How Do Students Learn – Success in the Making?

Although I have been a professor for many years, I don't have any formal knowledge of how students learn. Despite this shortcoming, I am interested in how learning relates to success in higher education (Frye et al., 2003). Why is it that for students, success is more related to getting good grades than being academically engaged? Jennings and colleagues (2013) suggest that to answer this question, we need to know more about how they learned, what they learned, what challenges their ideas, or what really got their attention?

So, to begin understanding why grades are most important to students’ definition of success, I need to know more about how learning happens, specifically in higher education; and to some degree among adult learners.  Although such knowledge has implications for teaching, the focus here is to reflect on what has been observed and discovered in studies of learning, so I can work on being a better advisor and mentor to students.


Schools of Thought on Learning

Constructivism – this approach to learning involves continuous building and amending previous schema and structures as new experiences, actions, and knowledge are assimilated and accommodated. Unless schemas are amended, learning will not occur. For example, how a student thinks for a specific discipline like biology, revising knowledge at ever-higher levels of understanding, leading to the idea of a “spiral curriculum.” In this scenario, students actively construct their knowledge, shifting from regurgitation facts or simply adding to existing knowledge, to understanding.  Many of the current understandings about learning come from the constructivist perspective, such as experiential learning and the use of reflection (Chalmers and Fuller, 1996; Biggs and Moore, 1993; Bruner, 1960, 1966; Piaget, 1950).

Rationalism/Idealism – Situated learning is one approach within this category.  Within this perspective, the focus is on learning and knowledge in context where the learner engages with others to develop or create collective understanding as part of a community of practice.  In this scenario, learning is relational and downplays the importance of transformation of schema of individuals. This approach to learning is considered a social practice in which new knowledge can be generated from such practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Richardson, 1985).  


Adult Learning Theory – Although it is not entirely clear that adult learning is significantly different from learning of others, there are ideas about learning of adults that have much influence in higher education, particularly when considering non-traditional students, whether considered by age, mode of study or ethnic, economic, or educational background, increase as a proportion to traditional students (Frye et al. ) The term andragogy is used to refer to the “art and science of helping adults learn” (Knowles, 1984). From this perspective, five principals are presumed, although there is a lack of empirical evidence to support these views (Davenport, 1993):

  • As a person matures, they become more self-directed.

  • Adults have accumulated experiences that can be a rich resource for learning.

  • Adults become ready to learn when they have a need to know something.

  • Adults tend to be less subject-centered, and more problem-centered than other learners.  

  • For adults, the most potent motivators are internal.

Of course, this abbreviated summary does not dive into the substrata of theories of learning, or engage the debates on the merits of any of these perspectives. However, this summary does help me to think purposefully about how students learn, and to consider how this insight will help to enhance the planning and implementation of student success programs. How might this insight into the process of learning affect your engagement with students?

By Terry L. Mills, PhD


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Page, London.

Biggs, J. and Moore, P. (1993).  The Process of Learning. Prentiss-Hall. New York.

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Bruner, J.S. (1960).  The Process of Education. Harvard University Press, Cambridge,


Davenport, J.  (1993). Is There Anyway Out Of the Andragogy Morass?  In Culture

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Frye, H., Ketteridge, S., and Marshall, S. (2003).  A Handbook For Teaching And

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Jennings, N., Lovett, S., Cuba, L., Swingle, J., and Lindkvist, H. (2013)

What Would Make This A Successful Year For You: - How Students Define Success. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Spring vol. 99(2). Available online at:

Knowles, M.  (1984). Andragogy in Action.  Gulf Publishing Company, Houston.

Lave, J.  and Wagner, E. (1991).  Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral

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Piaget, J. (1950).  The Psychology of Intelligence. Routledge and Keenan Paul,


Richardson. K.  (1985). Personality Development And Learning: Unit 8/9 – learning

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