How we Learn in Three Ways


Did you know that the brain has three distinct memory types — Semantic, Episodic, and Procedural memories? It’s an important point because the way we teach and learn has always been focused primarily on catering to one memory type — Semantic memory or memory for knowledge. Acquiring knowledge has always been seen as the holy grail of learning, but knowledge is abstract and is of little value when it isn’t associated with related experiences and skills.

And with the world changing so radically, is sitting within a classroom, memorizing facts and concepts, and taking tests on our retention of knowledge going to suffice for all of the learning that we need to obtain throughout our lives? It is not. We need other ways to learn, and technology can provide those other ways.

Experiences, or what is contained in Episodic memories, provide the important context for learning. If you learn about some knowledge, say about the Holocaust, and then visit the Holocaust museum, you are going to solidify the knowledge of the Holocaust so much more than if you didn’t have the museum experience. Visual and other memories gained through the senses are the most powerful memories we have.

It is why you remember exactly what you were doing when you heard about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 more than you can remember any specific facts about the event. But while it is not always possible to experience an actual event, like going to a museum, it is much more possible to experience events through technology, such as visiting a virtual museum, or even playing a game. Games like Sim City, where you experience the activity of building a city, can be a very powerful learning experience.

Technology can also better help direct learning to our Procedural Memories — or memory for skills. You can’t really learn skills, you can only practice them until they become “automated”, which means that you can perform the skill without an conscious thought. Skill learning means memorizing a series of steps, like when you learn how to ride a bike. Once you have automated those skills, you can jump on and ride a bike for the rest of your life with little conscious thought.

With technology such as Simulations, you can practice any number of skills until you have automated them. This can help a great deal with preparing us for jobs in our increasingly automated workplaces. Once you have learned a skill, you can receive a certificate or “badge” for reaching a certain level of proficiency. These skill-based badges can greatly enhance any knowledge that you have already gained in your field. It is the same way that pilots practice with flight simulators so they can automate their skill of flying through many different weather or other potentially dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, skill-based learning has always been down-graded to “vocational education”, and that is something that most definitely needs to change.

Knowledge is important, but so are skills and experiences. Though not as easily learned in a classroom, acquiring more skill and experience-based learning in our lives can greatly enhance the knowledge we have, and make it more possible for us to apply the knowledge within the context and work-requirements of our lives.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life. Visit her site at







About chbernat

I am a technical writer and instructional designer. I have an intense interest in adult learning and instructional design principles. I greatly feel that adults need to take control of their own learning in order to advance their knowledge and skills throughout life.
This entry was posted in Adult Education, learning with technology, Public Education. Bookmark the permalink.

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