Latent Learning: What It Is and How to Use It in the Classroom

Latent Learning: What It Is and How to Use It in the Classroom

Home - Education - Latent Learning: What It Is and How to Use It in the Classroom
Latent Learning

Understanding how students learn and retain information is one of the most valuable skills a teacher can possess. Some teachers acquire this knowledge through experience or a passion for learning, but understanding the principles of psychology and cognitive science can help, especially when it comes to latent learning.

But what is latent learning?

The meaning of latent learning can be very well perceived from the word ‘Latent’, which refers to something that is present but not always evident, hidden, or under the surface. This kind of learning has a significant role in desirable student learning outcomes

Thus, Latent learning is the knowledge that only manifests itself in response to an incentive. It is the term used to describe “learning that is concealed or not noticed until a need or motivation to apply it arises”.

Discovery of latent learning

Latent learning was first discovered during a rat experiment conducted by Edward Tolman and Charles Honzik in 1930. The rats demonstrated latent learning when they learned a maze but showed no interest in completing the task successfully until a desired reinforcement (food) was made available. Tolman suggested that learning could occur even when it is not immediately visible, and that rewards can increase the performance or behavior associated with learning.

Also Read: How can teachers use the best tools and resources available to create a modern classroom?

Importance of Latent learning

The importance of latent learning lies in the fact that we often only realize the value of our learning when we need to apply it. Psychologists refer to this as “hidden” learning that only becomes apparent when reinforcement is provided. Latent learning is crucial because it allows us to recognize the knowledge we have acquired and apply it when it matters most. As such, it is an essential component of effective teaching and learning.


  1. When students are trained to raise their hands for whatever reason, learning has occurred. However, the evidence of this learning may not be immediately visible unless appropriate behavior is praised or rewarded.
  2. Even if someone has learnt how to cook by watching a YouTube video or their parents make dinner, this learning may not become apparent until they are required to cook a meal for themselves.
  3. When a child learning English is asked to write a dialogue, they will likely do so easily, as they have already learnt this subconsciously, and therefore do not need to be reminded of it.
  4. The action of typing on a computer keyboard is an example of latent learning. Although typing skills may have been learnt in high school, a student may not put those abilities to use until they purchase their first computer. However, the student will likely remember what they learnt in high school and instantly know how to use the keyboard.

How to use Latent learning in the classroom?

Latent learning is a phenomenon that can be challenging to apply in the classroom due to its unique characteristics. It occurs frequently, and it may be difficult to determine what knowledge and abilities students may already possess.

However, here are some ideas for using latent learning in the classroom, keeping in mind the environment in which the students are learning.

1. Create the list of Latent Skills

To use latent learning in the classroom, teachers need to have a firm understanding of what students may or may not know for their age. For example, even though students may be aware of what critical thinking is, they may not have applied it before. Therefore, teachers can have students write an argumentative essay to gauge their understanding of critical thinking.

Consider the following when compiling a list of latent skills:

  • What latent knowledge have students picked up in the classroom?
  • What latent skills have students acquired outside of the classroom?

Based on the suggestions, create a list of skills and knowledge that students can practice. This will assist teachers in setting up scenarios in the classroom that prompt students to use the knowledge they have but have never previously used.

2. Ask students to explore topics on their own

Retrieval practice is a powerful tool for testing latent skills and is an efficient technique to apply latent learning in the classroom. To apply this strategy, invite students to independently research specific details concerning the subject of your next lesson. They may not immediately understand how this knowledge relates to the learning content, but they will be able to do so with the least amount of guidance once they are required to put it to use.

3. Actions that enhance Latent learning

Latent learning is a theory that explains how we acquire and store information. Instructors may want to create classes, tests, or quizzes that encourage and assess latent learning. For example:

  1. Exams and papers can be used to gauge students’ development, and grading can serve as a motivator for some students.
  2. Some students may be motivated by the issues that result from receiving poor grades, rather than the advantages of receiving excellent grades.
  3. Increasing the number of opportunities for students to demonstrate their latent knowledge is another action that can be taken.
  4. Likewise, if teachers want students to discuss the outcomes of latent learning, there must be some sort of incentive. Students may receive privileges, accolades, or material prizes in exchange for their hard work.
  5. It might also be a smart idea to let students choose their own prizes.

It is challenging to use latent learning and track latent skills in a classroom context. It is difficult to determine if such learning took place or not, and some students may already have the knowledge or skills while others may not. However, teachers can still utilize latent learning in class by making a list of latent abilities and knowledge students may already possess based on observations and increasing the frequency of in-class practice opportunities for these skills and knowledge.