Is Learning a Product or a Process?

30 Sep

The answer to this simple but very important question defines not only your personal teaching dispositions and learning philosophy, but also the daily practices in your classroom.

When learning is viewed as a product, and the same performance measures apply to all students, instruction can be reduced to cookie-cutter teaching: same pieces of information delivered and same level of support provided is sufficient for all students. This is also visible in classroom practices: providing students with an example of the ready product and asking them (more or less) to copy that – whether it is an art project, notes, homework, essay or something else. There is not much room for individualization or differentiation, because the finished products are the measurement showing that learning has happened – which of course is not reality, but may greatly satisfy administrators and policymakers. What surprises me is how heavily behaviorism is still emphasized in education.

In a product-centered learning environment the goal focuses on completing activities – worksheets, charts, pre-designed projects, and any other “canned” activities – that are either teacher-made or provided by the publisher of the curriculum. The important part of completing these tasks is getting them right because these products are usually graded! Assessment reflects memorization and regurgitation. Skilled and obedient students comply with these requests and try hard to get their tasks done right, yet there are many students who just leave them undone. Completed products may show the “level” of each student, and let the teacher know who needs more practice in writing, multiplication or something else, but they don’t tell when the student acquired the skill, or if s/he has more advanced knowledge or competence of the topic.

Learning as a product can also refer to surface approaches in learning, where learning is a) quantitative increase in knowledge, b) memorizing information to be reproduced, and c) acquiring facts, skills and methods to be used later. [1] When learning is seen as a product of instruction, students’ agency is reduced to being a recipient of information transfer. This may cause detachment and diminishing learning motivation.  In such environment “worksheets are crutches, used primarily as tools to teach to a test, and this creates a vicious cycle of bad education.”[2] Pre-designed materials are handy and easy to use, but they often lead to surface learning simply because they were designed for another group of students in different educational setting with diverse connections to the subject. Your group of students is unique! They deserve instruction designed for them!

What about viewing learning as a process? Many things will change from the previously described environment: the first premise is that because students begin their daily/weekly/yearly learning from different levels of knowledge and understanding, they also will end up in different levels of competency. And that is okay, honestly. We are not clones. Students shouldn’t be treated like ones.

The goal of 21st Ccentury education is to create life-long learners. “Fixed procedures for teaching are insufficient because learning is not a one-way process” [3]. The curriculum and instruction must promote the attitude of continuing interest to learn [4]. This aligns with contemporary research of viewing learning as a process instead a product, as a sustainable choice for knowledge societies where individual, ongoing learning is crucially important. When learning is understood primarily as a process of acquisition and elaboration of information [5], the natural consequences in the classroom are ongoing differentiation and individualization. Assessment becomes an individual quest to compare your own current achievement to your previous level of proficiency or competency – instead of comparing your learning against the achievements of your peers. Evaluations are extremely non-punitive by nature: mistakes and second attempts are not only allowed but treasured, because they show the growth in deeper understanding and the height of the learning curve. Isn’t this the recipe for providing the experiences of success for each and every student? And from educational research we already know how important that genuine thrill of achievement is for intrinsic motivation to learn [6].

Worksheets, exercises, activities and even homework are individualized, because learners have diverse needs and the teacher wishes to accommodate every student’s needs. As you can imagine there is not much need for cookie-cutter activities in these classrooms, but flexibility for students to choose within well-defined limits and pick activities they find meaningful or are interested in doing. I have heard people say how students will not do what they need to do, but what pleases them. Funny enough, students who get to choose usually learn much more than those forced into performing and producing, and they often pick tasks that are almost too hard for them. The same phenomenon happens when you let students choose their homework, from an appropriate selection, of course – and it is harder for even an under-performing student to explain why s/he didn’t do the homework s/he got to choose. This supports students’ growth towards self-regulated learners!

