Posted by: Lena B. | April 1, 2009

Just doing it

by Lena Bernhardt & Esther Beltermann

The idea of  ‘Learning by doing’ – as a preferred way of workplace learning (Bove & Kroth, 2001) – bases on the constructivist approach which characterizes learning as an activity that is strongly related to the context in which it occurs and to the learner himself. The overall aim is to develop expertise.

By explaining and structuring the main ideas, this article outlines the idea of ‘Learning by doing’. A review of the underlying (learning) theories builds the basis which is replenished by a brief definition of expertise. The benefits and problems of this concept are subsequently demonstrated. We close with an overview on the literature used for this article and abstracts of crucial empirical studies.

Underlying theories

Critical constructivists have had an impact on this approach: Vygotsky (1978) pointed out the relation between learning and the development of the individual. In his concept of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ he integrates social activity as an important factor for understanding human learning and development (Moll, 1990). In doing so, he established a crucial characteristic of this theory on learning. The idea that construction of knowledge is influenced by the individual’s genetic and socio-cultural background is also represented by Rogoff (1990) and is reflected in the discussed approach. Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) held a similar view. According to them, learning is dependent on the situation that contains individual characteristics and prior knowledge as well as the context itself. This is consequent with Lave and Wenger (1991, p.53) who emphasize that “activities, tasks, functions, and understandings do not exist in isolation; they are part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning”. Consequently, learning always is embedded in a social context comprising the interactions and activities of the people within it. The situatedness of learning and the constructivist approach become evident through the uniqueness of these elements and build the basis for Lave and Wenger’s idea of ‘Communities of Practice’ (1991). They (Lave, 1991; Wenger, 1998) also mentioned that learners have an active role – they engage in and contribute to the communities of practice – and act more and more autonomous: “Newcomers become oldtimers through a social process of increasingly centripetal participation, which depends on legitimate access to ongoing community practice” (Lave, 1991, p.68). Finally, they appropriate all the necessary skills and become part of the community of experts.

In general expertise means being able to categorize problems correctly and quickly. This comprises resolving problems without making mistakes through monitoring them by falling back on a meta-level. In doing so, problem-solving becomes effective. Moreover, experts deal efficiently with both routine tasks and new complex tasks by transferring their knowledge into new situations (Billett, 2001).

Learning by doing – the individual aspects

Learning is unavoidable to reach the status of an expert. It is influenced by the individual learner and contextual influences. The subject is characterized through his characteristics, attitudes, interests, values, knowledge and standing. These aspects are essential for the construction of knowledge as, according to the constructivist view (von Glasersfeld, 1987), learning depends on prior experience and knowledge. Accordingly, the learner’s characteristics, such as age, gender, education, and his standing in an organization influence the kind of participation in workplace learning. As well Perkins et al. (1993) emphasize in their ‘Dispositional Theory of Thinking’ that the individual’s dispositions, comprising inclinations, sensitivity and abilities, affect thinking and learning. Furthermore, attitudes towards learning and other learners, and the individual knowledge about the content, learning opportunities and own capacities have an impact on the willingness to participate in learning processes as well as on the work activities and consequently on the vocational knowledge, which is constructed (Billett, 2000).

Contextual influences on workplace learning

In addition to the aforementioned individual aspects, contextual aspects influence learning. These influences – corroborated by several studies (e.g. Billett, 2000) – comprise tasks performed by the learner himself, other workers and experts as well as the equipment in the workplace. As opposed to individual aspects, they focus on the engagement and interactions during working and learning. In compliance with constructivist approaches the individual is characterized as active participant in the learning process: In order to construct his own knowledge, the learner must have the opportunity to engage in learning activities and to collect own experiences that can be integrated into existing knowledge.

As Billett (2006) emphasizes, most of what is learnt, is learnt by doing. The learning process is enhanced by being situated in authentic surroundings and performing meaningful tasks. Hence, the learner will solve his tasks by following a structure. At first a problem-solving approach has to be planned and tested. Eventually it has to be modified to face the challenges and problems in the process and to solve the tasks effectively. By repeating the steps, the performance is internalized and the effort for the procedure decreases. In doing so, the learner becomes an efficient problem-solver. Making mistakes is seen as an important aspect to facilitate and improve learning as negative knowledge avoids repeating the same mistakes and thus leads to a better performance (Harteis, Bauer & Gruber, 2008). By this means, both conceptual and procedural knowledge develop. Beyond, knowledge is organized in a meaningful way and enables learners to use their knowledge flexible in various contexts and the learners get routine in their tasks. The increased knowledge and skills and the development of effective problem-solving procedures are important aspects towards expertise. The tasks that a learner is confronted with can be distinguished in routine and non-routine tasks. They differ in matters of consciousness, which is needed to cope with them.

