Mark Beales

How do students learn?

Creating a variety of lessons that will appeal to most of your students

OK, so you know who you'll be teaching and who you'll be working with. Now it's time to find out exactly how to teach.

Visit your local library and you'll discover at least one healthily-stacked shelf dedicated to books on teaching theory. If you run your finger along that shelf, a thick line of dust will apply itself to your digit. These books don't get taken out much.

Theory often comes near the bottom of the pile when it comes to teaching, but there are several things worth knowing about how people learn and how best you can teach them. 

Students who disrupt classes may do so for a number of reasons and knowing some theory helps teachers understand why there is an issue – as well as what to do about it.  Many psychologists have tried to understand how the human mind ticks. One of the most memorable was John Watson. Watson carried out an experiment so troubling that today it’s remembered more for being so unethical than for the result.

Watson's experiments

In 1920 Watson, along with his partner Rosie Rayner, began a series of experiments on Albert, a nine-month-old baby. Albert’s first task was innocuous enough; he got to play with a white lab rat. He seemed happy to go along with this, until a rather sneaky Watson began smashing a steel bar with a hammer any time Albert touched the animal.

Before long, and hardly surprisingly, Albert wasn’t keen on playing with vermin. For Watson, that meant he’d been able to condition Albert to associate the rat with the clanging, and as a result he would become upset any time he saw the rat - noise or no noise. The fact that Albert became terrified of rats, something he had earlier shown no fear of, proved that he had 'learned'.

Watson’s experiment worked so well that Albert became terrified of not just white rats but almost anything with hair or fur. Watson paraded rabbits, dogs and even an animal-lined coat in front of the child, each time carefully noting how much Albert freaked out. Perhaps most terrifying of all, one day Watson dressed up as Father Christmas, complete with long white beard, at which point Albert completely lost it.

Watson had assumed that Albert would become conditioned in this way, but was hoping to reverse this process by coaxing Albert into accepting rats again by associating them with sweets and more pleasant sensations.

Unfortunately for Watson, and even more so for Albert, the baby’s mother learned of the experiments and promptly put a stop to them. Albert was taken away and Watson never got a chance to complete his tests. We can assume that Albert grew up with a healthy fear of fur, but we will never know for sure as that’s the last anybody heard of Albert and his life after those first few months is a mystery.


You may well ask what rats and teaching English have in common. The answer is that Watson’s experiment led to the theory of behaviourism. 

This states that if X occurs because of Y, and you start doing Y to get hold of X, then you’ve learned something new. Put another way, if a baby gets fed each time it cries, it associates crying with getting food, and so will learn to cry when hungry. On a broader scale, some thought that was how we acquired language, through association and conditioning.

That theory gained some credibility, until Noam Chomsky turned up. Chomsky argued that if we simply learned language through behaviourism, how could we come up with phrases we’d not heard before? How could Shakespeare have created such moving sonnets if he could only use phrases he’d heard somewhere before? Chomsky had an alternative idea - that we have some innate language sensor inside us and are naturally tuned in to picking up words and structures.

Either way, and the latter way has more followers these days, the best way to learn English is to be immersed in it. Those who are motivated and are surrounded by English tend to quickly pick it up. And if you like the sound of behaviourism, giving students a bar of chocolate for the right answers never seems to produce too many complaints.

Different ways of thinking 

Students differ widely in terms of attitude, responses and motivation. One possible reason for this is that we’re all wired differently. What sparks fascination in one learner may prompt utter boredom in another.

There are a couple of popular theories about why some people learn best by using different methods. Some students can hold a detailed conversation and use a sprinkling of idioms and phrasal verbs, but give them an exam and they struggle. Others can explain the formula for the Present Perfect Continuous Tense but flounder when you ask them how to order a cup of coffee.

This could be down to one of two theories, the first of which is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). This says we have one main system and we use this to look at the world. The system is called VAKOG, one of the least memorable acronyms in EFL land, but nevertheless this is what it represents:



Kinaesthetic (movement)

Olfactory (smell)

Gustatory (taste)

When learning, some students will respond to visual aids (flashcards, pictures) while some learn faster through kinaesthetic means (puzzle-solving, activities where students need to move around). While the first three are of interest and should be considered when creating lessons, you’ll struggle to find many lessons based around smell or taste.

The other main idea is called Multiple Intelligences (MI). This says we have several intelligences, namely musical, verbal, visual, kinaesthetic, logical, intrapersonal, interpersonal (social) and naturalistic (those that can recognise features of nature).

Effective lessons

Creating lessons that tick all of these boxes is tricky, but you should bear in mind that lessons that only focus on one or two of these are likely to be less effective. You can’t please all the students all the time, but you can offer a variety of learning activities. 

Equally, we’re not robots and can’t be neatly pigeon-holed into one of the MIs, so students may well respond well to more varied lessons as they will use more of their intelligences. I'm not suggesting you run through a list of MIs every time you think of a lesson, but I do recommend thinking about how to include a few of these to help give your lesson some variety.

- Above blog adapted from 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)


Visit Mark's website (lots of stuff on Mark's travel adventures, photography, etc)

Buy Mark's book - 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)

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NLP has been disproven. We all use a mixture of the afore mentioned 'techniques' to interpret information and learn in a variety of circumstances. However, the NLP theory did help to sell many ESL books.

By Jason Green, Bangkok (20th January 2021)

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