How learning works

Understanding learning to improve teaching skills

Now we understand the processes of learning and engagement so much better, we are well-placed to improve the impact of our teaching, argues Professor Douglas Fisher.

 The ‘Black Box’ of learning

There was a time when “learning” was a black box that we did not quite understand. As a profession, we recognized that there were inputs that likely assisted with learning and outputs that allowed us to check to see if learning had occurred. The process of learning itself, however, was unclear.

The continuum of engagement

Fast forward several decades to the 2020s and we know so much more about learning. For example, we know about the role of attention and engagement. We no longer think of engagement as an either/or proposition. Students are not ’engaged’ or ‘disengaged’, but make choices along a continuum of engagement. And their teachers can take action to move them along the continuum so that they take increased responsibility for their learning. We also know that there are several cognitive barriers to learning that cause students to disengage. Again, teachers can take action to address and remove those barriers, so that student learning is enhanced.

Teacher clarity

We’re also pretty clear that teacher clarity is an important aspect of learning. When students know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will know that they have learned, they are much more likely to learn. This requires educators to analyze learning expectations and clearly communicate with students about “success” – specifically what it means to have learned something.

Gradual release of responsibility

We also now know that there are several moves that teachers make that increase the likelihood of students learning. A dominant theory in this area is the “gradual release of responsibility” which suggests that educators intentionally and purposefully design learning experiences and move from assuming all of the responsibility for learning, to sharing responsibility, to ensuring that students are responsible for their learning. This occurs on multiple levels, from the lesson to the week to the unit to the year. Broadly speaking, these moves include:

  • Teacher modeling and demonstrating, allowing students an apprenticeship opportunity to “try-on” the cognitive and metacognitive moves of others.
  • Guiding thinking and learning to address errors and misconceptions through prompts, cues, and questions.
  • Creating collaborative learning opportunities that allow students to interact with peers, using academic language, to consolidate their understanding.
  • Assigning independent learning tasks that allow students to practice and apply what they have learned.
Impact on learning

Of course, these moves require opportunities for elaborate encoding and retrieval practice and educators collect evidence of students’ learning to make adjustments so that students learn more and better over time. In these ways, educators monitor their impact on students’ learning and make adjustments to increase that impact. When these forces are at play, student learning accelerates.


Douglas Fisher, Ph.D. is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High.

Professor Fisher is a Keynote Speaker at the upcoming Outstanding Schools Middle East 2022 Conference, on the subject of ‘How Learning Works – Research Based Practices to Accelerate Student Learning’.



 The 3rd OSME Annual Conference returns live and in-person on the 5th – 6th October in Dubai, bringing together principals, as well as academic, pastoral, secondary and primary leaders from English-speaking international private schools across the Middle East. 

Speakers will discuss practical solutions to improve outcomes across teaching & learning, wellbeing & inclusion, staff development, management, operations and edtech.

As a member of ITM you can enjoy an exclusive discount, use code ITM15CG at the checkout for 15% off. Find out more information here –


Feature Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay