Introduction to TEL

Day 1: Why learning theory?

Who is familiar with the following comments from colleagues in their teaching area?

Teacher quotes











I have found that busy university academics are often preoccupied by the same questions as many learning theorists and researchers:

  • What is “learning” anyway?
  • When do I know someone has learned something?
  • How do people best learn?
  • What is the difference between meaningful and superficial learning?
  • What strategies can be used to support and enable student learning?

In this Coffee Course we hope to provide you with some “bites” of theory that may provide some triggers for further thought and some structure to how you think about your students’ learning. We know some of you are pushed for time, so we hope to cover the content here during quick coffee breaks. You should be able to get an idea of the main concepts just by reading the material on each page. The links are provided to you for further exploration if and when time permits!


Firstly, what is your approach to teaching? You already have some ideas about how students learn, so do this online questionnaire to help you clarify your own approach to teaching, on the Teaching Perspective Inventory website.


Below are some suggested questions to spark a discussion – choose one or more, or make your own.

  • Having done the TPI questionnaire, which of the five perspectives of teaching did you mainly fall into? Did you notice a big or small difference between your intentions and actions, in this questionnaire result?
  • Provide your thoughts and personal theory on one of the questions about learning listed above, based on your experience and knowledge. Does your answer resonate with the result you got from the TPI questionnaire?

The 7 Concepts

Here are our 7 snapshots we will explore in the following five days:

  1. Deep vs Surface Learning,
  2. Extrinsic vs Intrinsic motivation
  3. Taxonomies of knowledge and learning
  4. Characteristics of Adult Learning
  5. Constructivism
  6. Student-centred learning
  7. Active learning


29 thoughts on “Day 1: Why learning theory?

  1. I took the test, but needed a ref for what the perspectives mean to understand the results: .

    I was pleased to see that my BDIs were quite consistent!
    I was dominant in “Developmental” which makes sense for teritary teaching of STEM content, I think.
    Transmission and Apprenticeship are both “backup” for me — also I think appropriate for STEM tertiary teaching.
    This is kind-of helpful, because if you had asked me without the test, I would have said I don’t know what my approach to teaching is, and now I have an answer!

    1. Hi Kerry, that’s great that you found the test helpful. I also found it helpful as I saw that although my intentions were not too far apart from my actions, it was still something for me to consider. When I took the test I intended to be developmental and strong on social reform but I had a strong transmission elements and my intentions were slightly out of sync with what I actually did!

    2. Also, thanks for sharing that resource on the meaning of the perspectives. There are quite a lot of good resources on the TPI website also.

  2. My TPI results were: Apprenticeship 37, Transmission 31, Developmental 24, Nurturing 19, Social Reform 16. No surprises there. The biggest difference between intentions and actions was for Transmission: Actions 15, Intentions 6. I am not sure how to interpret that.

    In my view people learn best by doing. I know someone has “learned” something when they can demonstrate the required knowledge and skills in a test. Ideally the test is in the real world or a good simulation of it, not a paper based examination.
    I have done this questionnaire a couple of times before. I will try to dig out the results. It would be interesting to see if the answers have changed.

    Tom W.

    1. Hi Tom, sounds like you were a little like me in that your intentions for “transmission” were not as high as your actual behaviour in class. But that is not unusual particularly in an area where you may be doing a lot of demonstrating and the apprenticeship element is quite high – which is often the case in computing and sciences.

  3. My results show that my main perspective is apprenticeship followed by developmental and nurturing. Social reform and Transmission were recessive. For the most part my actions and intentions were pretty close.

    What is the difference between meaningful and superficial learning?

    For me, one of the biggest difference is whether students are able to apply something practically or able to critically analyze something with the theory/ideas they have learnt (i.e. not just label what is happening with a term, but tell you how it works and why it works like that). In some ways I guess this links with my apprenticeship perspective (helping people to actually do something)

    1. Thanks David, I agree – actually being able to do something would show deeper learning than simply reciting labels – and of course any kind of critical analysis would require learning at a deeper level than simply learning how something works.

