Learning, thinking and doing
Learning, thinking and doing

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Learning, thinking and doing

2.1 Different conceptions of learning

Spending time thinking about what learning is, how we define it and what it involves, is important for two reasons. First it reminds us of the diversity there is in what and how people learn, and this can help to enlarge the repertoire of approaches we use ourselves. Second, through appreciating the diverse requirements of different kinds of learning, we can review the effectiveness of the strategies we use ourselves to achieve specific outcomes.

The diversity of learning depends on what is being learned as well as by whom and in what circumstances. Theories of learning have developed from studies of particular kinds of learning, and they have strengths and weaknesses which follow from this. For example, learning how to recognise and to recall road signs requires a different method from one we would use to learn how to ride a bicycle, or to chair a committee effectively. These are all examples of learning which make different demands on the learner. Similarly, study of this course involves a range of activities, from studying rather factual, explanatory text to interacting with fellow students and judging your own work. You are unlikely to find any one approach to learning equally helpful in meeting the challenges of these different kinds of learning.

Activity 2

Before reading further, spend a few minutes putting a definition of learning into your own words by completing this sentence:

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At the end of the section you can look back to your definition, and reflect on whether you would then wish to re-state it or to make any changes as a result of the thought you have given to what learning means and to what it might require. You can also compare it to the kinds of answer other students have given when asked the question: 'What does learning mean for you?' as given in Box 5.

Researchers of student learning have asked students this question because of the differences between students in how they go about study. It appears that students have very different ideas about what learning is and what is required for effective studying. Students have been interviewed at different stages in their studies, and a variety of conceptions about what learning means have been identified. By grouping related conceptions, five distinct categories can be identified, and these are numbered from 1 to 5 in Box 5 'Students say that learning is …'.

Box 5 Students say that learning is …

  1. a quantitative increase of knowledge

  2. memorising

  3. the acquisition of facts and procedures for later use

  4. the abstraction of meaning

  5. an interpretative process for understanding reality

  6. changing as a person

(Adapted from Laurillard, 1993, p. 46)

Subsequent research among Open University students (Beaty and Morgan, 1992) found a range of conceptions similar to those of items 1 to 5 in the box among a sample of students at different stages in their study of the Social Science Foundation course. However, the frequency with which OU students also commented on the personal impact of their studies led the researchers to add a sixth conception to the list of five, which was: 'changing as a person'.

Many OU students report that they feel differently about themselves as a result of OU study. They often comment on feeling more confident, or on changes in what they do or how they choose to spend their time. It is changes of this kind that are summarised in the conception that learning can mean 'changing as a person'.

If we now look at all six conceptions of learning, we can see some of the different ideas about learning that people bring with them when they think about studying. These differences are about two key dimensions in learning: the process through which it happens, and the outcomes to which it leads. The first three categories in the list tend to emphasise the outcomes of learning and define these as additions, whether of knowledge, facts or procedures. The process is referred to as memorising or acquiring. The fourth and fifth tend to emphasise process, and describe this variously as 'abstraction' or 'interpretation'. Whereas conception number 3 refers to practical application as the purpose, number 5 refers to 'understanding reality'. The sixth conception, 'changing as a person', again emphasises process but with the emphasis on the person being different, rather than having more knowledge or being able to do more things.

The different ideas about learning that we bring into our approach to study are often not something we discuss directly. We are much more likely to chat about what we find difficult or easy, our preferences for different subjects or for different components in the course materials. We can see fairly immediately that people differ in how they respond to the same teaching material, and we can relate that to the differences we know of between people's personalities and experience. What we may not be aware of is that learning itself is diverse, both in its outcomes and in the kind of activities that result in those outcomes. If we become aware of this diversity, we are more likely to be able to decide on the kinds of learning activities that best support the outcomes we aim for. Activity 3 'In what ways is learning diverse?' invites you to explore your own experience of different kinds of learning by applying the ideas of process and outcome to three contrasting examples.

