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Declarative Learning

Declarative learning refers to what we know, as opposed to motor learning and procedural learning, which are about what we can do. This article discusses the importance of declarative learning, different ways of knowing things, and how declarative learning works. 

It is fairly typical now for educational programs to present their goals in terms of two specific elements: what students know and what students are able to do. What students know is also referred to as declarative learning. What students are able to do involves several types of learning, including the automatic, habitual responses referred to as motor learning and/or procedural learning. This article will help you understand more about declarative learning and its relationship to procedural learning.

The Importance of Declarative Learning

Declarative learning is a fundamentally important skill  because it is the means through which much new information is acquired, both for the sake of education and for personal development. Declarative learning is characterized by being language-based, dependent on memory, and analytical, whereas procedural learning may have no language component, able to be performed without conscious thought or attention given to the process, and sometimes learned implicitly rather than explicitly.

Different Ways of Knowing Things

Quick! Without looking, identify the position of the O on a keyboard.… The point of this direction is not to focus your thoughts on the letter O, but to get you to think about the type of knowledge you have about the keyboard. If you are a touch typist, you do not have to have readily accessible declarative knowledge about the location of the letter O because you have procedural knowledge - when you need to type an O, your fingers will “just do it.”

If we stop and think about it, there are a number of things we know how to do by doing better than we could explain it in words. For one person it might be true of riding a bike; for another it might be true of doing the Macarena - give them a bicycle or the right music, and they’ll “just do it.” We might even be able to, for example, make a phone call to a number that we can’t recall because the habit of typing those numbers in that order is “in our fingers.”

Some knowledge is shared between procedural learning and declarative learning. Things that we say or sing, for example, have a shared existence between the two realms. For example, if we’ve learned a song that names the fifty states or the elements in the Periodic Table, we’ve invested our declarative learning of each list with a motor performance, giving us more memory clues when we try to recall it.

But there are many things we know that do not have a physical correspondence, or barely any. Now let’s focus on these.

How Declarative Learning Works

According to research, declarative learning occurs consciously and often through memorization, and procedural learning is often less conscious and more gradual. This does not, however, mean that the unconscious is not involved in declarative learning. A sleep study reported in October 2008 has suggested that increased relaxation during sleep increases declarative memory performance.

In addition, declarative learning can become procedural learning. Take the example of a parent teaching a child to cross the street. The parent might say: “Look left. Look right. Look left. Now go.” And the child might learn to say it along with the parent. Learning the mnemonic is declarative learning. Eventually, the child will learn the habit of turning his or her head left, right, and left again to make the proper checks, and will no longer need the mnemonic. A similar approach is used for tying shoes (ever hear the mnemonic about the rabbit with the long ears?).

One element of declarative learning that has received some attention in recent years is how abstract concepts are taught. It has been believed that instruction in abstract topics, such as mathematics, are enhanced by providing concrete materials and/or examples. This can also, when manipulatives are used, introduce a motor element to the learning.

However, a 2005 study by Vladimir Sloutsky, Jennifer Kaminski, and Andrew Heckler published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review compared instruction with more or less concrete symbols when teaching abstract material (albeit, to undergraduate students). They postulate that concrete objects introduce distractions and are more difficult to identify as universals than more abstract materials.


American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Learning To Shape Your Brain Activity." ScienceDaily 5 October 2008. 17 November 2008 -­

Ohio State University. "Students Learn Better When The Numbers Don't Talk And Dance." ScienceDaily 11 October 2005. 17 November 2008 -­

Google Books: Motor Control - By Anne Shumway-Cook, Marjorie H. Woollacott -