Routine tasks occur subconsciously, because the worker has already accomplished them ‘a hundred times’ and, in doing so, he has formed associations among concepts (chunking) and compiled procedures (Billett, 2001). Finally, he does not have to think about his proceeding anymore – tasks are operated automatically. Consequently, there is more cognitive capacity available for new and unknown tasks.

Through the necessity of control strategies to be able to set goals and evaluate their achievement, it becomes evident that in contrast to routine tasks non-routine tasks occur consciously. During the process of problem-solving, one’s prior knowledge has to be transferred to the situation to handle the requirements and the given circumstances. In that way, new associations are developed and knowledge is transformed and extended. This is consistent with Piaget’s (1976) idea of ‘accommodation’ that is to be contrasted to ‘assimilation’. Assimilating new experience means that new knowledge is integrated into the existing (Piaget, 1966). Instead of developing new knowledge, existing assumptions are strengthened. Thus, it is evident that this process occurs when the learner copes with routine tasks.

Another external influence refers to co-workers and experts as they are able to support the learning of individuals in a direct or indirect way. Direct guidance corresponds to the first four phases of the Cognitive Apprenticeship approach (Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989). Co-workers and experts firstly model the expected behavior so that the novice can observe. Then they coach the learners (e.g. giving hints and feedback) and finally support them in conducting a task, if needed (scaffolding). When the learner is ready to solve the problems himself, the expert fades his support. This kind of guidance occurs in shared problem-solving and collaborative learning. In his study about guided learning at work, Billett (2000) figured out that amongst others understanding the tasks was achieved through modeling whereas coaching assisted the learner’s development.

In identifying and selecting work tasks that match with the learner’s readiness and by monitoring and guiding the learning process, experienced co-workers and experts provide support. By this means, the novice is not overstrained and approaches complex tasks step by step. Moreover the mentee appropriates ‘tricks of the trade’ and knowledge about hidden structures and relations, when they are explained and made explicit by the expert (Billett, 2001). This leads to a deeper understanding of the tasks and a better performance at the same time.

Indirect performance also takes place in the workplace. Learners observe and listen to co-workers to learn work routines and understand the meaning of the different activities. Billett (2001) emphasizes that best-practice examples of the required proceeding in the workplace are very helpful. Attention should be paid on the fact that problems may be caused and inaccurate behavior may be copied through misunderstandings and missing explanations. Even dangerous situations can result from it.

As not only the social aspects, but even the physical environment of a workplace is part on the learning environment, it is important to keep it in mind. The physical environment contains the available equipment, finished products and concepts – cues, models and cues – which help demonstrating and understanding relevant workplace activities.

Apart from the aforementioned problems that go back to misunderstandings and missing explanations, there are other aspects that limit workplace learning. In conducting three studies, Billett (1995) identified the following limitations: (i) inappropriate knowledge, (ii) no access to authentic activities, (iii) reluctance of experts, (iv) absence of expertise, (v) opaque knowledge, (vi) instructional media. Furthermore the fact that workers do not “understand the desired outcomes of their work in order to develop goals for performance” (Billett, 2001, p.88) can hinder the effective learning process.


In summary, ‘Learning by doing’ is an adequate approach to describe learning through practice as it takes into account the complexity and variety of aspects that have an impact on successful learning. It bases on the assumption that both social and physical aspects influence the learning opportunities and emphasizes that learning does not occur completely self-directed but with the support of a supervisor. Furthermore, the changing requirements of work that go back to technical and societal changes are taken into account. Learning in the workplace allows responding to them as it is more flexible than curricula in vocational education. Besides, it offers the opportunity to repeat procedures and perform tasks that are too specific or complex to be taught during vocational training or at university (e.g. building houses). Consequently, learners develop those skills that are relevant for their work performance and thus get prepared to the requirements of their future work. Moreover, they get a deeper understanding of both the situational multitasking of the workplace which covers the complexity of the process, and the learning process itself. This is of particular importance for communicating knowledge as it can be processed adequately for other learners.

In spite of these benefits, the limitations of learning by doing must not be forgotten. The claim of communicating knowledge is limited by the ability of doing it. This comprises missing or wrong explanations as well as the inability to communicate in general. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that copying other workers’ acting leads to serious problems. As Mohr and Kraus (2006) mentioned, effective learning needs structure. This includes a supervisor who cares about the work process and supports the learner if necessary. Beyond, tasks should be embedded in the work process and increase in their complexity to allow authentic and meaningful learning. Thus there is a danger that learning by doing does not meet all these requirements, if it is not well organized. In addition, shortness of time and a decreasing productivity have a negative impact on the willingness to both supporting learning activities and supervising learners and consequently hinder the progress of the learner.