Activity 3

In what ways is learning diverse?

Using a version of Table 4 in your learning file, note down a description of something you have learned in each cell of the first row – three examples in all. Try to choose three examples which differ from each other in important ways.

Table 4 Learning diversity

First learning example Second learning example Third learning example
Description of each example
What kind of process?
What outcome/results?

Now, in each case ask yourself:

  • What kind of process did the learning involve?

  • What was the outcome for you personally?

Make a note for yourself in the relevant row in each column. To help you complete the table, some suggestions are set out below about what you might consider under the heading of 'process' and 'outcome'.


When thinking about process, you need to remind yourself of the circumstances in which the learning came about and what the experience was like. For example, were you on a course of any kind or was the learning a byproduct of carrying out your job or some other role? Did you take the initiative or was someone else in control? Did the pattern of control change over time? Did you learn by a process of practice with feedback, by experiencing something and thinking through its meaning or implications, by trial and error, talking to people, self-instruction via books, software, audio and so on? Did the learning make life easier or harder at the time and why?

These are just some of the issues you could consider in thinking through what the learning process was like.


Outcomes can take the form of:

  • changes to what you know,

  • changes to what you can do,

  • changes to how you value ideas and experiences.

Ask yourself whether your learning led to knowing more about something. Or did it lead to a new ability to do something or an improvement in something you were doing already? Did you feel different as a person? Did it change your attitudes or your future choices in any way? You might like to post a message to the Comments section below containing some of your thoughts.

Now you have completed your own review of three contrasting examples, you can compare notes with the entries shown in Table 5, compiled from students' responses to a similar activity. Taken together with your own, what do these entries tell you about the differences between outcomes and processes of learning?

Table 5

First student Second student Third student
Description Losing control of a car and going off the road Becoming a dance teacher/amateur actress Identifying marine invertebrates
What kind of process? Learned from experience. I had to analyse why I lost concentration, what I should have done. Took up to meet people. Learned by example, watching more experienced. Gradual ability to perform grew over several years. Needed for job. Trial and error process, a mix of asking colleagues and consulting the literature.
What outcome/results? Fear of driving. Now much more cautious, permanently aware of dangers. Increased confidence; better posture, voice control. Enjoy team work and entertaining others. I am now the 'expert' for less experienced colleagues. Better concentration.

These examples illustrate one aspect of the diversity of learning, which is that unintentional learning, where we learn from direct experience, can have some of the most powerful and long-standing effects on us. The learning we do is a reaction to the quality of the experience that we have, whether pleasant or otherwise. But it is also influenced by how much we reflect on that experience or try to influence what might happen in future. A minor car accident could lead one person never to drive again, whereas another decides to take the advanced driving test and build up better skills for handling cars in difficult conditions.

Some of the most important things we learn as adults are also the result of pursuing goals which require that we learn to do something new or to do something differently. The learning is not undertaken for its own sake, nor is it the primary goal; but it's undertaken for what it enables us to achieve. This is the kind of learning we do when carrying out a role at work or in our personal lives. In these circumstances, what and how much we learn can depend very much on how prepared we are to go into issues more deeply, or to take on jobs which require that we find out about new things or stretch our abilities in some way. Thus, some people are prepared to study and to set themselves intentional learning goals – because they want to do a particular job or to do it differently.

Where learning is intentional, the process can still be very varied. Such learning may or may not take place in association with formal education or training, and it can involve any combination of activities from a range that includes direct teaching, self-instruction, practical experience with feedback, trial and error, self-evaluation, consultation with experts, drill and practice, rehearsal, team working, role play, simulation, and so on. These differences in learning process result from:

  1. choices or preferences of the learner,

  2. the context in which learning takes place,

  3. the nature of what it is that we are trying to learn.

The remainder of this section is about the last of these three things, and introduces a scheme for distinguishing between the differences in what we are trying to learn which have a direct bearing on how we should attempt to go about learning them.


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