  4. Good Afternoon Katie,

    I am a bit disappointed I have missed other Coffee Courses. I think this occurred because I wasn’t focusing on the emails coming in. My appologies. I note this course is on day one. Let me see if I can do this course in a timely manner.

    My ideas are quite possibly very traditional but here we go.

    I think learning theory is helpful because it gives us an understanding of how our teaching is received by students and armed with learning theory we are more able to reflect on how we might improve delivery. I have read some articles about learning theory, one in particular is KOLB’s learning theory, and a key point in this theory is that people learn in different ways. To give an example, when I first began teaching I assumed learners learnt in a manner similar to me. I was truly surprised to learn people have different individual learning styles, but from that point on I was careful to think through ways I might design delivery so as to capture the interest of a broader range of students and improve their experience of learning.

    I am familiar with the query ‘Why learning theory?’ Some years ago, also when I first began teaching we had a division in the school I was working in, in terms of those who believed in the benefits of learning theory and those who did not. Those who did believe in learning theory went on to take a more education focus in their teaching careers. Those who did not eventually came on board.

    A significant area of discussion in learning forums in all schools I have worked in has always been when do I know when someone has learnt something? There are a number of things we did to try to work this out. We used learning outcomes for our courses and mapped those outcomes against curriculum outcomes so that we could see what each of our courses were contributing to student learning. We teach material, give students the opportunity to practice through case studies and in-class activities, and then we assess students using marking criteria linked to the learning objectives/outcomes. Sometimes we even go ahead a year and review student assessment to see if what they learn in an earlier course is still retained by the time they reach the current course.

    I have found people learn best when I provide the delivery of content and then the opportunity for in-class activity and discussion. I recall reading that teaching large courses in a lecture delivery format is hard on students. Students lose focus after about 20 minutes. I have seen this consistently over the years I have taught. Over time I have become increasingly comfortable stopping every now and then to give them something different to do or to just have a discussion. Students also learn best in an environment in which they are comfortable and this can be hard to achieve in a large lecture theater, but asking them to form small groups of no more than four can help them feel more comfortable because they are talking within a smaller group of people. In my view students also learn best when they are able to make meaning of the material. Sometimes students are able to think of how they have practiced theory in real life, other times they may be able to think of how they might apply theory. Giving students the opportunity to do something practical, such as applying the theory, assists them in their learning.

    I believe the difference between meaningful and surface learning has to do with the students level of engagement with the topic and the depth of their learning and understanding. I believe surface learning is often the result when students sit in class and listen passively to what the teacher is delivering. Deep learning involves critical questioning and the application of ideas which also has a better impact on student learning.

    A strategy I have used in addition to those mentioned above I have also asked students to ‘donate a piece of paper’. At the end of class students hand in notes telling us (the teaching team) what they learnt and what they didn’t understand. At the beginning of the next class any questions are addressed. This helps ensure students are tracking along at a learning pace that keeps them in line with other class members. Sometimes we need to do this because we could have explained it better. This approach is now available to teachers through Wattle as students can send messages to us through the technology so that we know how many students are still trying to come to terms with a concept or model or…..

    To sum up, I am keen to see what I can learn from the TPI Test.

    1. HI Denise, thanks for those thoughts – I can see you already use quite a few great strategies to make sure students are engaged and learning at a deeper level. I particularly like your point about students learning better if they can “make meaning” from the material and the implications for real life. I also like that strategy you share at the end, of “donating a piece of paper” – what a great way for a teacher to be able to get some idea of how their students are tracking and what help they might need!

  5. Ok – So my results suggested that Nurturing was dominant, with Apprenticeship and Developmental as back up. This is probably consistent with the educational setting that I was thinking about when answering the questions – the Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice (As opposed to any work I have done in undergraduate settings). For example, there is a strong focus on developing students own sense of professionalism and competence through simulated learning with considerable mentoring attached (Thus the nurturing and apprenticeship and developmental approach combined really). Interestingly I suspect my results on the Social reform scale were lower not because I don’t see that as part of my role, but primarily because I had a reaction to the way these questions were worded – i.e. they suggested (to me) a didactic approach to dealing with issues of social reform, as opposed to an empowering approach (which is of course why nurturing is likely to have come out as my dominant result).
    Another comment about the results is that when I see ‘nurturing’ as my top indicator I have, as a women, a negative reaction to that – i.e. as if having a nurturing approach to education is not valued as it is associated with women. (I appreciate this says a lot more about me and how I have been socialised than anyone else)

