Introduction to TEL

Day 5: Constructivism Snapshot

Building Knowledge, Creating Scaffolds:  Constructivist theory of learning

Image of scaffolding
By Didgeman, sourced from Pixabay, downloaded on 12/11/18

It has been established for some time now that learners are not blank slates ready to be “filled with knowledge,” but are actively engaged in constructing knowledge for themselves, building on existing knowledge.

This model of how people learn negates the premises of earlier models which had the learner in a passive role, receiving instruction and knowledge from the teacher as the expert.  This constructivist theory is founded on the ideas of Vygotsky’s Social Development theory, which emphasises the importance of social interaction and relationship with more knowledgeable others, in learning. This emphasis is on the social and apprenticeship experience (observing and learning from knowledgeable others, being “scaffolded” in the learning process).  While Vygotsky’s theories were originally applied to children, they are now regarded as equally applicable to adult learning – a process of “scaffolded” construction of knowledge. The work of Knowles on adult learning principles reflects this constructivist philosophy.

From the constructivist point of view, learning is a very individual endeavour in which each person is uniquely creating their knowledge based on their existing knowledge and their hypothesis creation. This leads to strategies to ensure that a teachers’ approach is inclusive, addresses diversity, and is student-centred. This theory also casts teachers in the role of facilitator and co-creator of learning, rather than a transmitter of knowledge.

To learn more about constructivist learning theory, try Teachnology.

question mark


Thinking back to your results from the TPI quiz, does your approach to teaching align with constructivism?  If so, what strategies do you use to encourage students to construct their own meaning and knowledge?  If not, do you think your field does or does not lend itself to a constructivist approach to teaching? 

The role of metacognition

Along with the rise of constructivist approaches to learning has been a growing awareness of the importance of the learner’s metacognition skills to their success as learners. Constructing their own knowledge, learners need to be self-regulating, and aware of the processes they are engaged with in order to learn. Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking” involves the learner’s critical awareness of their own thinking and learning. It can be encouraged by showing learners strategies to monitor and improve their learning practices, and to accurately self-assess their knowledge and skills.

If you would like to find out more about metacognitive skills and how to encourage their development students, go to the Vanderbilt University page on Metacognition.

Active learning

The active learning model has also arisen out of constructivism, in line with the central tenet of the student being actively engaged in creating their own knowledge. Active learning means that students are cognitively engaged in the learning, making connections, making sense and constructing knowledge themselves. Rather than being passive recipients, activities such as problem solving and group collaboration or discussions have them actively creating their knowledge and understanding. Research has shown that active learning does result in both deeper learning and retention of knowledge.

For further information there is an excellent summary with good references, on the Pearson website.

Here is a very recent article that provides good background on the ideas around active learning, plus results of  research which demonstrates the impact on student attitudes and learning efficacy:

Rocher, A., 2018, “Active Learning Strategies and Academic Self-efficacy relate to both Attention Control and attitudes towards plagiarism” in Active Learning in Higher Education, 1-14, 2018.

Active learning is the basis of the popular idea of the “flipped classroom” – see our previous Coffee Course dedicated to this topic.

Teaching Strategies

The idea of “scaffolding” is a very useful one – provide supports for students to learn new concepts and skills, with supports being strategically diminished as students gain confidence as self-directed learners.  This might take the form of practice quizzes, hints that pop up or appear in context in online environments, the provision of templates and exemplars, taking the learning or skill developments in steps that build on each other, and providing targeted and timely feedback.

Creating opportunities for group collaboration and peer support can also provide the social aspect of learning – learning that comes from observing and communicating with others.  This of course can be done online using discussion forums, wikis and blogs, as well as face to face in work groups.  Approaches such as problem-based and project-based learning are often used for ensuring active, constructivist learning.  The “flipped classroom” approach is one example of constructivism in action.

Berkeley University has a great list of types of active learning activities that could be used, on their Centre for Teaching and Learning page.


question markDiscussion

What types of things do you think will assist students in your courses to develop metacognition skills?

Have you tried to “flip” your classroom?  What kind of activities have you tried in order to engage your students and have them active in their own learning?

Concluding thoughts

Of course everything we have covered is theory, some of it having been evidenced in more or less convincing ways, and all of it contested.  They are frameworks and points of view that can be useful to us in conceptualising and planning our teaching programs, but they are never absolute truths.  We hope you found something useful to take away from the last five days!


