What we know: Students as learners: Learning is constrained by beliefs about learning

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

Learning is constrained by beliefs about learning

What do we know?

Linked closely to students’ beliefs about knowledge (above), students’ beliefs about learning have a significant affect on their conceptions of teaching and their approaches to studying.  Again, different theorists have slightly different taxonomies, but Säljö suggests the following five-stage model, which is accompanied by illustrations of how students holding each view might express it:

  1. Learning as an increase in knowledge.  The student will often see learning as something done to them by teachers rather than as something they do to, or for, themselves.  To gain some knowledge is learning … We obviously want to learn more. I want to know as much as possible
  2. Learning as memorising. The student has an active role in memorising, but the information being memorised is not transformed in any way.  Learning is about getting it into your head. You’ve just got to keep writing it out and eventually it will go in.
  3. Learning as acquiring facts, or procedures which are to be used.  What you learn is seen to include skills, algorithms, formulae which you apply which you will need in order to do things at a later date, but there is still no transformation of what is learnt by the learner. Well it’s about learning the thing so you can do it again when you are asked to, like in an exam.
  4. Learning as making sense. The student makes active attempts to abstract meaning in the process of learning. This may only involve academic tasks. Learning is about trying to understand things so you can see what is going on.  You’ve got to be able to explain things, not just remember them.
  5. Learning as understanding reality.  Learning enables you to perceive the world differently. This has also been termed ‘personally meaningful learning’.  When you have really learnt something you kind of see things you couldn’t see before. Everything changes.

In this model, the first three stages can be grouped together under the heading ‘reproductive’ and the associated conception of teaching can be described as ‘closed’ – put simply, learning is seen to be passive and the expectation is that the teacher does all the work and makes all the decisions.  The fourth and fifth levels can also be grouped, under the heading ‘making sense’ (or Säljö called it ‘reconstructive’), with the associated conception of teaching as ‘open’ – where the learner is expected to do most of the work and make most of the decisions.

Implications for improving student learning

If we take a ‘closed’ approach to our teaching we are likely to reinforce a ‘reproducing’ conception of learning for many of our students, and dissatisfy the rest.  On the other hand, there is evidence that students can become more sophisticated as learners as a consequence of their experience of more open-ended learning environments.  Learning tasks and assessments that require more from the students (in terms of challenge, not amount) have been shown to be more likely to encourage a ‘making sense’ approach to their learning (see ‘students learn by intention’ below).

Further reading

Gibbs, G. (1992) Improving the quality of student learning, Bristol: TES




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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