Theories on How Students Learn

UCL’s Centre for Engineering Education is offering a brand new Masters of Science (MSc degree) in Education and Engineering. We have six students enrolled in the first cohort, and my colleague, Dr. Abel Nyamapfene, asked me to provide the second lecture for the winter term, on theories related to learning and teaching in higher education.

Fortunately, I had two modules on this topic as part of my taught Ph.D. coursework, and it’s one of my very favorite subjects. It’s also the topic of a new special focus issue I’m organizing for IEEE Transactions on Education, and this field of research also provides the framework for a new study I’m starting to investigate differences in the ways architecture and civil engineering students perceive the world.

Giving this two-hour lecture also helped support the goals of my current Marie Curie Individual Fellowship, titled “Designing Engineers: Harnessing the Power of Design Projects to Spur Cognitive and Epistemological Development of STEM Students.” An overarching objective of my work is to develop and promote better ways to teach and support diverse STEM students, including women and minority students.

I had a great audience at the MSC lecture!

Even though the student group is small–and two of the six students attend via the Internet, meaning I could hear but not see them–we had a very active discussion. It really helped that a number of my colleagues attended as well. In addition to me, five other staff members from UCL were present, including Jay Derrick, Dr. Abel Nyamapfene, and Dr. Fiona Truscott. In fact, Dr. Inês Direito, my closest colleague, contributed photos of the event:

Before the class meeting, I provided the following synopsis to Able, which he distributed to all everyone involved in the class.

Session speaker:  Prof Shannon Chance

(UCL Faculty of Engineering Science)

As college students take their courses, they’ll gain much beyond the academic benefit. Through their courses, and through the guidance of instructors like you, students can develop attitudes and skills that help them gain confidence, work well with others, and better understand themselves and the world around them. (Strang, 2015)


Theories on student development are well known among student affairs professionals who provide extra-curricular and auxiliary support to students, yet these theories are less frequently known or applied by academic staff (Evans, et al., 2009). Understanding these theories may help engineering educators communicate clearly and effectively with students—helping students develop incrementally, providing effective scaffolding for student learning, and providing an appropriate balance of challenge and support. This session provides an introduction to seminal (groundbreaking) theories. It will be presented from an American perspective, as most theories presented in this session originated in the USA.

Studying at the university has been found to promote development including (Strang, 2015):

  1. Soft, professional, generic or transferable skills
  2. Self-knowledge
  3. Values and ethical standards (see identity theories)

A group of theories bridging these topics has deals with epistemological development (or epistemic cognition). Epistemology is the study of how an individual conceptualizes knowledge, where knowledge comes from, and how it originates. Students with sophisticated epistemic cognition consider multiple points of view; they make decisions in context and recognize their own ability to create new solutions and generate new knowledge. Research shows students who can restructure their thinking to do this get more out of their higher education and are much better prepared for their careers than those who do not (Perry, 1970). Such skills are necessary for effective performance in STEM, yet the typical engineering student progresses fewer than two positions along Perry’s nine-position scheme in college (Pavelich & Moore, 1996).

At the end of this introductory session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify several different established theories about how students learn
  • Discuss ideas underpinning at least two of the learning theories discussed
  • Identify some research methods used to construct Perry’s theory
  • Critically analyze one learning theory for its relevance in their teaching practice 

Pre-session tasks:

Please print this hand-out and read this short blog entry prior to our class session:

Additional readings:

The session will provide a brief introduction to each of the following theories, and students are encouraged to follow up in learning about specific theories that interest them from the list below, which is organized in the same sequence as presented during the session. You might want to use a print out of this sheet to help you keep notes during the session.

Excellent overview of theories

  • Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2009). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Balance of challenge and support

  • Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York, NY: Wiley.

Student involvement

  • Astin, A. W. (1999, September/October). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 40(5).

Student persistence

  • Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Seminal theory of epistemological development

  • Perry, W. (1970). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme. (1st). San Francisco: Wiley.

Subsequent theories of epistemological development

  • Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.
  • Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Hofer, B. K. & Pintrich, P. R. (2002). Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Kuhn, D., Cheney, R., & Weinstock, M. (2000). The development of epistemological understanding. Cognitive Development, 15(3), 309-328.
  • Schommer-Aikins, M. (2004). Explaining the epistemological belief system: Introducing the embedded systemic model and coordinated research approach. Educational Psychologist39(1), 19-29.

Seminal theory of identity development

  • Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and Identity. Jossey-Bass.
  • Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and Identity. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Professional identity

  • Loui, M. C. (2005). Ethics and the development of professional identities of engineering students. Journal of Engineering Education94(4), 383-390.

Gender identity

  • Bilodeau, B. L., & Renn, K. A. (2005). Analysis of LGBT identity development models and implications for practice. New directions for student services2005(111), 25-39.

Spiritual identity

  • Parks, S. D. (2011). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring emerging adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. John Wiley & Sons.

Racial or ethnic identity

  • Cross, W. E. (1978). The Thomas and Cross models of psychological nigrescence: A review. Journal of Black Psychology5(1), 13-31.
  • Phinney, J. S. (1993). A three-stage model of ethnic identity development in adolescence. Ethnic identity: Formation and transmission among Hispanics and other minorities61, 79.
  • Helms, J. E. (1997). Toward a model of White racial identity development. College student development and academic life: Psychological, intellectual, social and moral issues, 49-66.

Typology theories

  • Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT Press.
  • Kolb, D. A. (1976). Learning style inventory technical manual. Boston, MA: McBer.
  • Myers, I. B. (1962). The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: Manual.
  • Strange, C. C., & Banning, J. H. (2001). Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments That Work. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tools for Design Educators

I also introduced the students to Crismond and Adams extremely helpful tool for helping teach design-related aspects of engineering and other subjects:

  • Crismond, D. P. & Adams. R. S. (2012). The informed design teaching and learning matrix. Journal of Engineering Education 101(4), 738-797. (This is Table 1, from pages 748-749 of the article.)

Here’s a copy of the matrix that I typed into the computer when I first read their paper. It may be of use to you.

And here are some of the slides I presented to Abel’s class:

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