School & District Management Opinion

What Drives Student Learning?

By Beth Holland — September 11, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In my town, school just started this week. As I watched students walking to the local high school, their expressions told an interesting story. Some students showed resolve, others what may be interpreted as teenage joy, and a third group appeared to dread each step that brought them closer to the building. While their expressions could have had as much to do with the oppressive humidity as their opinions about the first day of school, the parade of faces made me ask the question: what drives learning? What causes some students to embrace the challenge of learning while others shrink from it? In order to address this question, I spent some time exploring the concept of learning along the four dimensions - the what, where, who, and when - defined by Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds in What Is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered (2009),

Oftentimes, as educators, we focus on the what of learning; the content, processes, or skills acquired through either formal schooling or informal experience (Alexander et al, 2009, p. 181). However, the what includes not only the content presented in school, but also the students’ learning outside of the classroom. “At the next level of the what model are the spontaneous concepts that humans acquire from the extraordinary number of different learning opportunities they encounter, informally or incidentally, over the course of a lifetime” (Alexander et al, 2009, p. 181). Throughout the summer, students may have independently engaged in more learning they believe. In order to identify what drives students to learn, a challenge may be to consider both the what of school as well as the what of experience.

The where then establishes the context surrounding the what of learning. This can refer to a physical location as well as the social and cultural setting (Alexander et al., 2009, p. 183). Think about the impact of conducting class outside or in a different location. When I taught English, I took my students outside on a gray, foggy day to read Edgar Allen Poe. They may not have made the same visceral connections to The Tell Tale Heart had we stayed inside. The outdoor environment impacted their connection to the story. Additionally, the where refers to the social or cultural interactions occurring at the time of the learning event. The interactions that students have with their classmates and teachers can drive, or possibly detract, from the learning itself. For this reason, the context of the environment may be as significant of a driver for learning as the content itself (Alexander et al., 2009, p. 183).

The who of learning addresses the specific characteristics of the learner, and more directly addresses why some students may be more driven to learn than others. These factors could be biological - the genetic makeup of the individual; cognitive - the mental capacity and ways in which their brains process information; as well as psychological - the learner’s motives, feelings, and interests. Students bring different emotions, preconceptions, and experiences to every learning context and apply those attitudes and ideas to the what and where of learning (Alexander et al., 2009, p. 184). Consider a student who has a negative association with a particular subject or skill based on a past experience. The next teacher has to contend with that student’s prior knowledge as well as their thoughts and attitudes towards the curriculum as a whole. These past experiences and ideas may be another contributing factor to the expressions seen on the students heading to their first day of school.

However, there is also the fourth dimension of when which is characterized not only as a specific moment in time, but also the student’s developmental capabilities at the particular time when the learning is intended to occur. Alexander et al. (2009) emphasize the fact that “learning does not occur in a vacuum, there is always a temporal nature to learning” (p. 185). A group of students who may thrive on one day, could struggle at a later point in time because of the series of events that may have happened between those two moments. Additionally, students cognitively develop at different rates. Some may be mentally ready to learn while others might not. “The mind and body must be at some sufficient level of maturation or experience to benefit from any potentially educative event” (Alexander et al., 2009, p. 185). A student who is not yet ready to learn, will most likely not be driven towards learning at that precise moment.

Alexander and colleagues use a river metaphor to describe the continual interactions of each dimension. Much like a river changes its shape, as well as that of its surroundings, learning evolves over time as both the student and their environment change. While no single dimension explains the reasons behind the expressions that I witnessed on the first day of school, understanding these dimensions does shed some light on what may be driving students to learn.


Alexander, P. A., Schallert, D. L., & Reynolds, R. E. (2009). What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44,176-192. doi: 10.1080/00461520903029006

For regular updates, please follow me on Twitter (@brholland). You can also view my resume and other articles at brholland.wordpress.com.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.