Approaching learning as an individual process helps us refocus learning and teaching: the student is in the nexus of her/his own learning, and the oh-so-tiring power struggle is minimized.  I know most of my teachers and readers are bound to the state/national/other high stakes testing – yet,  approaching learning as a process is applicable everywhere, because independent learners also perform better in the tests. Independent learners often engage in deep learning, and perceive learning as making sense (or abstracting the meaning) or interpreting and understanding reality in a different way [1]. It seems that overemphasizing competition in education leads to the perception of learning as a product and pushing the teacher-centered instructional model, instead of emphasizing the individual learning process. Learner-and learning-centered practices are focusing on supporting the ongoing learning process. This is an important part of viewing learning as a process vs. product, and a sustainable choice for knowledge societies where individual, ongoing learning is crucially important.

Which way do you want to teach? What are your teaching dispositions and philosophy?

Also visit the page Process or Product?


Learning as a product refers to meeting the external objective(s) of instruction with a measurable change in behavior. This view emphasizes the importance of instruction and information delivery. Students are the object of instruction. Their choices and learner agency are very limited.

Learning as a process refers to the internal development caused by acquiring new information and elaborating one’s own understanding of using it. This view emphasizes learners’ active engagement in their own learning process and making sense of the content. Students are subjects of their own learning. They have choices and learner agency is supported with SEL (Social-Emotional Learning).

Social-Emotional Learning is embedded in 3Cs

My book about supporting learning process: Choosing How to Teach

Have questions or want to chat about learning process? Please Tweet about it!


Choosing How To Teach site

Choosing How to Teach : Is Learning a Process or Product

Research about learning as a process:

We often talk about learning without defining what it means. This causes confusion! For the sake of clarity, I am using the definition of Illeris (2003) while discussing the learning process: “external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (p. 398).

Definition of learning as a process as seen on Lachman (1997) [7]: First, learning may not include a change in behaviour (this would exclude classical conditioning). Second, it is important not to confuse learning with the product of learning. Observable change is a product (p. 477).

Barron et al. (2015) [8] discuss how disciplines differ in their specific definitions of learning for pragmatic reasons, but it is possible to reconcile most of these definitions by reference to a common theoretical framework: learning as a structured updating of system properties based on the processing of new information (p. 406).

Social-Emotional Learning was already part of my teacher training progam in 2001-2003 in Finland and I am so glad to see it gaining more traction around the world! CASEL site is the best resource I have found! As learning cannot happen in a vacuum, we must support students’ growth with constructive, cognitive and cooperative strategies in the classroom to support durable learning process [9]. It is important to have a well-balanced apporach and follow current science of evidence-based practices! [10]

[1] Säljö, R. (1979) ‘Learning in the learner’s perspective. I. Some common-sense conceptions’, Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76.

[2] Barnes, 2013, ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 11.

[3] Cresswell, J. (2016). Disengagement, Pedagogical Eros and (the undoing of?) Dialogic pedagogy. Dialogic Pedagogy: An International Online Journal4. DOI: 10.5195/dpj.2016.182

[4] Noddings, N. (2013). Curriculum for the 21st century. In D.J. Flinders & S.J. Thornton (Eds.). The curriculum studies reader (4th ed.) (399-405). New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

[5] Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406.

[6] American Psychological Association (APA), 2015.

[7] Lachman, S. J. (1997). Learning is a process: Toward an improved definition of learning. The Journal of psychology131(5), 477-480.

[8] Barron, A. B., Hebets, E. A., Cleland, T. A., Fitzpatrick, C. L., Hauber, M. E., & Stevens, J. R. (2015). Embracing multiple definitions of learning. Trends in neurosciences38(7), 405-407.

[9] Stahl, S. M., Davis, R. L., Kim, D. H., Lowe, N. G., Carlson, R. E., Fountain, K., & Grady, M. M. (2010). Play it again: The master psychopharmacology program as an example of interval learning in bite-sized portions. CNS spectrums, 15(8), 491-504.

[10] Schell, J., & Butler, A. C. (2018). Insights from the Science of Learning: Understanding Why Peer Instruction Is Effective Can Inform Implementation. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 3, p. 33). Frontiers.

27 Responses to “Is Learning a Product or a Process?”

  1. Raunak September 30, 2012 at 8:33 pm #

    What a beautiful approach! Learning as a process and not a product!
    Thanks for a wonderful insight, Nina.