    What is the difference between meaningful and superficial learning?
    So, similar to David above, I think of superficial learning as a one way process – transmission of information from teacher to student, with the students only engaging with that transmission to answer an essay question of similar in a mere parrot-like fashion. Meaningful learning is more about a dialogue – a dialogue between students/teachers that increasingly ‘plumbs’ the depths of a concept either to apply it in practice in situations that are not ‘bounded’ and/or to create new knowledge and linkages between concepts/ideas/uses and needs.

    1. Hi Anneka – really interesting points. I have found from discussions with academics in our Foundations course that a lot does depend on the context in which you teach, as to which perspective you might take, so your experience accords with what I have observed. No one has an absolutely set in stone “perspective” for teaching and a lot depends on the context in which we teach. Also interesting that you point to social and psychological change occurring in our wider society, when responding to concepts like nurturing and social reform – as well as the potential for conflict between a nurturing and a social reform approach. I love your concept of dialogue in teaching to elicit a deeper approach.

  6. Hi all!

    For the TPI questionnaire, I scored from 35-38 for Transmission, Apprenticeship, Development and Nurturing, but was quite ‘recessive’ for Social Reform and there was a general overall discrepancy (ranging from 3-6 points) between Beliefs and Intent/Action for all sections except Nurturing.

    I *think* the above results are consistent with the fact that I try to meet a variety of objectives while teaching, but social reform is not really on my radar (I’m not sure if this is something I should be concerned about or not; maybe this course will help me to decide that?). The difference between my beliefs and Intent/Actions is a little too obscure for me to decipher what it means, however, I think it might be based mostly on me taking a more conservative approach to asserting my beliefs in the questionnaire vs. trying to implement them…

    My thoughts and personal theory on the question, ‘How do people best learn’ are that I don’t think there is one correct answer to this question. As people come in a variety of ‘flavours’, so do their learning needs. This seems to resonate with my results from the TPI questionnaire, as I wasn’t dominant in any one perspective. I hope that means I provide a diverse approach that caters widely to my students, but I found it interesting that ‘most people have at least one, occasionally two, dominant perspectives’, since I clearly don’t! Interesting to see what other people are finding…

    1. Thanks Angela, great thoughts. I think the social reform perspective is probably very dependent on context for most people. Potentially there is room for a social reform in any area, including maths and sciences (e.g. a social reform agenda may be about questioning why maths and science are not held in more esteem with the general public, or to promote science and maths thinking from an early age in children). But where the status quo prevails, most people teaching in the maths, science and business type areas are probably going to be focused more on research and knowledge acquisition rather than bringing about change. Whereas social reform might be more at the forefront of courses in the humanities and social sciences.

      I think the fact that you had no particular dominant approach probably does demonstrate your openness to try diverse strategies in your teaching – and that must be a good thing for the students!

      I had a bit of a difference between my intent and actions which gave me food for thought – transmission was much higher for me than I intended, which means some of my methods might be more transmissive than they should be if I were to be as developmental and socially reforming as I desired! So it is all interesting material for reflection 🙂

  7. I am dominant in Developmental, recessive in Transmission and Social Reform, and have Nurturing and Apprenticeship as my backups. This was identical to my TPI results from March 2018, so I guess I am fairly consistent in my teaching approaches. However, all five perspectives have increased (eg, Developmental went from 39 to 43), albeit, not necessarily by the same amount. I have no idea what that means. Any thoughts?

    Both sets of results show parity, or only small differences, between actions and intentions. Beliefs are also fairly aligned for Development and Nurturing. Perhaps this reflects my own personal theories and interests in my stronger teaching perspectives, and identifies a need to develop the other three perspectives.

    For me, learning is more about developing concepts and approaches than memorising content or instructing change. As such, learning happens best when students have the chance to explore, manipulate, and understand concepts and apply them to out-of-the-box situations, all in a safe environment. This very much resonates with my TPI results. At the end of the day, I know learning has occurred when I see how my students have grown and developed. It doesn’t take much, yet it is the best feedback.