14 thoughts on “Day 5: Constructivism Snapshot

  1. I am definitely a constructivist pedagogically, and my TPI results reflect this. Scaffolding, active learning, higher level analysis, and facilitative approaches tailored to students’ needs are some of the methods I use to encourage my students to construct their own learning journey.

    I think metacognition is developed when we draw attention to it. A lot of learning, especially at the higher levels, was traditionally passed down in a supervisory or apprenticeship model. Students were just expected to know, or learn from their mentors. However, as higher education has become more available to the masses, there is still this assumption that the good students will somehow figure it out. I believe the more we talk about and teach metacognition, the better students will be able to identify and develop their own practices.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Bhavani. I like your contrast between the apprenticeship or mentoring model, which assumes small cohorts of students, and the current norm of mass education – your idea that we need to talk about and teach meta-cognition seems to be a good strategy to address the lack of personal mentoring that might be experienced by today’s undergraduate students especially. Making metacognitive skills explicit (learning to learn) and even providing some training and practice in them is so much more important for today’s students.

    2. Hi Bhavani,

      You make a great point there. I wonder whether all out students would benefit from a course on metacognition in their first semester at ANU

  2. Hmmm, I think I’ve not been a strong constructivist pedagogically so far and I’m not sure that the course I’ve taught into really lends itself to this approach. It’s a fast-paced course with a very diverse cohort and covers a variety of topics. I mostly feel like I don’t have the time to go slowly enough to get a more constructivist approach – the LOs are mostly around exposing students to a variety of techniques so that they get the flavour for where they might want to go next. There are also components that have students going off to construct further knowledge for themselves though. My main ‘hands-on’ stuff involved a computer practical and I ‘live-coded’ through the course. If the course had been a computer-based one, or if the students had more advanced computer skills, I think I would have developed this further to lessen my active input and support more independent problem solving. I’d like to do this in future!
    If I think back to my TPI results, these were highly varied with no dominant style, so I think that supports the fact that I’m open to thinking about more constructivist approaches in the future!

    1. Hi Angela, thanks for your comments. In Higher Education, academics and their students are often under tight time constraints and in a practically-based course, this stops students from being able to work through many problem solving exercises at their own pace – so this is more about the way the system shapes how we teach sometimes. But it sounds like you do what you can to inspire and facilitate students to build their knowledge – understanding the principles behind constructivist learning will help you see opportunities for this approach.

  3. The TPI quizz showed that I tend to adopt the apprenticeship and nurturing approaches. I believe I do adopt a constructivist pedagogy and that I can demonstrate this in the courses I have taught. I should also mention the field of management in which I work is in my view suitable to the adoption of this pedagogy.
    For example, last semester I taught leadership and students were given a project which required them to consider mindfulness, reflexiveness, authenticity and sensemaking. As such metacognition was at the forefront of their learning. They were asked to make sense or meaning of the literature and consider how they see themselves as leaders. A part of this required them to work with past experience and meaning making and integrate new ideas learnt through models of metacognition to their leadership thinking and behavior going forward. They were learning about themselves and how they relate to others interactively and in groups. In class we used examples, group discussion and moments of self reflection.
    I believe the teaching strategies currently used in the management courses, and in particular with respect to leadership do encourage learning through metacognition. Not only that, but learners responded really positively to learning through metacognition. I know this from their feedback after class.
    With respect to the flipped classroom approach I have not done a lot of this. The closest I can claim to having adopted this approach is when learners were required to read before class and then do an in class group activity. Learners were required to attempt a group problem based on readings and guidance in class and the work had to be submitted at the end of the seminar. In this way problem solving occurred actively in class. I am sure I have a lot more to learn about the flipped class approach.

    1. Hi Denise, thanks for sharing how you use metacognitive learning in your classes – the course sounds ideal for both reflective, constructionist approaches and implementing metacognitive strategies. The “flipped classroom” is similar to how you are doing your “study first then write/discuss in class” but maybe more structured with almost a project type of approach in class, working on an actual authentic task.

  4. Being in computer science I am a hard core constructivist. My discipline includes AI, where we teach computers to build models of the world and “learn”. So it is natural to think of students doing this.

    In ANU TechLauncher, students do a major group project, with peer feedback and assessment. To support that they are provided with tools and specific learning exercises, but also encouraged to work out what skills they will need and how to get them. However, it is very hard to get students into this mode of thinking, after years of rigid standard courses. I am considering taking them through a three step process where they think of what skills they will need, get the skills and reflect on what they have learned.

