How do students actually learn?

How do we learn?

Main Message: As teachers we need to know how to develop our students' cognitive (mental), affective (emotional) and psychomotor (physical) skills.

This page provides background information to help teachers understand how students learn - both how they develop their thinking (cognitively) and how they grow their emotions, feelings and atttitudes (affectively). Whilst many teachers will be aware of how Bloom's taxonomy of learning domains applies to the development of thinking less will be aware that there is also a taxonomy that helps explain how students develop affectively.

Learning is a high-effort activity.

Three domains of learning

There is more than one type of learning. Today many people refer to Anthony Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (1965). Blooms speaks of three domains of learning:

  • The cognitive domain refers to the mental aspects of learning. Bloom organised this domain in a hierarchy that begins with the straightforward acquisition of knowledge, then followed by the increasingly more sophisticated cognitive tasks of comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • The affective domain relates to the growth of feelings, emotions, motivations and attitudes. The IB specifically mentions the skills of managing state of mind, self-motivation, resilience, the ability to handle setbacks and learn from mistakes, mindfulness (helping students stay in the moment and avoid being distracted.
  • The psychomotor domain relates to the learning of physical or manual skills. Since Bloom's taxonomy was developed by university colleges they had no need to develop a specific taxonomy for the development of these manual skills. Therefore below we only include the taxonomies for developing cognitive and affective skills.

Cognitive learning

Bloom's taxonomy is a helpful framework to encourage higher-order thinking. It is especially helpful when planning inquiry-based work to structure performance tasks and higher-order questions that are related to exploring concepts.

Affective learning

Affective skills - the development and growth of emotions, feelings and attitudes - is explicitly referenced when the IB speak of self-management skills (ATL). The IB makes specific reference to particular self-management skills - namely,managing state of mind, self-motivation, resilience, the ability to handle setbacks and learn from mistakes, mindfulness. These are addressed in more detail elsewhere on this website under 'Approaches to Learning'.

The IB makes it clear that these skills need to be explicitly taught and learnt: "Affective self-management skills are teachable and they can make a huge difference to a child’s motivation, resilience and, indeed, academic success; for example, relaxation training can help reduce examination anxiety and increase grades. For DP students, three important affective skills that are needed to handle the challenges of this level of study are resilience, self-motivation and mindfulness." (Approaches to Teaching and Learning in the Diploma Programme, IB p.10)

The following taxonomy for the development of affective skills is useful in developing learning activities.

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