Review: How People Learn

The first time I heard of John Bransford was in November 2006, when I attended the opening plenary he gave at the 3rd annual conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSoTL) in Washington, DC. A lively speaker, John used plain language while at the same time showing compelling research evidence motivating us to be more effective teachers by “watching how learning happens wherever it happens.”

James Rhem, Editor and Publisher of the National Teaching and Learning Forum, wrote a comprehensive overview of that plenary. Speaking of the National Forum, if you have never checked out their website, I encourage you to, especially their comprehensive set of book reviews. And speaking of James Rhem, he and I once danced in the icebreaker of a conference session. And that was quite a fun way to watch how learning happened.

Shortly after the 2006 ISSoTL conference, my friend, mentor and former boss Gary Poole gave me his extra copy of How People Learn. I used it regularly, to plan or update some workshops for members of the University of British Columbia teaching community, in working one-on-one with senior faculty members who sought guidance and assistance, and to organize sections of a week-long program that Gary and I designed and led for faculty members visiting from a university in Saudi Arabia.

So, though I came late in my explorations of Bransford’s and colleagues’ work, I think it will prove to be one of the classics for teachers of any level, discipline or context. New Horizons for Learning, recently adopted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, includes this book in its recommended readings and “predicts that How People Learn will become one of the most influential books ever published on teaching and learning."

And you can find a complete version of it, free, online:

The key ideas presented in the book sound quite straightforward:

1. Learning is facilitated by connections between the new and the familiar, with students coming in with preconceptions or prior knowledge about how the world works. 

2. To develop competence, students need foundational knowledge, built on conceptual frameworks and organized in ways that help them apply it.

3. Metacognition or ‘thinking about thinking’ builds students’ confidence in their own learning and helps them self-monitor progress.

But if you ask any teacher, regardless of their experience, I suspect they would be somewhat or very challenged to tell you exactly how and what they do, through assignments and in-class activities, to address these points and assess the process. Turn to this book to see how theories and insights have been translated into actions and practice. Quarter-page ‘boxes’ present case studies to illustrate ideas put forth in the chapters, making them very real and adaptable to your context. Moreover, they cite sources in the literature for further exploration. A minor annoyance:  the references section (63 pages worth) is organized by book chapter, making it tricky if you want to look up a source and see how Bransford et al. describe or use it in the book. The online search tool helps a bit in this regard.
Two related books are available, with some overlapping material but also targeted examples. The shorter How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (1999) and How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom (2005) are both described as being geared to K-12 teachers, but I think both are very relevant to higher education as well. The latter volume is reviewed by the National Teaching and Learning Forum.

You can find links to these two volumes, as well as a review of the expanded book described here, at

So, a long-time professor seeks my help to become re-energized in his work. “I want to motivate my students and the things I have done in the past don’t seem to be working. What do you suggest?” We look at How People Learn together, starting in the index, at Motivation to learn. We find 17 different pages to explore in turn, each one of them with enough references to make this a week of study for my colleague, which is what he was looking for as a long-term project, but also uncover a few ideas to try right away, such as adjusting an assignment, lecture or discussion around “authentic problems and projects that are frequently encountered in non-school settings”, page 77. Pages 207-213 cite the Jasper series, created at Vanderbilt University, connecting problem-solving ability with attitudes through the use of technology. That last example might not be quite a ‘right away’ solution, but it sure is compelling and provides food for thought!

I could go on, but the other reviews already written (and cited above) do a very good job of telling you more about what is in the book.

I will leave you with an authentic hands-on challenge. Think of one topic in teaching and learning that you want to know more about and perhaps connect to theoretical or empirical evidence. It could be for your own teaching, or to help members of your teaching community through one-on-one work or a seminar. Pick up How People Learn or browse through it online. I guarantee you will find something you did not know before, or know as fully, something you can use right away, and something that may also lead you down a whole new path of exploration in the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning.

As Bransford et al. say in their first chapter, “Fundamental understanding of subjects, including how to frame and ask meaningful questions about various subject areas, contributes to individuals’ more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners.” (page 5). True for our learners, true for us.


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