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Definitions of Learning

Steve Wheeler

What is Learning?

Attempting to define learning is a bit like herding cats. You can try, and succeed to a limited extentbut you will very soon come up against a number of problems. There are many issues and debates surroundingthe concept of learning, and many theories have been proposed to try to make sense of it. We know that welearn from the moment we are born to the moment we die. But how we learn is contentious.

Robert Gagne (1977) argued that learning can be said to have occurred when a change in behaviour is able to be observed. Here's a quote from his book 'The Conditions of Learning' (page 3)

"Learning is a change in human disposition or capability, which persists over a period of time, andwhich is not simply ascribable to the processes of growth."

Gagne suggests that learning is caused by an intervention to the normal process of growth, which excludesfor example, reflex actions such as sneezing or knee-jerk reactions. He describes 9 conditions in which learning can occur.

Another slightly different definition comes from L.B. Curzon (1985) who states that:

"Learning (is considered) as the apparent modification of a person's behaviour through his activitiesand experiences, so that his knowledge, skills and attitudes ... are changed, more or less permanently." (page 14)

Curzon has taken a step farther than Gagne by outlining three particular domains of learning: Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes. These domains are key to our understanding of the organisation of learning.

Domains of Learning

The three recognised domains of learning are defined as:

  • The Cognitive (Understanding, knowledge, facts)
  • The Affective (Attitudes, opinions, values, beliefs)
  • The Psychomotor (Skills)

    These learning domains can be visualised as overlapping circles, with the theoretical construct of 'praxis' located at or across their nexus:

    Each of the learning domains has been categorised into hierarchies or levels known as 'taxonomies'. Theword 'taxonomy' refers to a formal classification, and derives from two words; taxis (arrangement) and nomia which means distribution. Probably the most famous is Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain (Bloom et al, 1956). In this seminal work, Bloom and his colleagues identified six categories of cognitive learning. Each category within this domain is assumed to include the behaviour of subordinate categories. They are:

  • Knowledge (recall, knowledge of specifics, ways and means of dealing with specifics, and knowledge ofuniversal facts, generalisations, theories and structures
  • Comprehension (the ability to grasp the meaning of materials, including interpretation and extrapolation(cause and effect, summarising, etc.)
  • Application (the ability to use learned material in a practical manner, or within a new situation, usingrules, principles, etc.)
  • Analysis (the ability to criticise, deconstruct, identify assumptions)
  • Synthesis (relating one theory to another, combining and re-constructing ideas, seeing relationships)
  • Evaluation (the ability to appraise, assign value, assess arguments, etc.)

    There are of course other taxonomies for the cognitive domain, just as there are taxonomies for the other two domains. However, they are beyond the scope of a short 'overview' handout such as this one.

    Application to Education

    So how can we apply this classification to teaching and learning? Well, many teachers have benefited from Bloom's (and other's) taxonomies, because they provide structure to activities such as assessment of learning. For example, a number of verbs can be associated with each category, offering the teacher a framework from which to write 'learning outcomes'. We need to be aware though, that Bloom, Gagne and others subscribed to the neo-behaviorist model and so were interested in the 'observable and measurable' behaviours.

    Here are some verbs associated with each of the six cognitive categories:
  • Knowledge - list, recall, name, state, describe, label, define;
  • Comprehension - identify, classify, indicate, illustrate;
  • Application - demonstrate, use, perform, assess, apply;
  • Analysis - criticise, conclude, analyse, compare, contrast;
  • Synthesis - derive, reconstruct, argue, discuss, combine, develop;
  • Evaluation - judge, justify, appraise, clarify

    Bloom argued that using these verbs within 'behavioural objectives' would enable teachers to better measure the learning their students had acquired.

    Further work by Bloom and his colleagues explored the Affective and Psychomotor domains of learning, (Bloom, Masia and Krathwohl, 1964), and some of these materials are available on-line.


    Bloom, B. S., (1956; Ed.) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1: The Cognitive Domain. London: Longmans
    Bloom, B.S., Masia, B.B. and Krathwohl, D. R. (1964). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2 Vols: The Affective Domain & The Cognitive Domain). New York: David McKay
    Curzon, L. B. (1985) Teaching in Further Education, 3rd Edition. London: Cassell Education
    Gagne, R. M. (1977) The Conditions of Learning, 3rd Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

    Steve Wheeler
    This page last updated on 13 November, 2002