Principles of learning

Learning theories

Effective learning firstly requires a consideration of how the process of learning occurs. As with other disciplines, this is supported by a range of theories, principles and frameworks to enable execution and success. Consideration of these in your practice can guide you to provide a learning environment that maximises the likelihood of creating deeper understanding and application.

Common examples of learning theories include:

    • Social constructivist theories
    • Behaviorist theories
    • Cognitivist theories
    • Humanist theories
    • Descriptive and meta theories
    • Identity theories

The most current approach of student-centred learning stems from the theories of constructivism and social constructivism. This focuses on the observation that students learn best when they are actively involved in their learning through creating meaning around a subject, both individually and socially as part of a group. For a brief overview of some different learning theories and educational guides, view the learning theories in plain English website.

Adult learning principles

Whilst the process of learning can in essence be the same regardless of age, it is acknowledged that adults bring an additional dimension to the learning process, purely through life experience. The clip below looks at six adult learning principles to consider when designing your learning and teaching activities in higher education settings:

  • Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
  • Adults bring life experience and knowledge to learning experiences
  • Adults are goal orientated
  • Adults are relevancy orientated
  • Adults are practical
  • Adult learners like to be respected



  • Barrows, H. (1996). Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New Directions For Teaching And Learning1996(68), 3-12.
  • Barell, J. et, edited by Bellanca, J. (2010) 21st century skills: Rethinking How Students Learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  • Bellanca, J. (2015). Deeper learning : Beyond 21st century skills. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  • Knowles, M., Holton, E. & Swanson, R. (2012) The Adult Learner. (7th ed.) Taylor & Francis: New York
  • Pritchard, A. (2009) Ways of learning: Learning theories and learning styles in the classroom. (2nd ed.) Routledge: New York.