Theories of learning enable the evidence-informed design of curriculum, learning activities and assessment.

We continue to learn about learning through research, refining theory and identifying myths about how people learn.


Explore theories of learning to inform your teaching:


What is it?

A fundamental theory behind the design, development and delivery of curriculum in higher education is constructivism. However, what is it, and how does it affect what you do in the classroom?

The literature presents diverse views on what the term ‘constructivism’ means. However, we have distilled the key features:

  1. Learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge, and
  2. Instruction is a process of supporting that construction rather than communicating knowledge (Duffy and Cunningham, 1996. p 171).

One of the greatest influencers on constructivist theory was John Dewey, who argued against “the educational framework of memorisation and recitation and his push for new methods to meet the changing needs of the newly emerging industrial society” (Lefoe, 1998). He argued that “education is not a preparation for life, it is life itself” (Dewey in Duffy and Cunningham, 1996. p 173).

Why use it?

Teachers in higher education strive to create rich learning environments to maximise student engagement and success. This goal is shared with constructivist theory, where “prime emphasis is placed on the unique interests, styles, motivations and capabilities of individual learners so that learning environments can be tailored to them” (Reeves 1992).

As you prepare your teaching and learning spaces, assessments, activities and resources, consider the following constructivist principles and how you explicitly or implicitly might already address these:

  • knowledge is constructed subjectively by people based on their earlier experiences and the way people reflect and metacognitively organise these thoughts
  • the existence of knowledge only occurs within humans who construct their own reality
  • if the learner acquires the strategies that meet the objective, then learning has occurred, and
  • measurement occurs only through estimation with observation or dialogue (Reeves, 1992).

These constructivist principles form the backbone of good teaching and engaging learning in higher education.

How to use it?

The following table illustrates key constructivism characteristics alongside suggested learning activities and digital tools.

Constructivism characteristicsLearning activitiesDigital tools
  • Students choose from a curated list of topics/problems for discussion with a group or individual presentation
  • Selection of topic for research/assessment from a curated list of topics or questions
  • Choice of pathway through online modules or materials
  • Zoom / Skype / Chat
  • Face-to-face or online
  • Learning pathway
  • PadletUQ
  • RiPPLE


  • Interview an expert – students responsible for conducting interviews and reporting back to the class or as an assessment
  • Pre-class reading and concept check/quiz
  • Reflective journaling tasks
  • Auto-ethnographic research methodologies
  • Peer review of formative pieces
  • Learning Management System (LMS) tools such as quizzes, reading lists and links
  • Zoom
  • Reflective journal in edX Edge / LearnX or Blackboard

Critical thinking

  • Problem-based learning: groups presented with discipline-based or interdisciplinary problems and asked to work through PBL methodology to offer a solution
  • Scenario-based learning: present real or hypothetical scenarios requiring teams to suggest solutions, create plans and develop risk assessments
  • Case-based learning: student teams are provided with authentic cases to discuss and consider strategic solutions to present to the class
  • Links to curated resources via Blackboard
  • H5P interactives
  • Presentation tools such as Sway
  • Trigger material such as video snippets and articles
  • News bulletins
  • Authentic materials, e.g. case materials, reports
  • Data analysis tools

Self and collaborative assessment

  • Formative assessments
  • Adaptive release of materials based on formative assessment completion or points
  • Peer assessment
  • Group assessment
  • Blackboard site with adaptive release and review enabled
  • LMS quizzes
  • H5P interactives
  • LMS peer assessment features

Table: Constructivism characteristics and their correspondent learning activities and ICT support tools.

Adapted from Al-Huneidi et. al. 2013, p.583

Find out more

  • Al-Huneidi A., Schreurs J. (2013) Constructivism Based Blended Learning in Higher Education. In: Lytras M.D., Ruan D., Tennyson R.D., Ordonez De Pablos P., García Peñalvo F.J., Rusu L. (eds) Information Systems, E-learning, and Knowledge Management Research. WSKS 2011. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 278. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  • Duffy, T. M., and Cunningham, D. J., (1996). Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction, In D. H. Jonassen, (Ed.) Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology, NY: Macmillan Library Reference USA.
  • Lefoe, G. (1998). Creating Constructivist Learning Environments On The Web: The Challenge In Higher Education ASCILITE proceedings 1998.
  • Reeves, Tom, 1992, ‘Effective Dimensions of Interactive Learning Systems’ Keynote address for Information Technology for Training and Education Conference (ITTE ‘92).
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Connectivism is a theory of networked learning, considering learning at network level with connections and members (human and machine) of the network developing knowledge and abilities as a whole. Connectivism sees individuals learning through connecting and traversing (often online) networks (Downes, 2007). 