  2. patbuoncristiani October 2, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    Process or product. Such an important distinction. I also value your comments about letting kids choose their own level of difficulty. I refused to sort the classroom reading and take-home books according to some formula of perceived difficulty. I wanted my youngsters to learn how to browse and to become discerning readers, aware of their own competencies. It only took a very short period of time before they were selecting books that were just challenging enough for them. What was particularly encouraging was that sometimes they would choose books that were very difficult simply because the subject matter was of sufficient interest. It was marvelous to see how they would struggle and learn to read this super challenging text, books that would never have been made available to them if I had worked on a teacher leveled reading program.

  3. Nina October 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Thank you, Pat! I am glad you discussed the important idea of choosing in your comment! It truly caters for learning success and intrinsic motivation to learn when students are allowed to challenge themselves. Your example shows excellently why too vigorous pre-selection would be very harmful for the growing learning competence, and why allowing choice within a structure yields so excellent learning results.

  4. english13 October 3, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    Thanks for giving much to reflect upon, Nina. Without having structured my thoughts on teaching practice anywhere as precisely as you, I feel we have similar outlooks. Thus your text puts into words, and thereby clarifies (which greatly helps!) an approach I try to follow. In fact, I’m generally the learner and my students probably assess my teaching (yes, I have good and bad days) as much as I assess their learning. And I’m sure give me higher marks, as a teacher, when they take more control over their own lessons and just use me as a resource to aid their learning.
    In fact, in reality, we’re all just getting on with it all together, quite democratically, all learning from each other – the best way. Teacher’s often have more to learn than their students so that it’s good to learn from the students.

  5. kenthinksaloud October 16, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    This is the first post of yours that I’ve read and it has made me follow you blog straight away! I would also like to reblog it on mine, if I have your permission, where I will also make something of my own comments. For here I would like to say I agree with your stance wholeheartedly though I would say the product is still not redundant. The philosophy I have followed over 20 years of teaching is that if you teach the process well enough, the kids move forward much more effectively and the product – the grades, qualifications or whatever – are reached more often and more positively. This is not to detract from your view at all, but merely complements it. Best wishes!

    • Nina October 16, 2012 at 5:44 am #

      Thank you! You certainly have my permission to reblog, and I am looking forward to read your commentary. Of course learning results (or prodcut) are improved when learning process is improved – but too often we seem to think how end justifies the means, and that doesn’t apply well in learning.

      • kenthinksaloud October 16, 2012 at 7:46 am #

        Indeed it doesn’t! I shall being reblogging forthwith! 🙂

  6. aFrankAngle October 18, 2012 at 4:16 am #

    Learning is both a process and a product. However, if one goes through the process, but fails to demonstrate the knowledge gained (the product) in an applicable situation, have they really learned? Thanks for the wonderful post.

  7. sripani October 24, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Nice book

  8. dbpigtail November 26, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    I love your distinction between treating learning as a product or a process, and how to describe the dangers of product-based learning as leading to cookie-cutter teaching. My son is only in Pre K and I already see a lot of copying going on, whether it’s the “art” on the wall that consists of nothing more than a print-out that the kids color in, or the Pearson worksheets that they do all the time–they all look the same to me, and it just seems rather dull to me. Kids are naturally curious– they WANT to learn so I fully admire your approach of giving them choice within well-defined limits. Would you mind if I reblogged this? This topic is very interesting to me, but you’ve described it so clearly and eloquently–I wouldn’t do it justice to put it in my own words right now!

    • Nina November 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

      Thank you for your kind words! I truly see the problems arising when we focus too much on teaching and not enough on learning – which of course is also visible in the use of open-ended vs. closed questions.
      Please do reblog, and feel free to share otherwise too. 🙂

  9. Human Impulse February 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    I think learning is both process and product. You cannot have a product without a process. A student cannot write a paper/essay product, without having learned or mastered a process. Process is so important because it leads to the ability to create a product. Good question to see where one’s teaching philosophy falls. I love learning. If I want to learn how to produce new products, then I certainly must learn the process to make that happen. This often means mastering the process, procedures, or steps. Because let’s be honest, no one wants to put out or present a less than stellar product.