On the basis of that, we come to the conclusion that ‘Learning by Doing’ should not be overseen as a way of learning, but also should not be blindly overpraised. The following researchers and their work were the most helpful to coming to this attitude and to approaching the topic:


1. Because of the variety of his contributions to investigations about workplace learning, Billett’s studies build the basis of this essay. His studies give a review on the characteristics of workplace learning and the influences on it.

  • Billett, S. (1995). Workplace Learning: its potentials and limitations. Education and Training, 37. 20-27.

As the opportunities for improving workplace learning are important, the focus of Billett’s review bases on three of his prior studies. As a result, he figures out the benefits and limitations of workplace learning.

  • Billett, S. (2000). Guided learning at work. Journal of Workplace learning, 12, 272-285.

This study reports and discusses the findings of an investigation that examines the efficacy of guided learning in the workplace (questioning, diagrams/analogies, modeling, coaching). Critical incident interviews in five workplaces pointed out that participation in everyday work is the most effective contributor to workplace learning.

  • Billett, S. (2001). Learning through work: workplace affordances and individual engagement. Journal of Workplace Learning, 13, 209-214.

In this article Billett focuses on the learning process at work and how to improve it. He points out the way in which work activities contribute to individual’s learning and the relation between both factors.

  • Billett, S. (2001). Learning in the workplace: Strategies for effective practice. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
  • Billett, S., Fenwick, T. & Somerville, M. (eds.). (2006). Work, Subjectivity and Learning. Understanding Learning through Working Life. Dordrecht: Springer.

2. The discussed approach of workplace learning bases on the ideas of the following researchers:

  • Brown, J.S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.
  • Collins, A., Brown, J.S. & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing and mathematics. In Resnick, L.B. (eds.), Knowinge, Learning and Instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser, (pp. 453-4). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Harteis, C., Bauer, J., & Gruber, H. (2008). The culture of learning from mistakes: How employees handle mistakes in everyday work. International Journal of Educational Research, 47, 223-231.
  • Lave, J. (1991). Situating learning in Communities of Practice. In Resnick, L.B., Levine, J.M. & Teasley, S.D. (eds.), Perspectives on socially shared cognition (pp. 17-36). Washington: American Psychological Association.
  • Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Moll, L.C. (1990). Vygotsky & Education: Instructional Implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psycholog. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Perkins, D., Jay, E. & Tishman, S. (1993). Beyond Abilities: A Dispositional Theory of Thinking. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 39, 1-21.
  • Piaget, J. (1966). Psychology of Intelligence. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adam and Co.
  • Piaget, J. (1976) Behavior and Evolution. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Von Glasersfeld, E. (1987). Wissen, Sprache und Wirklichkeit. Arbeiten zum radikalen Konstruktivismus. Braunschweig: Vieweg.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3. Other researchers and research groups that represent this approach:

  • Harris, R., Simons, M. & Bone, J. (2000). More than meets the eye? Rethinking the role of workplace trainer. Adelaide: NCVER.

In their study of workplace trainers, the researchers found informal workplace learning to be very important. According to them, workplace learning considers both the work activities and the required skills.

4. Other literature

  • Bove, B. & Kroth, K. (2001). Workplace learning and generation X. Journal of Workplace Learning, 13, 57-65.
  • Cooley, E. (1994). Training an interdisciplinary team in communication and decision-making skills. Small Group Research, 25, 5-25.
  • Mohr, B. & Krauß, A. (2006). Neue Produktionsstrukturen, neue Qualifizierungsstrategien in Unternehmen. In Loebe, H. & Severing, E. (eds.), Weiterbildung auf dem Prüfstand – Mehr Innovation und Integration durch neue Wege der Qualifizierung (pp.193-204). Bielefeld: Bertelsmann Verlag.
  • Poell, R. F., van der Krogt, F.J. (2006). Learning at the workplace reviewed: Theory confronted with empirical research. In Streumer, J.N. (ed.), Work-related learning(pp.71-94). Dortrecht: Springer.

Poell and Van der Krogt give a broad overview of empirical research done in the area of workplace learning. They focus on the following four central topics: Tuning learning programs to the work and to the organization, Work and learning in groups, Learning programs in different work contexts, Views and perceptions of actors. Moreover they introduce a learning-network-theory useable as a reasonable framework for research on workplace learning. Finally they suggest some topics for further empirical investigations.