    1. Hi Bhavani, how interesting that your scores for each of the perspectives increased. Maybe it reflects a deeper understanding of different teaching approaches – but I am guessing. I will have to Google that one! I agree with you that the “best feedback” a teacher can get is watching their students develop and mature in their attitude and approach, becoming inducted into scholarship and professionalism.

  8. Here are my TPI Results,

    Calculated survey results:
    Transmission Total: (Tr) 38.
    B = 11; I = 13; A = 14.
    Apprenticeship Total: (Ap) 44.
    B = 14; I = 15; A = 15.
    Developmental Total: (Dv) 39.
    B = 11; I = 15; A = 13.
    Nurturing Total: (Nu) 42.
    B = 14; I = 14; A = 14.
    Social Reform Total: (SR) 32.
    B = 11; I = 10; A = 11.
    Beliefs total: (B) 61
    Intentions total: (I) 67
    Action total: (A) 67
    Mean: (M) 39
    Standard Deviation: (SD) 4.1
    Dominant Threshold: (HIT) 43.1
    Recessive Threshold: (LOT) 34.9
    Overall Total: (T) 195

    The dominant approaches are Apprenticeship and Nurturing. I was thinking in terms of teaching at the undergraduate level. I teach in business so as Jill says it makes sense that social reform is my lowest scoring area. That said the TPI scores for each approach seem fairly close with the lowest score being 32. I also note the beliefs, intentions and actions are fairly even in terms of weighting.

    Cheers, Denise.

  9. I took the TPI, but did not find it helpful. The questions do not take account of the actual content of the subject being taught, and so the questions and results are often irrelevant, if not actively misleading. For example, many of the questions concern your focus on seeking social change in your teaching, but this is not relevant for many technical subjects (e.g., teaching calculus). Other questions relating to real-world applications similarly depend more on the actual content of the subject being taught than anything to do with the beliefs of the teacher. This means that many of the questions are set by the course content, rather than one’s teaching method or beliefs.

    I just read Pratt and Collins (2000) which introduces the test in the teaching literature. I find it extraordinary that they make no mention of the effect of the course content on the answers in the test. It is extremely annoying answering large numbers of questions that are either inapplicable, or determined largely by course content rather than beliefs and practices. If this is the quality of teaching assessment instruments in the area of education then I have little confidence of gaining any insight with this material.

    1. HI Ben, thanks for your thoughts. The TPI is only a tool for a conversation starter to get us thinking about our teaching philosophy, to dig down and figure out what we individually see as “good teaching.” As such, your reply does show clearly what your approach to teaching is, in your context, so it is certainly working to get a conversation going! On the site itself there is quite a lot of explanation of the intent of the tool, and how the five approaches are not mutually exclusive, and we will all have combinations of all of them with a couple of more dominant ones, depending on our context and our personal approach in the classroom. I can understand how people teaching technical subjects would certainly have dominant transmission and apprenticeship approaches. At the same time, I have had academics who teach in science and maths in quite technical areas telling me they do try to take something of a social reform approach in changing the mindset and culture about such subjects as being “dry” and irrelevant to daily life. So it does depend on the individual teacher’s philosophical approach, which is what the test is all about. This Index tool is certainly not designed to be a “teaching assessment instrument” but we thought is would be a good way to kick start a discussion on the nature of each participant’s personal theory on teaching.

    2. Hi Ben,
      I experienced some similar frustrations. However I found the accompanying short video series where they unpack a participants TPI added a lot of context to the questionare.
      If you haven’t already I would highly recommend viewing the videos.

