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Introduction to theories of learning

There has been a lot of research into students’ ideas of, and approaches to, learning. One approach is that 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.

(Seminally by Saljo, 1979 and then Marton, Dall’Alba & Beaty, 1993)

The first three (1-3) are examples of reproducing knowledge and the last three (4-6) are examples of transformative knowledge.

Theories of learning

There are many theories of learning to help us better understand how students learn.

The key theories and educational approaches used in this that frame this course are:

  • 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.

Optional activity: To learn more about how students learn take a look at at Section 3, “Understanding”, of the Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding video (6:18).

Student-centred learning

The basic principle 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

(Brandes & Ginnis, 1986, pp. 12-15)

Other key approaches to learning

  • Deep, surface and strategic approaches in Step 1.10
  • Experiential and work-integrated learning
  • Reflective practice in Step 1.5

Talking point

Reflect on the theories of learning introduced in this step or on others with which you are familiar.

Choose a theory that has particular significance to you and your beliefs about learning and teaching. In a post: name the theory and provide one statement that explains why this theory is important to you and your learning and teaching beliefs.


Brandes, D & Ginnis, P. (1986). A Guide to Student-Centred Learning. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Marton, F., Dall’Alba, G., & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19(3), 277–300. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0883-0355(93)90015-C

Säljö, R. (1979). Learning about learning. Higher Education, 8(4), 443-451.

Want to know more

If you would like to more about this topic of introduction to theories of learning there is an additional resource listed in the Want to know more.pdf for this step.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

UNSW Sydney