George Siemens and Stephen Downes developed connectivism. This theory suggests that learning can exist outside of humans, in networks of appliances, databases, or organisations, and thus connecting information sources is how learning occurs. Connectivism has been useful in explaining how Internet technologies have created new opportunities for people to learn and share information across the World Wide Web and among themselves. These technologies include software and systems such as web browsers, email, wikis, online discussion forums, social networks, YouTube and any other tool which enables the users to connect and share information with other people.  

Siemens’ Connectivism Learning Theory (2005) suggests that online peer networks – such as discussion boards and online forums – enable learning experiences. They allow learners to learn from social interaction and collaboration, enabling access to their networked peers' diverse personal experiences and opinions.

Why use it?

In an increasingly networked world, connectivism helps plan and understand learning where students are connected to devices, the Internet and people. Connectivism blends ideas from cognitivist and constructivist learning theories and acknowledges the implications of networks and technology on how people work. In higher education, connectivism can provide a foundation for approaches to build on the resources and connections of the Internet and create a learning environment that nurtures the social nature of your audience.

How to use it?

1. Get online learners involved

Each member of your audience should be an active participant in the eLearning process. They should feel that they have control over their personal eLearning experience and their level of participation directly impacts how and when they achieve their goals. Let them know what to expect and which tools are at their disposal within the virtual learning environment.

2. Create an online learning community

Your learners should be aware they are part of a broader online learning community, so encourage them to communicate online with their peers and instructors. Connectivism implies that each network member has an impact on the whole network. Every students’ connections and contributions support the entire class. Set up a discussion board or forum where they can reach out to other online learners when they encounter a problem or want to benefit from the skills and experience of their peers.

3. Spark online discussion

There may be occasions when your online learners need a little nudge to communicate or share feedback. In this situation, it is always a good idea to spark the online discussion yourself. Post a question at least once a week or address a specific topic, then let your online learners take it from there. Once they have a guideline, they will be more likely to engage and stay on topic. Keep an eye on the posts to make sure they are still on track, and guide them back onto the subject if you notice they are veering too far off the eLearning course.

4. Connect beyond the classroom

Consider ways you can increase students’ networks and learning by connecting beyond the classroom. For example, are there communities students can work with to learn, online or locally, to have a richer and more connected experience in your course?

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Social constructivism

What is it? 

How do people construct knowledge? 

One theory that provides a sound basis for the design and development of teaching and learning activities in higher education is social constructivism. This theory focuses “on the interdependence of social and individual processes in the co-construction of knowledge” (Palincsar, p. 345, 1998). It is based on Vygotsky’s claim that human development is socially situated and that interaction with others allows us to construct knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978). Thus, when we consider how learning and development evolve, we can observe that they occur in “socially and culturally shaped contexts which are themselves constantly changing” (p. 354). 

Why use it?

With its focus on the co-construction of knowledge, social constructivism is a valuable theory that can underpin your decisions as a teacher, lecturer, and facilitator when designing teaching and learning experiences. It is one of the critical theories behind group activities, pair work, teamwork, problem-based learning, and group workshops. Incorporating opportunities for students to learn with and from their peers provides the ideal environment for the co-construction of knowledge. 

For collaborative learning to be successful, learners need to be supported to develop their teamwork skills and recognise their knowledge is related to the success of their group. This success is also dependent upon a well-structured activity and suitable mediation by the teacher. 

Reluctant students? Exposing students to different approaches and ways of thinking and working with other students in groups can promote a sense of belonging that combats the anonymity and isolation that many students experience at a large campus (UC Berkely, GSI, 2021). In addition, we recommend being explicit with your reasons for incorporating group work in your course and outlining the benefits of co-creating knowledge. For example, the fact that groups frequently devise more and better solutions than the most advanced individuals can help appease those students reluctant to work in groups.

How to use it?

