonstrations. Visual aids can help clarify concepts and provide memorable references.

Auditory learning

Students learn by listening to explanations, discussions, lectures, and audio recordings. This method is effective for those who process information better when they hear it.


Students also learn by reading textbooks, articles, and writing notes or essays. This approach benefits those who learn best through written words and structured information.

Kinesthetic learning

Many children benefit from engaging in physical activities rather than watching or listening. This could include hands-on experiments, building models, or using manipulatives. It’s particularly effective for those who need to “do” to understand.

Interactive learning

Interactive learning includes group activities, class discussions, and collaborative projects, which enhance understanding through social interaction.

Reflective learning

Reflective learning involves thinking about and analyzing what has been learned. Reflective practices can deepen understanding and help integrate knowledge with personal experiences.

Technology-enhanced learning

Digital tools and platforms like educational software, online courses, and virtual simulations help to reinforce and facilitate learning experiences.

Problem-based learning

This learning method is focused on tackling real-world problems or scenarios, encouraging critical thinking and application of knowledge in practical contexts.


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