What we know: Students as learners: Students learn by doing, preferably linking theory & practice in a cyclical sequence

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Students learn by doing, preferably linking theory & practice in a cyclical sequence 

What do we know?

The literature is rich with evidence that learning can be substantially improved if students are active rather than passive participants in the process.  Optimal conditions for learning include the provision of opportunities for students to interact with the information, ideas, materials, or procedures presented (see ‘students learn by constructing meaning’ below). Under the umbrella term, ‘active learning’, this was increasingly promoted in the 80s and 90s but has perhaps been subsumed more recently with the shift in emphasis to ‘student engagement’, which obviously encompasses far more.

A refinement of ‘active learning’ is to structure the activity as part of a learning cycle and probably the most widely known is David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle:


The theory behind Kolb’s cycle has a number of important elements.  Despite the apparent emphasis on ‘experience’ in the name, it should be stressed that the cycle can be started at any stage. The cycle is also predicated on the argument that experience alone is not enough – once started, at whatever point, to be most effective, ideally the cycle should be completed at least once and preferably twice.


Implications for improving student learning

The message is clear that within logistical constraints, even in a single teaching session, time should be allocated, and activities designed, for students to actively engage with the subject matter.  And whether activities are inside or outside the classroom (or a mixture of both), learning can be further enhanced if they are structured around Kolb’s cycle.


Further reading

Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by Doing, available at: http://www2.glos.ac.uk/gdn/gibbs/index.htm

Sutherland, T. & Bonwell, C.C. (2005) Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass


About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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