Some key considerations for designing effective collaborative learning:

  • The optimal size for group learning, face-to-face or online, is four or five people.
  • Focus the activity or discussion: present specific concepts, problems to solve, or scenarios to debate. 
  • Guide the activity through specific questions, introducing and clarifying concepts and information and references to previously learned material.
  • Make it clear that it requires some output to complete the activity. Avoiding open-ended or general discussions will help to keep students engaged and productive. There is certainly a place for general discussion at some points throughout the course, such as icebreaker activities, and these should be kept in to facilitate the social aspect and peer networking in your class.

For more ideas on designing and running collaborative learning activities for your class:

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Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

What is it? 

Motivations are frequently classified as either intrinsic or extrinsic, based on the person’s reasons or goals for performing the behaviour.

When intrinsically motivated, a person is driven to perform a behaviour because they find it personally rewarding, fun or challenging. The primary motivator is internal, with the behaviour being performed for the person's satisfaction, rather than because of external pressures or rewards. For instance, a student may be intrinsically motivated to study because they are personally interested in the subject or discipline.

When extrinsically motivated, a person is driven to perform a behaviour because they want to receive a reward or avoid punishment. The primary motivator is external, with the behaviour being performed because the person expects to receive something from doing it or avoid something for not doing it, rather than because they find it enjoyable or satisfying. For example, a student may be extrinsically motivated to study because they want to receive a high grade or avoid failing.

Why use it?

Motivating students is a major challenge for educators. Understanding what motivates your students and how this influences their behaviour, approach to tasks or setting of goals can help you design and deliver your teaching. In addition, integrating teaching strategies and activities to foster students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations may increase their engagement within your course.

How to use it?

Setting intrinsic motivations arise from internal factors, so it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that we as educators can intrinsically enhance students’ motivations. However, while we cannot change who a student is or what drives them, we can create a learning environment that encourages students to develop and identify their motivations.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Get to know your students

Build a rapport with your students, learn their names (zoom helps with this), interests, goals, and how they learn best. Where possible, use these motivating factors to inform your approach to teaching. Regularly check in with your students and be ready to adapt your teaching to keep your students motivated and engaged.

  1. Give students choice

Give students choice and agency over their learning. For instance, you might give students the option to complete a learning activity individually or as part of a group, or give students three assessment topics to choose between. Giving students a choice has shown to impact their motivation and academic achievement positively. It can also foster independence which can lead to deep approaches to learning.

  1. Provide meaningful feedback

Provide feedback that helps students to develop and progress forward. When providing feedback, it can be easy to focus on what students have done poorly. Providing this feedback is important. However, it is equally important to tell students what they did well and why. When writing positive feedback, ensure you are specific. If you say “great work” tell the student why it was great. For instance, “This was a well-constructed introduction, your opening sentence clearly set the scene [...]”.

  1. Practice goal setting

Build into your teaching practice opportunities for your students to set goals. For example, you might consider asking students to identify three goals they have at the outset of the course and the steps they will take to achieve them. Then have a few self-reflection points throughout the semester for students to check their progress and identify any required changes to their behaviour or approaches to achieve their goals. Setting goals improves students motivation and achievement. Making this process explicit within your teaching supports students' development of this important skill.

  1. Communicate the current and future value of what you are teaching

Take time in class to discuss the purpose of what you are doing, both concerning your course and its broader discipline. This exercise could be identifying how class activities relate to the learning objectives in your course, and the assessment students have to complete. You can discuss how the activities and assessment fit your students' study programs and highlight the relationship between your course’s activities and their future careers. Remember that as well as talking, the excitement and enthusiasm you show in your teaching demonstrate the value you see in what you are doing.

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Zone of proximal development

What is it? 

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a concept introduced by developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vyogtsky defined the ZPD as the difference between a learner’s “actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving” and the learner’s “potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978).

Put simply, the ZPD refers to the range of abilities an individual can perform with the guidance of an expert but cannot yet perform on their own. The ZPD can be broken into three stages (Figure 1).

  1. Tasks a learner can do unassisted. In this stage, the learner is able to complete tasks independently and has mastered the skill set required to do so.
  2. Tasks the learner can do with assistance. In this stage, the learner is close to mastering a skill set required to complete a task but still needs the guidance of an expert to do so. This refers to the learner’s ZPD.
  3. Tasks the learner cannot do without assistance. In this stage, the learner is unable to perform tasks, even with the guidance of an expert.

Zone of proximal development

Figure 1. Representation of the Zone of Proximal Development


Why use it?

