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Learning Theories and Higher Education

Author -Frank Ashworth, Gabriel Brennan,Kathy Egan, Ron Hamilton and Olalla Saenz

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While the thinking that informs Constructivism spans the twentieth century (theorists including Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Candy, Driver, Merizow, and Boud) it was not until the later part of the century that this theory became mainstreamed through practice. In the Constructivist model, learning is viewed as a process of making meaning. The learner interacts with experience and environment in the construction of knowledge. The process is essentially learner-centred. However, while the Constructivist theory encompasses a number of inter-related perspectives, theorists ‘differ as to the nature of reality, the role of experience, what knowledge is of interest, and whether the process of meaning making is primarily individual or social’ (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999, p.261).

In addressing the pedagogical needs of both the individual and the social in the constructivist model, the implications for third-level students are numerous. They include learning to learn, experiential learning, shared and negotiated learning, social contextualisation of learning, self-directed learning, group work, creative problem solving, guided discovery, and reflective practices.

Future Trends

There are many changes occurring in the twenty-first century which will influence the nature of learning and learning styles being adopted. Perhaps the most significant change is that universities are now increasingly competing with a range of non-traditional education providers. This will force higher education into a pro-active stance in understanding how students learn best, and how teaching impacts on learning. Additional contemporary changes include globalisation, modularisation, mobility of learners, distance education/e-learning/flexible learning, lifelong learning, mass education, and work-based learning.

‘The de-institutionalisation of education, in the form of open and independent learning systems, is creating a need for learners to develop appropriate skills’ (Knowles, 1975, p.14). The impact here on learners is the gradual move away from the more traditional forms of teaching and learning, where information was transmitted to the student through physical interaction between teacher and student, to more self-directed, student-centred approaches. Problem-based learning is an example of one approach to learning where the learner needs to take responsibility for his or her own learning, with the teacher now increasingly assuming the role of facilitator of student learning.

The impact of technology and the internet will continue to increase, having economic and social implications for society. For instance people can now work from home if they have immediate access to a computer. This may facilitate the increase of distance-learning courses as students no longer have to attend a physical campus to gain qualifications. Increasing modularisation enables many students to learn at their own pace, in their own time.

Final Remarks

We have illustrated the main theories of learning which have developed over the last century, and the social, technological and historical contexts within which they emerged. Each theory has its own merits, but perhaps it would be more advantageous for educators of the future to take a more eclectic approach where learning theory is concerned, as more than one theory could accommodate the needs of the self-directed, experiential and lifelong learners of the future.


PowerPoint Presentation

click here for slides summarising the five orientations of learning

click here for printable pdf summarising the five orientations of learning


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