    1. HI Tom thanks for your comments. Authentic tasks as you describe are ideal for students to construct their own knowledge. I agree that more conscious, structured strategies to enable students to become familiar with meta-cognitive processes – talking to students directly about what they do to “learn about learning” and “think about thinking” can be very useful to them – they might not have consciously considered these processes much before.

  5. In principle I would like students to always come to class as active learners where rather than me just telling them large slabs of information, they are realistically challenging their own knowledge and we are able to apply the knowledge or dig a bit deeper. However, this often proves difficult if students are attending labs relatively unprepared. My questioning or probing often seems to fall on dead ears and it’ll turn into a session more of “transmission” than anything else. Another problem that I’ll often have is the wide varying levels of prior knowledge and preparation amongst the students. So whilst there might be one or two people who could answer the questions, the others sit there somewhat blankly and I have to ensure we can slow up slightly and I might try and get those more confident or prepared students to try and explain or teach a topic to the group.

    On reading the Vanderbilt page on Metacognition, I realised that in prior courses (first year undergrad biology), that this was essentially what we spent most of our time teaching. We role wasn’t to be experts in the content, but rather we were there to help students “learn how to learn”, so spent significant portions of time talking about “metacognition”. I also realise that the current courses I’m involved in, we spend less time considering or discussing this – perhaps because they are later year and post-graduate courses where we assume people are okay. That said, it’s something I could work to incorporate more into my teaching or program.

  6. The very first time I heard about scaffolding and constructive alignment it was like a light going on. I was assisting in a class and realised that there was no link between some of the final essay topics and what was being taught in class. But I couldn’t quite say why that was wrong. Those concepts immediately helped me articulate what the problem was. Recently I had the very personal experience of someone trying to teach me something about their field (tellingly the exact example escapes me) and I had the very visceral realisation that the fact there was no scaffolding meant the information was just sliding right off like teflon. So although I have believed in these theories for as long as I have known about them and tried very hard to implement them, this personal experience has really made me recommit to these concepts. I think engaging more with metacognition is probably one of the areas I will re look at, and I think in a way this links to my high nuturing score in the TPI – I think an awareness of the process you are going through and potentially why its hard or why failing is important in mastering particular skills means that you are better able to emotionally deal with more challenging tasks.

    1. Hi Edwina, I really love that it brought about a “lightbulb” moment for you! I had a similar experience when I was trying to learn roller derby, where I realised that I wasn’t receiving enough scaffolding and was missing out on the steps I needed to properly understand what I needed to do. Thinking more about the process of learning was a very valuable learning for me.

  7. I think scaffolding learning via smaller learning modules that provide timely actionable feedback along the learning journey works well. However, what I find really hard with having online quizzes as my main vehicle for this after each learning module is that what I can implement online with automarking tends to be somewhat simpler than the exams themselves. In particular, multiple choice or fill out the blanks type of quizzes do not allow generating text that would reflect the higher levels of learning better than simple memorisation and grouping skills.

    Any tips for this problem? Or pointers for further information?

  8. I identify as a social constructivist. My dominant TPI perspectives are Apprenticeship and Development, both of which I believe align quite well with constructivism. I try to put Active Learning at the core of what I do, and social interaction (through small group work) is what my students spend most time on in class.
    Really interesting that flipped learning was brought up in this post! I am currently working on an EFS reflection on flipped learning, and touch upon how I feel it helps ‘activate’ the learning. Since it is so closely related to what’s being talked about here, I hope you don’t mind that I copy/paste an excerpt from it:

    In my view, a blended class works best when it is flipped; it opens up opportunities for active learning. After I had flipped my blended learning class, I was able to spend less class time on instruction. In essence, I had radically reduced my ‘speaking time’. And because my students had familiarised themselves with the materials before coming to class, they were able to spend more of their time in class on deep learning. (…) Thanks to the flipped approach, I felt a stronger engagement with and from my students. As I mentioned, my students are given ample speaking time in class. This allows me to learn more about their interests, backgrounds, and professional expertise. Because I have this knowledge, I am able to integrate this in future parts of the course. For example, in the first weeks of one of my advanced ESL courses I learnt that one of my students was a PhD student who researched infectious disease control. This topic was dealt with later in the course, and I encouraged my student to design a short learning activity for her peers. I coached her in the process, and she delivered an excellent presentation and facilitated a class discussion. This not only enriched the course content, but also positively affected overall student engagement.

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