Constructivism – Learning by Constructing Meaning from Experience


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Learning Theory Highlights

Merriam and Bierema, (2014) inform us that “(c)onstructivism is less a single theory of learning than a collection of perspectives all of which share the common assumption that learning is how people make sense of their experience – learning is the construction of meaning from experience” (p 36). Inherent with the belief that individuals construct their own meaning from their experiences and shape their own learning, is an understanding that there isn’t a single interpretation of the learning (that of the instructor), but limitless interpretations as students take in new experiences, reflect on them and give them meaning (Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning, 2004; Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d.).

Socrates has been credited with being the forefather of constructivism (Constructivism for Adults, 2015) and, even today, Socratic questioning is used to help with critical thinking skills (The 6 Types of Socratic Questions, n.d.) – one of the skills integral to the constructivists’ approach to creating understanding in learning (Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach, n.d.).

In the modern age, theorists, Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky (Merriam & Bierema, 2014) and Bruner (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d.) have shaped our present understanding of constructivism.

Piaget (1896–1980), “. . . dismissed the idea that learning was the passive assimilation of given knowledge” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 12) and offered an understanding that as we progress to adulthood, we construct meaning “. . . at more sophisticated levels . . .” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 36) “ . . . by creating and testing (our) own theories of the world” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 12).

Dewey  (1859–1952) called for a move away from memorization and rote knowledge and towards more authentic learning in which students could “ . . . demonstrate their knowledge through creativity and collaboration” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 10). Dewey also believed that “(s)tudents should be provided with opportunities to think for themselves and articulate their thoughts” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 10).

The idea of social constructivism was brought forward by Vygotsky (1896–1934), who “ . . . drew attention to the very important role of the sociocultural context in how people construct meaning from experience” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 36). While constructivism and social constructivism share many of the key points, social constructivism recognizes that the dynamic process of learning occurs within a social and cultural context and that learning is essentially collaborative and that learners are integrated into a “ . . . knowledge community” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 3).

Melding the concepts of social constructivism and cognition, Bruner (1915-2016), emphasized learning through discovery, dialogue and self-reflection (Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner), n.d.; Chamber, Thiekötter & Chambers, 2012) and proposed three principles to guide the development of curriculum summarized as “readiness to learn”, “spiral organization of curriculum” and “going beyond the information given” (Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner), n.d, para 9).

While there are other constructivist theorists who offer principles to be applied to the learning environment, the characteristics of constructivist teaching that I found to resonate for me as a perinatal nursing educator are those defined by Jonassen (1994), as cited in Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism (n.d. para 4):

  1. Constructivist learning environments provide multiple representations of reality.
  2. Multiple representations avoid oversimplification and represent the complexity of the real world.
  3. Constructivist learning environments emphasize knowledge construction instead of knowledge reproduction.
  4. Constructivist learning environments emphasize authentic tasks in a meaningful context rather than abstract instruction out of context.
  5. Constructivist learning environments provide learning environments such as real-world settings or case-based learning instead of predetermined sequences of instruction.
  6. Constructivist learning environments encourage thoughtful reflection on experience.
  7. Constructivist learning environments “enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction.”
  8. Constructivist learning environments support “collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition.”


Brandon and All, as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 37, stated: “(t)he essential role of nurse faculty is to engender active-learning processes . . .” – a process that constructivism engages. Applying the principles of constructivism and creating the characteristics of constructivism defined by Jonasson in the online perinatal course that I re-developed and teach enabled me to engender active learning processes in the students.

When re-developing the online course, I had to be mindful that the principles of constructivism were followed as closely as possible all the way through the course: in the modules that presented the basic concepts, the formative assessments and in the assignments that were for marks. To help me understand the basic framework I needed, I turned to Bruner’s 3 Principles of Curriculum development (Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner), n.d, para 9):

  1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness to learn): Stakeholders as well as students indicated that they wanted the course to promote clinical competency and not just provide theoretical knowledge; learning needed to be focused on clinical applications.
  2. Spiral organization: While the basic physiology of pregnancy and birth is straight forward, pregnancy, birth and post partum care are far from simplistic once you factor in the physical, emotional and learning needs of each family in addition to the many complications that can occur. Thus material learned from earlier modules needed to be reintroduced into later modules at increasing levels of sophistication. This would help to ensure that the material could be easily grasped by students.
  3. Going beyond the information given. Perinatal nurses need to be able to think critically and adapt to new and unexpected situations as each case they will encounter is unique. Providing readings that encompasses the entire scope of perinatal nursing would be overwhelming and would not allow the students time to process the information until they are ready. Constructivism meant that, with guidance, students could build on their experiences and seek out the learning that they felt was most appropriate for them at the time.


The characteristics of Constructivism by Jonassen as cited in Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism (n.d. para 4) and outlined earlier, provided the remaining framework for course development. The constructivist concept of self-reflection works in synergy with the RN’s professional practice expectations (CRNBC, 2017) and critical thinking through case based learning and collaborative learning support the environment that RNs operate within.

Changes to practice are frequent and continual, hence life long learning is another reason why I chose the constructivist approach to the course.

