What we know: Students as learners: Students learn by constructing meaning

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 constructing meaning 

What do we know?

While it may be possible to transmit information, or basic facts (the times of the buses on a particular route, for example) simply by telling someone this cannot be done with knowledge (in the fullest sense of the word) or meaning.  In order to learn new knowledge, learners need to process it in relation to what they already know.  Meaning is created by the learner through the interplay of new information with their prior knowledge, understanding and concepts.

Implications for improving student learning

This theory is a major argument in support of ‘active learning’ (above).  Passive receipt of new information, be it through sitting listening in a lecture or through reading a book is less likely to stimulate the necessary interplay between new and existing knowledge.  Creating opportunities for ‘exploratory talk’ and active engagement with the material presented, encouraging students to discuss, debate, explore and even play with ideas will be far more effective in helping students to process new information and construct new understandings.

A further consideration is the need to help students make explicit their current beliefs and thinking in order to confront existing concepts which they already hold that may be wrong.  There is strong research evidence that if this is not done, new information may be superficially ‘learnt’ and even successfully used in assessments of that learning, while the previously held ‘wrong’ concept actually prevails as their preferred understanding.

Further reading

Bruner, J. (1986) Actual minds, possible worlds, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of meaning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Piaget, J. (1950) The Psychology of Intelligence, New York: Routledge

Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press



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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