Topic: Constructivist Learning Theory and the Reference Librarian (2006) by Debbie McCauley

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This discussion was written by Debbie McCauley on 13 August 2006 and formed part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

In constructivism learning theory the experience comes first with learning as a secondary activity. As Cooperstein (2004) explains, ‘Constructivist learning is based on the principal that through activity students discover their own truths’ (p. 142). The experience defines and cements the self learning and understanding that follows when the experience is reflected upon. It is an introspective type of learning and brings wisdom based on experience. ‘It is the student’s reflection on their experiences that helps to construct their new understanding’ (The Open Polytechnic, 2006, p.30)

When developing a user education session an understanding of constructivist learning theory can be beneficial for the educator. Putting it into practice, they can firstly assess which skill the student is to be taught and then lead the student to problem solve using carefully worded questions. The goal is independence on the part of the learner and guidance on the part of the teacher. ‘If you can structure the lesson to get students to ask the questions, so much the better’ (Cooperstein, 2004, p. 142).

A library related learning activity that can be used as an example of applying constructivism is teaching students to how to find a book in the library using a series of questions. ‘Students must think about and process the activity, not simply replicate actions, in order for learning to take place’ (Cooperstein, 2004, p. 144). Leading questions could be used either individually or in a brainstorming group could include the following:

  • Does the library have a copy of that book? 
  • How can you find out?
  • Show me how you would use the library catalogue? 
  • Where can you find it on the shelf?
  • What can you do if the library doesn’t own a copy? 
  • Who can you ask?

At the end of the session key concepts can be reviewed and a homework assignment given to reinforce the learning.  ‘A review of the key concepts immediately at the end of the session is the single most important factor to fix information in the long-term memory’ (Cooperstein, 2004, p. 145).

When librarians understand different learning theories they will be better able to design effective user education sessions. There is no one approach that will suit all users.  As Arp (2003) states, ‘Learning theory can transform what we teach, how we teach, and when we teach’ (p. 11). If Librarians are aware of different learning styles user education programme can be adjusted to cater for these. 

Librarians themselves have many different ways of learning. Recognising that library users too have different personalities and learn in many different ways, often in a different way to themselves, will help them to have successful reference interviews that take into consideration the user. ‘Although learning style is linked to the individual student, understanding the concept of learning style is arguably as important to the teacher, and its application can dramatically improve teaching’ (Gerdy, 2001, p. 72).

Constructivism theory is an effective choice for library instruction as it recognises that users have their own mind and thought processes and relate things to previous experience. For example, library users often experience the frustration of being unable to locate books before they approach the reference desk. Librarians can then seize on this experience and construct questions around how a book can be found. The user is often eager to learn from their experience and could be more receptive to the new information.  

Behaviourists believe that learning has occurred when an adjustment of behaviour or actions is observed. This is very relevant for library instruction. For example, if a librarian has taught a library user to use the library online catalogue they will then be able to see if the user has learnt this technique by observing how they use the catalogue and provide positive feedback as a reward to reinforce the behaviour. As Bopp & Smith, (1995) explain:

According to behaviourist theory, the mind is a blank slate and the individual a passive learner controlled by external forces. Learning, as explained by behaviourists, is an accumulative process, with one event building on a previous event. (p. 169).

The next time the customer uses the catalogue they will gain more experience, possibly learning a new method which will build upon the technique previously taught to them by the librarian.

Another example of this learned behaviour is a library user learning that when in the library they can ask for help at the reference desk by approaching the desk and waiting to be served. How reference staff respond to the user determines how and if the user will approach the reference desk in future. If the user has an unsatisfactory experience they may be less likely to ask for help in the future. However if they have a really good experience this reinforces the helpfulness of the reference staff and the user could be more likely to approach the reference desk in the future.



Arp, L. (1993). An introduction to learning theory. In K. Branch & C. Dusenbury (Eds.), Sourcebook for bibliographic instruction (pp. 5-15). Chicago, IL: bibliographic Instruction Section, Association of College and Research Libraries.

Bopp, R., & Smith, L. (1995). Learning Theory. In Reference and Information Services (2nd ed.). USA: Libraries Unlimited.

Bundy, A. (ed.). (2004). Overview. In Australian and New Zealand information literacy framework: Principals, standards and practice. Adelaide, Australia: Australian and New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy.  Retrieved April 3, 2006, from

Cooperstein, S. E. & Kovecar-Weidinger, E. (2004). Beyond active learning: a constructivist approach to learning. Reference Services Review, 32(2), 141-48.

Gerdy, K. B. (2001). Making the connection: Learning style theory and the legal research curriculum. Legal Reference Services Qiarterly, 19(3-4), 71-93.

The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2006). Module 1: Information literacy. In 72 271 User Education and Reference Skills (7th ed.).  Lower Hutt, New Zealand: M. Kloppers & P. Bidwell.



Arp, L. (1993). An introduction to learning theory.  In K. Branch & C. Dunsenbury (Eds.), Sourcebook for bibliographic instruction (pp. 5-15). Chicago, IL: Bibliographic Instruction Section, Association of College and Research Libraries.

Atherton, J. (2005) Learning and Teaching: Behaviourism.  Retrieved August 6, 2006, from

Atherton, J. (2005) Learning and Teaching: Constructivism in learning.  Retrieved August 6, 2006, from

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Constructivism (learning theory). (2006, July 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:03, July 31, 2006, from

Farenga, S & Ness, D. (2005). Encyclopedia of Education and Human Development. (pp. 966-969). New York, USA: ME Sharp Inc.

Learning theory (education). (2006, July 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:10, July 31, 2006, from   id=65687191.

Li, M. (Speaker). (2005). Issues where English is a second language: Part 5. Influence and authority of librarians [Windows Media player]. In 72271 User education and reference skills. Lower Hutt: The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. Retrieved August 6, 2006, from   

Ritzer, G (Ed.). (2005). BehaviourismIn Encyclopedia of Social Theory. (pp. 44-47). California, USA: Sage Publications Inc.

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Constructivist Learning Theory and the Reference Librarian (2006) by Debbie McCauley

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Constructivist Learning Theory and the Reference Librarian (2006) by Debbie McCauley by Debbie McCauley (Tauranga City Libraries) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License