Scaffolding is a form of instruction based on the concept of ZPD. Scaffolding is the support given to a learner in their ZPD, enabling them to accomplish a new task or skill. Giving students the hardest tasks they can do with scaffolding leads to the greatest learning gains (Wass and Golding, 2014). The learner is an active participant who co-constructs new ways of understanding and engaging in an activity with their expert. 

Scaffolding provides a supportive learning environment where the learner can ask questions and receive feedback. In this environment, learning occurs through purposeful, meaningful interactions with others. Some benefits of scaffolding include:

  • learner motivation
  • minimisation of frustration for the learner
  • the learner can accomplish tasks quickly
  • provides a personalised teaching experience, and
  • learning is efficient.

How to use it?

For the educator guiding a learner through a new skill or task, there needs to be an understanding of a learner’s ZPD to make sure the learner is able to work at the appropriate level. Once the ZPD for the learner has been established, appropriate scaffolding can occur. Some examples include:

  • Asking a learner questions such as:
    • What else could you do here?
    • When you do this, what happens?
    • What do you notice?
    • What could we do next?
    • Why do you think that happened?
    • What was your thought process?
    • Are there other ways to solve the problem?
  • Modelling how to solve a similar problem or complete a similar task.
  • Offering explanations that openly address the learner’s comprehension of what is being learned, why and when it is used, and how.
  • Putting students in small groups and discussing a new concept before engaging in it, e.g. Think-pair-share.
  • Using visual aids to help students conceptualise a task before engaging in it.
  • Asking students to use prior knowledge to understand more complex topics better.
  • Providing periodic checkpoints to help students determine understanding
  • Asking students to conduct self-evaluations to reflect on learning
  • Aligning and breaking down assessment
  • Creating a safe learning environment in which all students feel safe to take learning risks in a slow and gradual way
  • Introducing learners first to tasks they can perform with little or no assistance before moving to more complex tasks

Find out more

  • Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cole M., Jolm-Steiner V., Scribner S., & Souberman E., Eds.). Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press. DOI:10.2307/j.ctvjf9vz4
  • Rob Wass & Clinton Golding (2014) Sharpening a tool for teaching: the zone of proximal development, Teaching in Higher Education, 19:6, 671-684, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2014.901958
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Multimedia learning theory

What is it?

Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning can be used to guide how to create instructional media based on how the human mind works. The theory proposes three main assumptions when it comes to learning with multimedia:

  • We have two channels for processing information. The visual-pictorial channel processes images (including words displayed on a screen), and the auditory-verbal channel processes spoken words.
  • Each channel has a limited capacity, and so it is important to manage all three types of cognitive load (extraneous, intrinsic and germane).
  • We learn by filtering, selecting, organising, and integrating information based upon our prior knowledge.

The major challenge is to create instructional multimedia that primes the three cognitive processes of selecting, organising and integrating without overloading the visual and verbal channels in working memory. As Mayer writes, “instructional design involves not just presenting information, but also presenting it in a way that encourages learners to engage in appropriate cognitive processing” (Mayer, 2009).

Why use it?

Mayer proposed 12 principles of instructional design based on experimental research across a variety of media. These principles can be used to make multimedia presentations that will enhance student learning.

Mayer also identified situations where some principles may not apply as strongly – what he called, “boundary conditions”. For many of the principles, one boundary condition was that the principle was upheld for inexperienced or low-prior knowledge learners but not for experienced or high-prior knowledge learners. Related to this, Mayer argues that “prior knowledge is the single most important individual difference dimension in instructional design. If you could know just one thing about a learner, you would want to know the learner’s prior knowledge in the domain” (Mayer 2009).

How to use it?

Principles that minimise extraneous load

Extraneous load = material/details that don’t support the learning outcomes.

  1. People learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.

Use simple visuals, don’t use background music, avoid ‘fluff’ and distractions. Reduce, simplify, and clarify.

  1. People learn better when cues that highlight the organisation of the essential material are added.

Use arrows, highlighting, etc. to draw learners attention to what they should pay attention to. Show the structure of your presentation and refer back to this.

  1. People learn better from graphics and narration than some graphics, narration, and printed text.

In a narrated presentation, use either graphics or text but not both. If you do use both, make the text minimal.

  1. People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.

Keep related text and graphics physically close together in your frame, e.g. labels on a diagram. Provide feedback close to the questions or answers it refers to.

Present directions on the same screen as an activity.