  10. My results indicated nurturing in the lead with transmission and development equal backups and apprenticeship and social reform recessive. However, all five came within the range of 28 to 35, so there were no very strong dominant or recessive characteristics. My BIAs are fairly consistent, although it seems that generally my intentions are slighly stronger than my beliefs, and my actions are generally consistent with beliefs.
    However, I agree with the previous commenter that it seems misleading not to take into account the subject taught. I have taught both art theory and art practice in separate courses but I took the TPI test with art theory teaching in mind. Clearly, apprenticeship is going to be stronger in art practice. I’m not sure how to apply apprenticeship in teaching theory, but perhaps I need more teaching experience to appreciate this. I also felt unsure about the social reform facet of the test. I do strongly feel that social reform is an important aspect of teaching, but does it have to be at the expense of individual students’ needs? They don’t seem mutually exclusive to me.
    I’m interested in the question on knowing when someone has learned something, although of course this is contingent on defining what learning is and varies by field! If learning is the retention of information, well of course this changes as time passes. A very good mentor of mine, who is an exceptional teacher, told me when I started teaching that they students won’t remember much of the content of a course, and the goal is to teach them how to think. I’d be interested to hear other experienced teachers’ perspectives on this.

    1. Hi Christine, interesting observations about your teaching in the art area. The information about the 5 perspectives on the site does spell out that the 5 perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and we will have all of them in varying combinations. The combinations, and which are dominant and recessive, will at least in part, be dependent on our teaching context. So your examples of two different types of subjects in your teaching field are very interesting, with one more theoretical and one more practically based. And no, social reform does not have to exclude nurturing, in fact, they usually are seen together when they are more dominant in a profile. My own take on this is that social reform usually has a developmental aspect, with the development of the individual’s social intelligence a major aim, so this automatically encompasses the nurturing aspect, in nurturing the individual’s development both as an emerging professional, and a member of a community.

  11. Comparing with my TPI results in March 2018, I got an increase in Transmission, Apprenticeship, Developmental and Nurturing. The biggest jump in Nurturing makes it the dominant one (it was Apprenticeship in March). Most of the changes came from “Belief”, which may indicate, as Jill suggested, I have a deeper understanding from the teaching and training sessions all through this year. The Social Reform mark is less than the last time. Probably because I’m less and less ambitious as time goes by.. : P

    1. Hi Sunny, thanks for sharing your results. It is interesting to me that two people who did the Foundations had higher levels in all 5 approaches – possibly familiarity with the tool itself may contribute to this? But your comment that your “belief” component changed puts a different light on the change – we do change our beliefs and perspectives over time, and also in different contexts, so it is not surprising. The tool is not meant to be used as a standard, or in a static manner. And it is not necessarily meant to be an aim that you have higher levels in any particular area – this is something that is for you to reflect on – ie, if you got high levels of transmission and low levels of social reform, is this a concern to you? Or is it to be expected in the particular teaching area you are focusing on when completing the survey? If there is a big gap between your intentions and actions, is this something to reflect on? So it is a tool to trigger reflection and discussion, rather than to measure your teaching ability!

  12. Firstly, thanks to Kerry Taylor for providing the link to further understand the results of the TPI survey.

    I found it an interesting survey and helpful to examine my initials beliefs, then intentions, then actions. I think this will be a useful framework for reflection in the future.

    My dominant perspectives were apprenticeship, developmental, and nurturing.
    Transmission was a “backup” and social reform was recessive.
    This was then interesting to read about the meaning of those different perspectives. To me it is relatively obvious as to why social reform is “recessive” – I teach in the medical sciences and anatomy where there feels to be little opportunity to influence social reform. This is also where I had the biggest internal inconsistency. I can understand why – although I believe that teaching and education has opportunity for, and should influence social reform, in my area I find it difficult to see how I can link anatomy to societal reform.

    I was intrigued that transmission wasn’t as high as the other perspectives, I would have thought in a very “content heavy” classroom that transmission would be a dominant trait.
    However, I can also see why it’s not as dominant. I have often taught students who are only a year below me. This means that I know that I won’t always be the expert in the field, so have to strengthen my other areas of teaching.

    1. Hi Kerry, thanks for your thoughts. As you say, in a content heavy course like anatomy, it would be natural for a strong element of transmission, but your results show that you are open to other approaches which I am sure would benefit your students.

