Constructivist Learning Theory


Constructivistic – “knowledge is a function of how the individual creates meaning from his or her own experiences” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 62).



  • “Some cognitive processes are seen in a variety of species; other are unique to human beings”
  • “Through both informal conversations and formal schooling, adults convey to children the ways in which their culture interprets and responds to the world.”
  • “Every culture passes along physical and cognitive tools that make daily living more effective and efficient.”
  • “Thought and language become increasingly interdependent in the first years of life.”
  • “Complex mental processes begin as social activities; as children develop, they gradually internalize the processes they use in social contexts and start to use them independently.”
  • “Children appropriate their culture’s tools in their own idiosyncratic manner.”
  • “Children can accomplish more difficult tasks when they have the assistance of people more advanced and competent than themselves.”
  • “Challenging tasks promote maximum cognitive growth” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 330-332).


How does learning occur?

Constructivist – knowledge is created; Active Learner


Although “considered a branch of Cognitivism (both conceive of learning as a mental activity),” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 63) constructivism differs in many ways.


“Social, meaning created by each learner (personal)” (Davis, Edmunds & Kelly-Bateman, 2008, p. 1).


“Learners do not transfer knowledge from the external world into their memories; rather they build personal interpretations of the world based on individual experiences and interactions” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 63)


Human beings construct knowledge by giving meaning to current experiences in light of prior knowledge, mental structures, experiences, and beliefs. It is based on the assumption that the source of a person’s understanding of external phenomena is in the person’s mind. Mind is viewed as an active participant in helping people make sense of reality” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 1).


Social Constructivist – “people working together to make sense of their world” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 164).


Which factors influence learning?


  • “Children can think more effectively when they acquire the basic cognitive tools of various activities and academic disciplines.”
  • “Children learn and remember more when they talk about their experiences.”
  • “Children should have opportunities to engage in activities that closely resemble those they will encounter in the real world (authentic).”
  • “Group learning activities can help children internalize cognitive strategies.”
  • “Children often acquire better strategies when they collaborate with adults on complex tasks.”
  • “Challenging tasks, especially when sufficiently scaffolded, are likely to foster maximum cognitive development.”


Children’s abilities should be assessed under a variety of work conditions.” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 342-345).


“Engagement, participation, social, cultural” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).


“Constructivist teaching involves students in collaborative groups, such as cooperative learning, reciprocal teaching, and long-term projects” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3).


What is the role of memory?

“Prior knowledge remixed to current context” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).  Also, see Cognitive Theory.


Memory or retrieval can be enhanced or improved through co-constructed narratives or conversations with others regarding their experiences (Ormrod, 2008).


“Understanding is developed through continued, situated use…and does not crystallize into a categorical definition” that can be called up from memory. A concept will continue to evolve with each new use as new situations, negotiations, and activities recast it in a different, more densely textured form” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 63).


“Memory” is always under construction as a cumulative history of interactions. Representations of experiences are not formalized or structured into a single piece of declarative knowledge and then stored in the head. The emphasis is not on retrieving intact knowledge structures, but on providing learners with the means to create novel and situation-specific understandings by “assembling” prior knowledge from diverse sources appropriate to the problem at hand” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 63).


“Memory is not a context-independent process” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 63).


Constructivist theory has not dealt explicitly with memory. The basic principles of constructivism suggest that learners are more apt to remember information if their constructions are personally meaningful to them” (Ormrod et al., 2009, p. 221).


How does transfer occur?

“Socialization” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).


“Learners do not transfer knowledge from the external world into their memories; rather they build personal interpretations of the world based on individual experiences and interactions” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 63).


“Presenting information and skills to students in relevant contexts increases the likelihood they will be able to transfer the knowledge and skills to real-world situations” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3).


“As with memory, transfer has not been a central issue in constructivist research. The same idea applies, however; to the extent that learners’ constructions are personally meaningful to them and linked with other ideas then transfer should be facilitated” (Ormrod et al., 2009, p. 222).


What types of learning are best explained by this position?

It would seem that all types of learning benefit from social construction strategies such as authentic activities, class discussions, cooperative learning, reciprocal teaching and peer tutoring (Ormrod, 2008).  Participation in these types of activities allows for “distributed cognition” where the learning task is spread “across many minds and can draw on multiple knowledge bases and ideas” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 429).


“Social, vague (“ill defined”)” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).


How is technology used for learning in your industry?

Technology with an emphasis on Constructivism effectively: anchors learning in meaningful contexts; actively uses what is learned; revisits content at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives; helps learners to develop pattern-recognition skills by presenting alternative ways of representing problems and, presents new problems and situations that differ from the conditions of the initial instruction for assessment” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 65).


Online Learning aka eLearning (formal and/or informal) utilizing Course Management Systems (CMS) and/or virtual worlds such as the AET Zone (“Emerging,” 2002).


“Constructivist-focused, online teaching: interactive learning, collaborative learning, facilitating learning, authentic learning, learner-centered learning, and high quality learning” (“Emerging,” 2002, p. 1).


“Technology tools provide “the means through which individuals engage and manipulate both resources and their own ideas. Some kinds of technology tools can extend memory and make thinking visible. Good examples include brainstorming and concept mapping software such as Inspiration(r). Others help to represent knowledge and facilitate communication. For instance, the Collaborative Visualization or CoVis Project provides visualization software designed to help students collect and analyze climatological data and visualize effects due to greenhouse gases and other phenomena. Finally, some tools, like simulations mentioned above, enable learners to experiment with modeling complex ideas. NetLogo, for example, provides a programmable modeling environment for simulating natural and social phenomena, such as how segregated neighborhoods can arise, not from any specific bias, but from the simple desire of people to live near others who are like themselves” (Driscoll, 2002, p. 1).


CSILE (or Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environment aka Knowledge Forum) is one example of software that supports a networked, multimedia environment in which students collaborate on learning activities. They do this by creating ‘notes’ to express their ideas or integrate outside information about a topic. Then they read and respond to the notes of others, all of which builds a communal database producing shared knowledge about the topic or problem.  CSILE also facilitates connections between schools and the scientific community, allowing practicing scientists to serve as mentors to students. Other projects, such as Kids as Global Scientists, also bring students and various experts together in virtual communities through Internet links. Such a dialogue-based approach to learning creates a rich intellectual context, with ample opportunities for participants to improve their understanding and become more personally involved in explaining scientific phenomena” (Driscoll, 2002, p. 1).


Additionally, the Horizon Report, “introduces six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use in learning-focused organizations within three adoption horizons over the next one to five years” (Johnson, Levine, & Smith, 2009, p. 3) in the areas of “mobiles, cloud computing, geo-everything, personal web, semantic aware applications and smart objects.



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13 thoughts on “Constructivist Learning Theory

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