  1. People learn better when you present corresponding words and pictures simultaneously rather than successively.

Make sure visuals and related audio occur at the same time. For example, have the narration timed to play along with animations.

Principles that manage intrinsic load

Intrinsic load = cognitive effort required to represent the material in working memory – based on the complexity or difficulty of learning materials.

  1. People learn better when a multimedia message is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.

Allow users to control the pace of the lesson with speed controls or ‘next’ buttons.

‘Chunk’ long segments of material into smaller pieces to allow for processing.

  1. People learn more deeply from a multimedia message when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts.

Define key terms before beginning a process-based presentation.

Create an introductory guide/cheat sheet to use throughout the course.

Teach how to use a tool (such as Excel) before asking students to use it.

  1. People learn more deeply from pictures and spoken words than from pictures and printed words.

Limit text on screen unless it lists key steps, provides directions, provides references or presents important information to non-native speakers.

Principles that optimize germane load

Germane load = effort required of learners to actually understand the material and is strongly affected by their motivation.

  1. People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.

Use images to illustrate key points and choose those that enhance or clarify the information. Favour static images over animations (with some exceptions).

  1. People learn better from multimedia presentations when words are in conversational style rather than formal style.

Use simple and casual language.  For example, use first and second contractions and try to match the tone to your audience demographics.

Avoid overly professional sounding text or long, complex words.

  1. People learn better when narration is spoken in a human voice rather than in a machine voice.

Preliminary research suggests a human rather than a computer does narration better, so record your own narration or use a professional.

  1. People do not necessarily learn better when the speaker’s image is added to the screen.

At the start of the presentation, a talking head can build an instructor or social presence and may be used when pictures or words cannot reinforce learning.

Relevant animations and visuals will reinforce the audio once your video moves into the learning content.

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Transformational learning

What is it? 

Transformational learning is the process of deep, constructive, and meaningful learning that goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition and supports critical ways in which learners consciously make meaning of their lives. It is the kind of learning that results in a fundamental change in our worldview as a consequence of shifting from mindless or unquestioning acceptance of available information to reflective and conscious learning experiences that bring about true emancipation (Simsek, 2020).

Transformational learning is a theory that was developed in 1978 by Jack Mezirow. This theory suggests that individuals will adjust their way of thinking with critical reflection and critical review. Transformational learning has evolved into a larger idea that our world view is changed the more we learn, and that helps us grasp new concepts and ideas.

This learning theory, transformational learning, suggests that as learning is taking place students are evaluating their past ideas and understanding, and are shifting their perspective(s) through critical reflection. This goes beyond simply acquiring knowledge, and dives into the way that learners find meaning in their lives and understanding. This kind of learning experience involves a fundamental change in our perceptions — learners start to question all the things they knew or thought before and examine things from new perspectives in order to make room for new insights and information (West Governors University, 2021).

Why use it?

Transformational learning allows students to develop a thorough and detailed understanding of subjects explored in course content. It enables students to become the facilitator of their own learning as they explore their knowledge and the knowledge of others. Many of the learning activities that create transformational learning support active learning encouraging engagement and participation in class and within online learning tools.

How to use it?

1. Assist students in being aware of their assumed knowledge and beliefs

Students enter the classroom with ideas of what they know and believe about the subject based on their experience, the media and past learnings. Explore the possibility that some of this may not be accurate. For example, do movies accurately reflect what happens in law courts? How can you showcase a different understanding of the course content you are teaching?

2. Use different teaching and learning experiences 

Create learning opportunities where students are encouraged to explore both their thinking and critically reflect on the assumptions of others. Use learning activities such as group projects, role play, case studies, simulations and critical reflection to explore new and different possibilities. Use journal questions to help students understand their assumptions and allow time for sharing and reflection. Encourage and plan for critical discussions and sharing perspectives.

3. Create a safe and open learning environment 

To enable students to be open to new learning and sharing their thoughts and experiences, a classroom environment and culture that is safe and supportive must be created. Encourage students to participate and share their thoughts and ideas, creating a learning opportunity across peers.

4. Have an open mind

As a role model and leader in the classroom, you will need to have an open mind and demonstrate that you reflect on your assumed knowledge and understanding. Share stories of how your understanding and perspectives have shifted.

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Need help?

ITaLI offers personalised support services across various areas including using learning theories to inform the design of curriculum, learning activities and assessment.