  13. Hi,

    Sorry for the late completion of this module. I’ve been extremely busy during the last months.
    I’ve never had the chance of learning about teaching before and I found the test and the TPI website very interesting.
    My TPI results are as follow:

    Transmission Total: (Tr): 30 (B = 11; I = 8; A = 11)
    Apprenticeship Total: (Ap): 33 (B = 11; I = 11; A = 11)
    Developmental Total: (Dv): 32 (B = 10; I = 12; A = 10)
    Nurturing Total: (Nu): 36 (B = 13; I = 11; A = 12)
    Social Reform Total: (SR): 21 (B = 8; I = 7; A = 6)

    My dominant perspective in Nurturing, with Apprenticeship and Developmental as backups and Transmission on the mean. My recessive perspective is Social Reform. I teach zooarchaeology and therefore, although my beliefs are higher, I agree that my actions are not very focused on that topic.

    As some other colleagues suggested, I agree that the results are highly influenced by the course or courses you have in mind when completing the test. There is internal consistency among all my perspectives, what is good, although in transmission, I find interesting that the scoring in beliefs and actions coincide, while intentions are 3 points lower.

    I made the test thinking about my courses on zooarchaeology, which have a large practical component. Students learn to identify animal bones and they have to complete a practical test, create a database and write a scientific report. I conduct several demonstrations and encourage students to ask questions and compare the different bones they have from the archaeological sites with reference manuals and skeletons. After reading the teaching perspectives definitions, I agree this will match with the Apprenticeship and Developmental perspectives. More over, as many students don’t have any previous experience on animal bones, in their assignments I encourage them to justify their answers and results. If the results are not correct but they provide a structured justification, they get some points added to their final mark. This will suit the Nurturing perspective.

    Regarding the proposed questions, I have chosen: How do people best learn?; What strategies can be used to support and enable student learning? I’m a firm believer that students learn by doing and therefore, I include many options for practical-skills based learning in my courses. I reckon students are more likely to be engaged in the courses if they see there is a practical application of their actions and assignments.

  14. I had done the TPI three years ago when I just started teaching but thought it might be interesting to see how I had changed since getting much more teaching experience under my belt. Not much it turns out.
    Three years ago
    Transmission Total: (Tr) 30.
    B = 10; I = 9; A = 11.
    Apprenticeship Total: (Ap) 30.
    B = 9; I = 10; A = 11.
    Developmental Total: (Dv) 41.
    B = 12; I = 14; A = 15.
    Nurturing Total: (Nu) 43.
    B = 13; I = 15; A = 15.
    Social Reform Total: (SR) 39.
    B = 11; I = 15; A = 13.

    Transmission Total: (Tr):29 (B = 10; I = 8; A = 11)
    Apprenticeship Total: (Ap):30 (B = 8; I = 12; A = 10)
    Developmental Total: (Dv):39 (B = 12; I = 13; A = 14)
    Nurturing Total: (Nu):41 (B = 13; I = 14; A = 14)
    Social Reform Total: (SR):39 (B = 12; I = 14; A = 13)

    I believe we change students whether we want to or not, we can either do so consciously or unconsciously. This explains my high social reform numbers. My teaching philosophy is strongly based on making students feel that there is no distinction between life and the classroom. What we study doesn’t just have relevance to real world issues, it has relevance to their lives, their decisions and their priorities today. Regardless of whether they intend to go into environmental careers specifically I encourage them to see that just by being at one of the top universities in the world they are at the apex of change. And their privilege means they have a responsibility to care that the environment is changing because they will not be effected by this change as much as the billions of poor people around the world. The pedagogical benefit of this approach is that it engages students deeply with the literature and the case studies – if they can change this situation, what should they do? What are the implications of those actions? What are the barriers to making “good” decisions?

  15. Hi Kerry, We are beginning to see patterns here; my scoring was like yours, and I agree, our HE STEM context is the likely common denominator. Cheers, Hanna

  16. My dominant perspectives are developmental and apprenticeship. It makes sense to me that I scored high on both of them, but it surprised me somewhat that there was a little bit of variation within each of the parameters. For Developmental, ‘beliefs’ scored 2 points higher than ‘intentions’ and ‘actions’. For Apprenticeship, ‘beliefs’ scored 3 points lower than ‘intentions’ and ‘actions’. Looks like I need to align my beliefs a little bit better with what I (try) to do!

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