Theories of learning

Theories of learning

(featured Image a remix of Holistic Approach to Technology Enhanced Learning’s diagram)

Students think about learning in six qualitatively different ways:

1. An increase in knowledge
2. Memorising and reproducing knowledge
3. Acquiring facts and procedures for later application and practice
4. The abstraction of meaning
5. An interpretive process to understand and see reality in a different way, and
6. Self-development and changing as a person.

Saljo (then)
Marton, Dall’Alba & Beaty, 1993

The key theories and educational approaches:

  • Constructivism
  • Student-centred learning
  • Deep, surface and strategic approaches
  • Experiential and work-integrated learning
  • Reflective practice


Constructivism is the process where students learn by constructing knowledge and meaning from their experiences.

This construction of knowledge:

  • is based on previous understanding and experience,
  • may occur through interactions with others and
  • positions the learner at the centre of activity.

In social constructivism, knowledge is constructed through interaction with others.

Student-centred learning

A basic principle of constructivism is that the student is at the centre of learning. The students’ needs and interests are the starting point for learning and teaching activities. Students also have an active role and responsibility for learning and the teacher takes on the role of facilitator.

The principles of student-centred-learning include:

  • The learner has full responsibility for their own learning
  • Subject matter must have relevance and meaning for the learner
  • Involvement and participation are necessary for learning
  • Relationship between learners is important
  • The teacher should be a facilitator and resource person

Surface and deep learners

You may have observed students who complete the minimum tasks, memorise what is needed for an exam and nothing more. This is referred to as a surface approach (Marton and Saljö, 1976a, 1976b) where students see learning tasks as enforced work. These students tend to be passive learners, working in isolation, and see learning as coping with tasks so they can pass assessment. By contrast a student who adopts a deep approach to learning will seek to understand meaning. They have an intrinsic interest and enjoyment in carrying out the learning tasks, and have a genuine curiosity in the subject and connections with other subjects and with building on their current learning. These students may enjoy social learning, including discussing different points of view.

Strategic learners

Some students may use both deep and surface approaches to achieve their goals depending on what is required and the conditions under which they are learning such as how much time they have to prepare for an assessment. This is referred to as strategic (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1982), or achieving (Biggs,1987) learning. Strategic learners use ‘cues and clues’ (Ramsden, 1979) about assessment and are motivated by learning that results in positive outcomes such as the achievement of high grades.

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