    • Nina February 22, 2013 at 9:54 am #

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! The problems in education arise when we are pushing for products without taking enough time to have students engage with the learning process itself. While I agree with you most students wanting to present stellar products, I also have experienced the opposite where students spend lots of time and energy in the appearance of the product, but not enough in growing the quality of the content – which means their learning remains too thin, or shallow.

      • Human Impulse February 22, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

        That’s an interesting way to think about it – students getting so caught up in “how” the product looks. Kind of scary. Imagine if doctors and engineers only went by looks? We’d be in a world of hurt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen students produce pretty work with no substance all because they were allowed to use their creative side, but they got caught up in the looks and lost points on analysis and divergent thinking. It’s quite the challenge. I can see why some educator want the facts only without the artistic expression, yet I also think creative expression can give way to deeper think if facilitated and not just left happen on its own – which is least likely to happen.

        I love your reminder analogy. If we can help students see how valuable process and quality are, maybe it would change the way work and impact the contributions that make in life beyond the classroom. Hopefully what we teach will stick! I want my students to experience depth rather than breadth alone.

      • Nina February 22, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

        Creativity is important for learning, because by following the thinking of someone else we will never gain the same competency as we do while thinking it through with our own brain. Guiding creativity is necessary, and my preferred way of doing it is to grant students as much freedom as possible, within appropriate boundaries dictated by the task/competency/objective. Students are intrinsically motivated to “deep learn”, but this requires learning to be meaningful for them.

  10. ABISOLA March 2, 2018 at 3:46 am #



  1. Reflective practice « NotesFromNina - October 13, 2012

    […] exactly like learning is a process, not a product, also teaching is a process, because being a teacher also means being a learner. […]

  2. Is Learning a Product or a Process? « NotesFromNina | kenthinksaloud - October 16, 2012

    […] Is Learning a Product or a Process? « NotesFromNina. […]

  3. mass education fail | Our Life On The B Side - October 16, 2012

    […] for students in a more flexible education system. (Here’s an awesome blog post about how we view learning.) The fact of the matter is not every human being is made for learning from books or the classroom […]

  4. Opinions in the Shorts: Vol. 159 « A Frank Angle - October 18, 2012

    […] Is Learning a Product or Process? […]

  5. Is Learning a Product or a Process? « The Plain Satisfactions - November 27, 2012

    […] Is Learning a Product or a Process?. […]

  6. On the long drive I thought of this… | The Plain Satisfactions - March 10, 2013

    […] This type of test-driven education is heartless, passionless, and surely fosters a hatred for learning.  It leaves little time for child-centered learning, the type of learning that gives children an empowered sense of ownership over their own education and a sense of self-worth.  Project-based learning, child-led discussion, and learning to work & cooperate in groups are given little value in a system that prides test scores over the unique values that each student and teacher can bring to the experience. […]

  7. Learning: Process vs. Product | The Teaching-Learning Synergy - January 9, 2015

    […] Is Learning a Product or a Process? (Part 1) […]

  8. Is Learning both a process and an outcome ? | e-Journal EDS103 by Anton - January 13, 2015

    […] […]

  9. Focusing on the Process: Letting Go of Product Expectations | User Generated Education - December 17, 2017

    […] What about viewing learning as a process? Because students begin their daily/weekly/yearly learning from different levels of knowledge and understanding, they also will end up in different competency levels. And that is okay, honestly. We are not clones. Students shouldn’t be treated like ones. When learning is understood primarily as a process of acquisition and elaboration of information, the natural consequences in the classroom are ongoing differentiation and individualization. Approaching learning as an individual process helps us refocus learning and teaching: the student is in the nexus of her/his own learning, (Is Learning a Product or a Process?) […]

  10. Learning Strategies – part 2 | NotesFromNina - July 31, 2019

    […] and using different learning strategies it is important to remember the difference of perceving learning as a process and learning as a […]

  11. How to Support Transformative Learning | NotesFromNina - October 22, 2019

    […] population, and measuring these results with tests. This is very close to viewing learning as a product. Communicative learning is about seeking mutual understanding and validating both the accuracy and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: