Understanding Learning

Understanding the process of learning is important to designing and implementing effective teaching practices. While learning is often associated with teaching, the link between the two is not automatic.

This section provides a summary of the learning process as well as references and resources that can inform your teaching practice.

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Learning is best understood as a process that leads to change in knowledge, beliefs, behaviours, or attitudes. It is also important to recognise that learning is not ‘done’ to students, but something students do for themselves (Spector, 2002; Ambrose, 2010).

How students learn is influenced by a number of factors, including: prior knowledge, how they organise knowledge, their motivations, and their individual ability to master skills and knowledge and apply them, as well as their ability to reflect and self-direct their own learning (metacognition).

Beyond the students’ personal characteristics, the learning environment has the most significant impact on how effectively learning occurs. Teachers can shape and influence the learning environment in many ways, including setting the social, emotional and intellectual climate of the classroom, and can combine with this goal-directed practise and feedback to support student learning (Ambrose, 2010).

It is also important to note the distinction between the learning process, and the products of learning. Assessments tasks, such as assignments and tests, are not learning (although they can facilitate it) but are the tools we use to measure what learning has occurred (Ambrose, 2010).

Life Long Learning

Lifelong learning is the continuous formal and informal learning across the span of a person’s life. The occurrence of formal lifelong learning is increasing, with more adults returning to formal study many years after completing their initial education. Some seek a career change or advancement, while others seek personal development, or both.

Flexible enrolment options, including the ability to participate part-time and off-campus, increases the ability of a broader range of individuals to study at CDU, and increases the diversity of our student body. We see evidence of this in the number of mature-age students enrolling in our courses. In 2011 there were 74% of students in HE over 25 years of age and 62% in VET.

The positive impact of lifelong learning also extend beyond the individual, with the social and economic benefits having been well established by government and non-government organisations.


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K., & Mayer, R.E. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. (Available as an e-book through CDU library.)

B-HERT. (2001). The Critical Importance of Lifelong Learning. B-HERT.  A report that discusses the significance of lifelong learning in the Australian context.

ETL Virtual University. (14 May 2010). What is Learning? Edutopia webinar. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkg1I_0Mj0o (4:34 mins)

Prosser, M. & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding Learning and Teaching: The experience in Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press. (Available through CDU Casuarina library.)

Rogers, J. (2007). Adults Learning (5th ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press. (Available through CDU Casuarina library.)

 Watson, L. (2003). Lifelong Learning in Australia, Canberra: DEST 2003.A report that summaries the historical lifelong learning policy agenda in Australia. 


The term 'learning style' refers to the different ways learners use their minds and senses when they acquire new knowledge and skills.

The three learning style models most commonly referred to in the teaching and learning literature are the Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic , Kolb's (1984) and Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Theory (1983). Links to websites and papers for each of these are included in the Resources.

While there are differences between these three models, each are underpinned by a common belief that people learn in different ways with preferences that reflect an individual’s strengths and tendencies. This means that different teaching approaches will be more effective for some learners than for others, and a variety of approaches should be used to make it easier for as many students as possible to achieve their learning potential.

CDU has a diverse student body undertaking courses and units in a range of subjects, modes and levels, which means teaching staff can anticipate that preferred learning styles will vary by cohorts as well as individuals. Some differences between cohorts will be between students undertaking HE and VET courses (Smith, 2005), but also within them. For instance, the preferred learning styles of apprentices are likely to be different to those of VET students (Harris, 2006).

Ways in which teaching strategies can be adjusted to meet the learning needs of students include (Smith, 2005):

  • Use a range of resources that are presented in different ways and use different media
  • Calibrate guidance to ensure it is provided when needed by a particular group or individual, but still ensure students have space to generate their own questions and means to solve them
  • Provide opportunities for group and individual learning (where possible and appropriate)
  • Offer a range of learning and assessment tasks (where possible and in consideration of broadening the students’ learning style).


Chapman, A. (2012). Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Model – A website that details the learning style model along with links to free online tests for each model.

Chapman, A. (2013). Kolb's Learning Styles. – A website that  details Kolb's learning styles model along with links to useful diagrams.

Fleming, N. (2013). VARK - A Guide to Learning Styles. A website containing an online VAK learning style questionnaire along with printable versions.

Felder, R. M., &. Brent, R. (2005). Understanding student differences. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 57-72.

Harris, R. Simons, M. & Bone, J. (2006). Mix or Match? New Apprentices' Learning Styles and Trainers' Preferences for Training in Workplaces. Adelaide: NCVER (.pdf 322KB)

Prashnig, B. (2006). The power of diversity: New ways of learning and teaching through learning styles. Morrabbin, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education. (Copy at CDU's Casuarina library.)


To support effective learning, CDU lecturers need to ensure they develop and select teaching strategies and learning environments that address the multiple factors that influence different students learning.

Effective learning has occurred when:

  • Attitudes and beliefs have changed positively as intended
  • Knowledge structures have improved
  • Capabilities and skills are enhanced.

In other words, it is about students achieving the desired learning outcomes. Some of the major factors that determine the effectiveness of learning are:

Curriculum: Different curricula emphasise different aspects of learning and from that perspective effective learning is contextual. HE curriculum tends to have greater emphasis on knowledge and higher order thinking skills whereas the VET sector emphasises industry specific competencies. Therefore what is considered effective learning in HE may not be so in the VET sector. However, HE and VET learning are not mutually exclusive, with overlaps and areas that complement each other. The curriculum design process, whether for HE or VET, should be informed by real educational or training needs, if it is to achieve the desired learning outcome.

Learning design: While teaching does not necessarily lead to effective learning, good teaching practices that are based on good learning design can lead to positive learning experiences.

Motivation: Students learn more effectively when they are motivated (Spooner-Lane, 2008, p. 58). Generally, highly motivated learners will take a deep approach to learning while those who are less motivated take a surface approach. Learner motivation may differ from one group or individual from the next.

Motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation generally has more influence on learning than extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985), as it is based on students perceiving what they are learning as being relevant to their circumstances or personal goals.

Extrinsic motivation is usually associated with rewards.  For example, if studying a particular course promises a good pay and/or status in the future, then students are likely to invest time in it. In the short term, students rewarded with affirmation and other positive feedback will likely feel valued and perform better.


Dickinson, L. (1995). Autonomy and motivation: A literature review. System, 23,165-174.

Hidi, S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2000). Motivating the academically unmotivated: A critical issue for the 21st century. Review of Educational Research, 70, 151–179.

Krapp, A. (1999). Interest, motivation and learning: An educational-psychological perspective. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 14, 23-40.


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K., & Mayer, R.E. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Brady, E. M., & Fowler, M. L. (1988). Participation motives and learning outcomes among older learners. Educational Gerontology: An International Quarterly, 14(1), 45-56.

DECI, E. L. and RYAN, R. M. (1985) Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination in Human Behaviour. New York, NY: Plenum Press. 

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Harris, R. Simons, M. & Bone, J. (2006). Mix or Match? New Apprentices' Learning Styles and Trainers' Preferences for Training in Workplaces. Adelaide: NCVER (.pdf 322KB)

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Spector, J.M. (2002). Foreword. In C. Steeples & C. Jones (Eds.), Networked learning: perspectives and issues. London: Springer.

Spooner-Lane, R. S. (2008). Motivation for effective learning. Engaging diverse learners, 58-73.

Watkins, C., Carnell, E., Lodge, C., Wagner, P., & Whalley, C. (2002). Effective learning. NSIN Research Matters, 17.