Effective learning cuts through the noise of life

Associate Professor Stephen Smith, Sydney College of Divinity, Discipline Coordinator for Christian Life and Ministry, reflects on approaches to learning. He highlights the importance for deep and effective learning of exposure to rich experiences, the opportunity to  practice, exchange with others, and reflection on action.

How Do Adults Learn?

In the past 50 years, considerable research has been conducted into the most effective ways adults learn. However, the basic principles of effective learning are much older, expressed in well-known phrases such as “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand,” attributed to Confucius in 500 BC. Many years later, this old adage is reconfirmed as a valid foundational principle of learning in the concepts of experiential learning,[1] action learning,[2] reflective practice,[3] adult learning[4] and transformational learning.[5]

Broadly speaking, there are two dominant theories of learning. A teacher-centred approach grounded in the behaviourist theory of Skinner sees the learner as a passive empty vessel waiting to be filled by the expert with prescribed knowledge.[6] In contrast is a learner-centred approach based on the constructivist theory of Piaget[7] in which learners actively direct the development of their own knowledge creation through curious inquiry, drawing from personal experience and with input from a broad range of sources.

While the behaviourist “classroom focused” approach has been dominant for centuries, in recent decades, constructivist approaches have gained popularity. This has been particularly driven by industry’s growing need to solve complex problems quickly and ensure learning is useful to real-world business needs.[8] Constructivism is essentially “a view of learning in which learners use their own experiences to construct understandings that make sense to them, rather than having understanding delivered to them in an already organized form.”[9] Constructivist approaches usually start with a problem to be solved or a current practice to be improved. These approaches all attempt to reverse traditional teaching methods, shifting learners from a passive to an active posture that is constructivist, emphasising self-directed and collaborative learning, while the role of the instructor is to facilitate the learning process rather than download content.

When Do We Learn Deeply & Effectively?

There is wide support in the literature for the constructivist approach, where the deepest learning is achieved through (1) exposure to rich experiences, (2) opportunity to practice, (3) conversation and exchanges with others, and (4) reflection on action. Building on the work of Knowles,[10] Healey, Bingham and Smith,[11] in their review of effective corporate learning and development practices, asked, “When do I learn deeply and effectively?” and found:

  • I learn when I am involved in planning my own development,
  • I learn through taking action and reflecting on ways to improve my practice,
  • I learn when challenged by problems rather than merely hearing about solutions, and
  • I learn when the subject is relevant and is something I care about.

Cutting through the noise of technology requires intentionality. While rigorously grounded in the theoretical fundamentals of each academic discipline, instructional designers can shape learning experiences around relevant themes significantly connected to real life.



[1] D. Kolb, 1984. Experiential Learning. Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984).

[2] K. Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers, ed. D. Cartwright (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

[3] D. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

[4] M. Knowles, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd ed. Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1984).

[5] J. Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1991).

[6] P. Sagal, Skinner’s Philosophy (Washington: University Press of America, 1981).

[7] J. Piaget, Studies in Reflecting Abstraction (Hove: Psychology Press, 2001).

[8] R. Revans, Action Learning: New Techniques for Management (London: Blond & Brigg, 1980).

[9] D. Kauchak, and P. Eggen. Learning and Teaching: Research-Based Methods (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998), 184.

[10] M. Knowles, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd ed. Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1984).

[11] S. Healey, M. Bingham, and S. Smith, Global Best Practice in People Development (Sydney, Robertson and Chang, 2014).

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