Understanding student learning

Piaget (1950) and Bruner (1960, 1966) are two of the twentieth century’s most eminent educationalists, with views that are largely congruent with constructivism. For example, Bruner’s ideas relating to inducting students into the modes of thinking in individual disciplines and his notion of revisiting knowledge at ever higher levels of understanding, leading to the idea of a spiral curriculum, have been very influential. In the discipline of history, for instance, Bruner is often cited as the inspiration for changing the focus of history teaching in schools in England. This shifted the balance from regurgitation of factual information to understanding. Some of the ways in which this was done were to encourage learners to understand how the past is reconstructed and understood, for example by learning how to empathise and to work from primary sources. Constructivism tells us that we learn by fitting new understanding and knowledge into and with, extending and supplanting, old understanding and knowledge. As teachers, we need to be aware that we are rarely if ever ‘writing on a blank slate’, even if prior understanding is rudimentary, or wrong. Without changes or additions to pre-existing knowledge and understanding, little learning will occur. Very frequently learning is thought of in terms only of adding more knowledge, whereas teachers should be considering also how to bring about change or transformation to the pre-existing knowledge of their learners (Mezirow, 1991). Additions to knowledge, in the sense of accumulated ‘facts’, may sometimes be possible without substantial transformation, but any learning of a higher order, involving understanding or creativity, for example, can usually only happen when the underlying schemata are themselves changed to incorporate new, more refined understanding and linkages.


Andragogy is considered to have five principles:

As a person matures he or she becomes more self-directed.

Adults have accumulated experiences that can be a rich resource for learning.

Adults become ready to learn when they experience a need to know something.

Adults tend to be less subject-centred than children; they are increasingly problem centred. For adults the most potent motivators are internal.

It is self-evident that experience gained through life, education and work should play a central role in learning; this, constructivist, perspective on learning is called experiential learning. The most widespread theory of learning from experience is associated with David Kolb (1984), who developed ideas from earlier models of experiential learning; the Kolb model appears most frequently in the literature. An appreciation of experiential learning is a necessary underpinning to many of the different types of teaching and learning activity discussed elsewhere in this book, including work-based (or placement) learning, action learning, teaching laboratory work and reflective practice. The provision of vicarious experience, such as by using case studies or role play, and many types of small group use experiential learning as an underlying rationale. Experiential learning is based on the notion that understanding is not a fixed or unchangeable element of thought and that experiences can contribute to its forming and re-forming. Experiential learning is a continuous process and implies that we all bring to learning situations our own knowledge, ideas, beliefs and practices at different levels of elaboration that should in turn be amended or shaped by the experience – if we learn from it.

Like this article?

Share on Linkdin