Learning Theories

What Is Constructivist Learning Theory and How Can You Apply It?

The traditional view of scientific progress was simple: Each discovery or breakthrough is added to the collection of accepted facts. “Development-by-accumulation.” But in 1962, Thomas Kuhn revolutionized how we understand scientific progress with his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

He argued that knowledge and scientific understanding don’t simply grow in a continuous, linear fashion. New knowledge challenges, replaces, renews, and shifts our previous understanding. Our scientific understanding didn’t change from ‘the earth is flat’ to ‘the earth is a little bit flat and a little bit round.’ We constructed a completely new understanding of our world as we encountered new information.

Constructivist Learning Theory offers a similar ‘paradigm shift’ (a phrase coined by Kuhn) for how individuals learn and develop new knowledge. Constructivist concepts give L&D professionals new ways to think about how learning happens—and how to build better learning programs. The ideas at the core of this learning theory can help ensure your L&D program delivers more inclusive, robust, and lasting learning outcomes.

What is Constructivist Learning Theory?

Constructivist Learning Theory states that learning is the result of using new information to construct knowledge based on the information we already have. There are two ways that we incorporate new information:

  • Assimilation: Taking new information and including it into an existing schema.
  • Accommodation: Using new information to update existing schemas or create new ones.

For example, think about when you meet someone for the first time. They introduce themselves and tell you their name is Sam. Assuming this isn’t the first person you’ve ever met, you should already have a schema for ‘people.’ People have names, ages, and favorite colors. So, you create a mental model for this person, noting that their name is Sam.

As you continue your conversation with Sam, they tell you they just had their 32nd birthday last week. They also mention that they have a yellow car. You notice their phone is yellow and they are wearing yellow shoes.

So now we have the following mental model:


  • Age: 32 (plus one week)
  • Favorite color: Yellow (maybe)

Constructivist Learning Theory concepts for your L&D program

L&D professionals can apply Constructivist Learning Theory concepts to build workplace learning programs that ensure optimal learning for each individual. This is especially effective in highly diverse organizations where employees come from unique backgrounds with very different life experiences. Let’s explore these concepts and how they can help you build a more effective workplace learning program.

Learners construct knowledge based on their unique background

While constructivism may seem like a simple concept at first, it offers a fundamentally new way of thinking about how we learn. We don’t learn by soaking up information like a sponge. Knowledge isn’t something that instructors can pour over us like water. We learn by taking new information and adding it like building blocks on top of what we already know. Because of this, knowledge is highly personal and dependent on the foundation each of us already has.

Learners construct knowledge in relation to the experience, knowledge, and beliefs they already have. What each individual learns and what they remember is highly dependent on the foundation they bring with them. Just like a construction crew would have trouble adding the roof to a building without any walls, it is much harder for us to add new information to our mental constructs if we don’t have the proper previous knowledge to support it.

If we were to start designing a training course for properly submitting expense reports, would the design look the same for a group of accountants as for a group of graphic designers?

The accountants likely already come to the course with a solid understanding of what expense reports are, what can be included, and the key deadlines for each accounting period. Because of this, they would benefit most from a course that focused mainly on the software used to submit and how each of these topics relates to the reporting platform. The training materials for the designers, on the other hand, may need to focus more on building the basic foundations before moving on to explanations of the reporting platform.

Learning happens best when the learner is actively involved

We don’t always integrate new information in the best way. Sometimes we make wrong assumptions or have misunderstandings that need to be fixed. Because of this, learning happens best when learners are able to test their constructs by asking questions, engaging in discussion, and exploring alternatives.

While we can learn passively, there is a much higher chance that some information may be lost or that the information we do receive is constructed incorrectly. But when the learner is actively involved, receives feedback, and can test their learning through trial and error, it is much more likely that they will be able to identify missed information and update their mental models.

Imagine an instructor standing at the front of a room teaching the steps for a new process without stopping to engage the learner. Now imagine the instructor stops periodically to ask questions, checks that the learner has understood the instructions, and gives the learner an opportunity to test their knowledge by walking through the process. Which learner do you think would have a better understanding of the process?

Learners learn better when they are motivated

Since learning is an active pursuit, motivation plays a critical role in learning outcomes. Highly motivated learners are more likely to participate in the learning process and build meaningful connections to the knowledge they already have.

However, it is important to note that motivating an individual to learn requires more than sticks and carrots alone. Of course, sternly-worded emails or the promise of pizza and soda can motivate employees to show up. But real motivation to learn comes from understanding how, why, and when the knowledge will be used. If learners don’t know the purpose of the knowledge they are expected to learn, their only motivation is to ‘pass the test.’ At which point, the learner will swiftly forget everything they learned.

This is why it is so easy to remember complex numbers like your Social Security Number or your telephone number. And why you’ve likely already forgotten how old our friend Sam from earlier in this article is.

Applying Constructivist Learning Theories through Collaborative Learning

The Collaborative Learning approach to training ties in these Constructivist Learning Theory concepts, and is an excellent place to start if you’re looking to incorporate these theories into your training:

  • Background affects learning: When true subject-matter experts can create courses, they can tailor them to fit the previous experience of their learners, which aligns with the idea that knowledge isn’t just soaked up like in a sponge, but assimilated in one way or another to existing knowledge.
  • Engagement affects learning: Instructors can add a wide variety of questions, quizzes, and comprehension checks through their courses. These help ensure essential concepts are grasped and keep learners engaged in the learning process.
  • Motivation affects learning: Smart Recommendations inform employees of learning materials that will help them with their current workflows. (And if they need a little extra incentive, learners can participate in challenges, earn achievements, and check their ranking on leaderboards. Because what’s more motivating than a little friendly competition between colleagues?)

    To learn more about Collaborative Learning and how it can help you build a better L&D program, ask for a fully customized 360Learning demo today.