“If nurse education is to truly prepare nurses to function in this environment then the aim of nurse education has to change from “learning what is known” towards “educating for the unknown future” (Segers, Dierick & Dochy, 2001, as cited in Chambers, Thiekötter & Chambers, 2012 p 106).

“Another aspect of constructivist learning is that it lays the foundation for the concept of lifelong learning. Since the constructivist model of learning requires the student to be more active in and take more control over the learning process, it helps to develop the student’s ability to learn on his or her own and supports the concept of lifelong learning” Schell, G. & Janicki, T (2013, Winter) para 18).

Role of the Learner

The concept of andragogy and its assumptions that the adult learner is self-directed, contains a wealth of experience, has a readiness to learn that is closely related to their social role and is problem focused were put forth by Knowles almost 50 years ago (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). It therefore follows that when adult learners encounter a learning environment founded in constructivism they should feel that the environment matches their needs and that they would eagerly embrace the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning. This, however, may not always be the case.

Jonassen et al (1999) as cited in Thompson, K (n.d. para 15) “ note . . . students must wrestle with the responsibility that comes from being truly in charge of one’s own learning. While some students are somewhat reticent to assume these responsibilities, when given the opportunity most enthusiastically share their constructs with those of other students, often engaging in lively discussions (and further developed conceptualizations).”

My experience with applying constructivism to the online perinatal course has been similar in that some students seem to require more support as they start the course but by the end they seem to become more empowered to manage their own learning. The mantras I learned in my PIDP 3250 course and the ones I share with my students are that learning is messy and learning is a lot of work.

Role of the Instructor

Creating learning from experience, implies that the locus of control shifts from the instructor to that of the student (Schell & Janicki , 2013). Thus, instead of being the dispenser of knowledge, the instructor becomes a facilitator that helps guide students to understand the major concepts, to assist them to develop new insights and new constructs (Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach, n.d.) and to reflect on how their constructs fit with the knowledge community (Thompson, n.d.).

Providing guidance to students about how they can best learn is another role of the instructor. I really like the concept of describing the instructor as an expert learner:(t)he teacher’s role in a constructivist classroom isn’t so much to lecture at students but to act as an expert learner who can guide students into adopting cognitive strategies such as self testing, articulating understanding, asking probing questions, and reflection (Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach n.d. para 22).

Classroom Examples

Applying constructivism to an online course isn’t without challenges; experiential learning like field trips, face-to-face interactions with the instructor and peers is not possible. It is, however, still possible to get students critical thinking and learning together.

“Constructivism supports the education of nurses by improving critical thinking skills and encouraging a rapid adaptation to changes in evidence-based practice. Developing the ability to gather information, analyze it critically, evaluate it experientially, and then develop a new framework for the information is the best way to produce nurse graduates with critical thinking skills” (Candela et al 2006 as cited in Nyback, 2013 p 10).

In the online course there are 9 case studies –one each week for weeks 2-9. Case studies involve cases they can expect to see clinically and require students to apply Bloom’s higher order thinking skills like applying, analyzing, evaluating and proposing recommendations for care. Recommendations include psychological as well as physical considerations, team communication and suggestions for how to deal with barriers to communication.

Students post their case study responses to the discussion board where their colleagues read and discuss each other’s plans of care. Even though it is not an expectation, I have found that many students will share personal experiences and reflections relevant to the case study and post these in response to their peers’ posts. I have found that peer-to-peer learning through constructive feedback (social constructivism) plays a large part in the learning that takes place. Even though each week the cases are marked using a rubric and feedback is provided regarding their recommendations, students have mostly already self-corrected their material based on feedback they have received. Students have told me that the case studies were an integral part of their learning.

Below is a video that summarizes the concepts of constructivism quite succinctly and provides some great classroom examples.


Chambers, D., Thiekötter, A., Chambers, L (2012). Preparing student nurses for contemporary practice: The case for discovery learning. Journal of Nursing Education and Practice, 2013, Vol. 3, No. 9. Retrieved from:

Constructivism for Adults. (2015, February 17). ETEC 510, . Retrieved from

Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner) (n.d.) Instructional Design. Retrieved from:

CRNBC (2017) Professional Responsibility and Accountability. Retrieved from

Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism (n.d.) Open Educational Resources of UCD Teaching and Learning, University College Dublin. Retrieved from:

Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach (n.d.) State, Retrieved from:

Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nyback, M., (2013) A Constructivists Approach to Teaching and Learning at the Degree Program of Nursing Novia University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved from:

Schell, G. & Janicki, T (2013) Online Course Pedagogy and the Constructivist Learning Model Journal of the Southern Association for Information Systems, Volume 1Issue 1. Retrieved from:–online-course-pedagogy-and-the-constructivist-learning-model?rgn=main;view=fulltext

Smith, M.K. (2002) Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education, the encyclopedia of informal education. [

The 6 Types of Socratic Questions (n.d) Retrieved from:

Thompson, K (n.d.) Constructivist Curriculum Design for Professional Development:A Review of the Literature. Retrieved from:

Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning (2004) Concept to Classroom WNET Education. Retrieved from:


One thought on “Constructivism – Learning by Constructing Meaning from Experience

  1. Pingback: The Teaching Perspectives Inventory – teachingadventuressite

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