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Theories of learning and curriculum design
Key positionalities and their relationships

Author - Tony Cunningham, Julie Gannon, Mary Kavanagh, John Greene, Louise Reddy, Laurence Whitson

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Pedagogical approach

The approach is student centred. Students are encouraged to drive their own learning. There is less emphasis on how much knowledge has been acquired and more on how well meaning has been constructed and how learners have engaged with knowledge through problem-solving and inquiry.

Learning approach

Students are encouraged to find out for themselves and do not expect to be provided with solutions. Individuals are more likely to engage in an environment that provides a loose structure that does not smother the inclination towards exploration and discovery.

Thinking process

The thinking process is an inductive one. The thought processes adopted by students centre around problem-solving and inquiry. Students may be presented with a problem or task and then provided with opportunities to explore different ways of solving the problem or carrying out the task. Through active engagement the student determines the steps they deem most effective in addressing the situation.

Type of learning

The type of learning takes advantage of both individual and group learning. As an individual drives their own learning it is important that they have control within the learning environment. However, if opportunities exist for inquiry through peers or groups that coincide with the needs of the individual, students will engage in the group process.

Type of model

It is a process not easily evaluated. Learning is concerned with the development of the person as a whole and therefore becomes more difficult to measure.

Metaphor/s of learning

‘Learning through discovery’ stems from the student's own inherent desire to learn. This intrinsic need to learn also provides motivation for learning, more so than external drivers such as assessment. Student motivation lies in the sense of fulfil ment that is achieved when a problem is solved or a project has concluded. Self-actualisation is the ultimate goal in the broad development of the whole person.

Implications for Higher Education

The lecturer may adopt a mixed mode of delivery suited to probing the learner to ensure that the learning process maintains pace. There may be times where the learner requires the lecturer to take a more supportive coaching role to help make sense of a given situation. Other instances may involve the lecturer adopting the role of observer to ensure the learning process remains on the correct path. E-learning and distance learning can take advantage of the student’s independent role within this model. Groups who work on projects also adopt roles of investigators or explorers, where overt instruction from the lecturer is not required.

Humanist model


Meaningful information is easier to learn and remember. If a learner links relatively meaningless information with prior schema it will be easier to retain. Knowledge of the world is organised and reorganised until some level of understanding is acquired. The structure of knowledge is linked to the gradual level of development of the learner.

Origin of learning goals

The subject matter and stage of development determine goals. The process of learning remains continuous in the organisation and reorganisation of knowledge until the learner achieves insight through addressing a problem. The context and stage of problem-solving will indicate what the purpose of learning is.


This model requires internal processing of information. Motivation comes from the learner, i.e. it is intrinsic. There is a need to acquire, store, retrieve and reorganise knowledge so that a better understanding may be acquired. This arises from inherent curiosity.

Learning theory

The information processing model has its roots in cognitivist theory, although characteristics of constructivist theory are also considered. Cognitivism is based on the principle that learning develops through exposure of information that is logically presented, and that new information can be more easily understood when it is linked to something that is already learned.


Major contributors to the information processing model include the following.

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