Constructing learning

We can probably all agree that students learn best when they are thinking, whether that means that they are thinking along with a lecturer or are thinking aloud with their peers. But what is actually going on in the learner’s brain? On one influential account, students learn when they construct a new understanding of the material. This outlook on learning is the theory of constructivism.

CELT recently hosted the first in a planned series of brown-bag discussions of the literature on constructivism. Participants came to a few conclusions about constructivism’s prospects and limitations and evaluated some examples of how a constructivist theory of learning can inform concrete in-class pedagogy.

According to an article by Sandhya N. Baviskar et al., there are “four essential features of constructivism” as a pedagogical approach: “eliciting prior knowledge, creating cognitive dissonance, application of new knowledge with feedback, and reflection on learning.”

On the constructivist model, a new understanding is not just added to prior understandings, but it actually replaces them. Application of new knowledge demonstrates the usefulness of the new construct, while reflection on learning can reinforce that learning has occurred. In pedagogy that truly reflects constructivism, “The problems presented in the lessons [are] designed to demonstrate how the students’ current constructs [are] insufficient to solve the problems,” opening them up to the opportunity to form a new construct.

In this respect, constructivism can seem to operate on the very large scale in scientific revolutions, in which “normal science” carried out under a paradigm is disrupted only when the paradigm is unable to account for new data. At this point, researchers would have an opportunity to discover a paradigm that can successfully account for both old and new data alike. As Thomas Kuhn showed, such a shift is not easy, though once adopted, a new paradigm quickly becomes entrenched, and normal science can resume.

A classroom example of constructivism can be drawn from teaching information literacy. Here, an instructor might begin by asking students how to find information about a topic online. Many students, perhaps most beginning college students, would describe using Google. Having elicited their prior knowledge, the instructor could then ask students to find the three most-cited peer-reviewed articles on some topic published between 2000 and 2010.  At this point, the Googlers will encounter cognitive dissonance and will need to be introduced to the search tools designed for this research task. If students were then given a series of research exercises, some of which could be accomplished via Google and others via Jstor or EBSCOhost databases, then their instructor could give them feedback to refine their understanding. To complete the constructivist circle, students would have to reflect upon what they had learned in the entire pedagogical unit.

A common constructivist pedagogy is the use of concept mapping. As described in an article by Christina De Simone, concept mapping asks students to identify a number of key terms associated with the subject matter they are studying and then draw links between the concepts. In some forms of concept mapping, each link must be a verb; requiring this forces students to specify the nature of each link with precision.

What results is a student-generated picture of what has been learned. In fact, De Simone believes that much of the learning occurs in the construction of the map itself.

In order for concept mapping to fulfill all of Baviskar’s criteria for constructivist learning, the mapping process must be iterative: students would have to begin with a preliminary map that subsequently becomes challenged, changed, and reflected upon as they discover more about the subject matter.

Participants in CELT’s discussion raised a few concerns about constructivism. One was that a good concept map may look web-like, but students are often required to present material on exams in the linear form of an essay, posing problems of concept translation. Furthermore, it seems possible to overplay the cognitive dissonance constructivism requires, turning it into a pat, “gee-whiz” approach to teaching and learning. Indeed, students will often come to new knowledge with little to no preconception at all–or with a preconception that is not really faulty. Inevitably, students will come with quite varying preconceptions, such that they cannot be treated as an undifferentiated mass; different preconceptions may require different pedagogical approaches in order to be corrected.

Nevertheless, it is likely that many of you employ–at least implicitly–a constructivist theory of learning. Reviewing this literature can help make the theory more explicit and therefore help you to make your approach more explicit to your students, too.


Baviskar, Sandhya N., R. Todd Hartle, and Tiffany Whitney. 2009. “Essential Criteria to Characterize Constructivist Teaching: Derived from a Review of the Literature and Applied to Five Constructivist-Teaching Method Articles.” International Journal Of Science Education 31, no. 4: 541-550.

De Simone, Christina. 2007. “Applications of Concept Mapping.” College Teaching 55, no. 1: 33-36.

Do you consciously foster learning in the way that constructivist theories describe it? What are some examples of constructivist lessons in your classes? What questions you have about constructivism?

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