  • Straka, G. A. (1999). Perceived work condition and self-directed learning in the process of work. International Journal of Training and Development, 3, 240-249.

Authors: Esther & Lena



  1. terrific site this great to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  2. You can see from your article that you did a lot of research and thought about what to write, that is good.
    The concept of learning by doing is explained well and it is good that you neither praise it too high nor ignore its problems.
    I agree with you that the specific context of the learning situation is very important. Especially in situations that may become dangerous, misunderstandings and missed explanations should be taken into account and if there is a tutor he should be careful to avoid these.
    From my point of view it is good to have the negative knowledge that allows one to avoid injuries or severe mistakes but on the other hand having to get the information about how to instead do it in practising on one’s own and then being corrected by the feedback of a tutor.
    The article was quite interesting, thank you for writing it.

  3. The article was nice to read and it’s written very well. I also think that it’s important that you have mentioned problems relating to learning by doing.

    It came to my mind that learning by doing is also an important part of at least two youth organizations in Finland: 4H ( and scout association ( Finnish 4H is a member of the same parent organization than landjugend in Austria and Germany.

  4. Clear line of argument of ‘learning by doing’ although the counter argument against ‘learning by doing’seems to be a bit weak; however, i understand this paper is introductry so that you cannot talk everything!

    I agree with ” ‘Learning by Doing’ should not be overseen as a way of learning, but also should not be blindly overpraised.” because as you cited from Mohr and Kraus (2006), mentioning “effective learning needs structure”.

    In addition, learning by doing without clear and long-term goal (not short-temr goal) seems to be nonsense. That is, learning by doing without thinking is dangerous. As you pointed out, consicious attention to what you have done would be crucial for improving your skills because otherwise you will make same mistakes again and again.

    In personal opinion, I’m very interested in the question why we need to learn skills or acquire knowledge at school although we can learn more effectively at work by actually practicing. How the knowledge acqured at the school is utilised at work? It is often said (esp. when Japanese situations is concerned) the knowledge at school is no use. In Japanese society, there is still implicit notion that we follow master-and pupil relationship. That is, just do as the master do so that you can acquire knowledge and skills.

    Overall, you have rased important issues around new form of traditional ‘learning by doing’ (pragmatism), which is interesting for me.

  5. First of all, thaks for the article. It’s a very interesing question in education nowadays. It’s imposible to learn to do something without doing anytime? I think yes. But also the feedback it’s so important. Without it, the childen can learn a wrong way to do something, and this can be a problem in the future. I saw this situation in Maths’ didactic, the last year of my degree. Some people had very much problems with the basic operations, because they never think about what they was doing. Without feedback it’s o difficult to take a deeper understanding

  6. Your Article was really interesting to read. The topic “learning by doing” a very important topic in the education.

    I am from Austria and I want to become an elementary school teacher. In Austria, learning by doing is very high recommended in elementary school. At the teacher training college, we learn to teach the children with learning by doing. Of course, at some points very difficult but I think it is the best way to show the children something which is difficult to understand. Additionally, with learning by doing, the children so not forget the contents of the lessons so soon as in a “more boring way”

  7. First of all, thank you for the article; you did a really good job! 🙂

    What I wanted to add is the fact that you also mentioned, that leaning by doing can also be overprized. My experience is

    if topics are taught via leaning by the subject matter remains to a higher probability (compared to other teaching methods.) in the brains of the students. But it is very important for a teacher to prepare this topic very carefully, because if the “learning by doing”-sequence is not well organized this sequence is a waste of time.

  8. After learning this article, I would like to share and comment something that I believe very meaningful. Confucio, a Chinese philosopher stated: “It was told, and I forgot it; it was seen and I understood it; it was done and I learned it.”
    I find this simple proverb quite accurate to explain the importance of practice in learning. Thinking in learning situations, I see how different you retain in your mind the information depending on the context and the way you were linked to it.
    Following this proverb, practical situations should be provided to improve learning in several contexts. However, there are some theories about different learning styles, and it is also something to consider. One example of these is told on the following blog about leadership:

    On the previous article, learning styles in workplace are divided in visual, auditory and tactile, thus depending on individual characteristics learning will depend on their style. Some people will learn better listening to explanations, and others will learn better observing and following imitation.
    Personally, as a future teacher, I think that we should provide all different types of experiences and opportunities to our students to learn the most, taking into account that we will tend to provide more learning situations privileging our own learning style.

  9. Reading your article I’ve thought about how important is to keep in mind the huge influence of social context in learning processes. Learning depends on prior experience and knowledge, thus teachers need to consider individual characteristics from each individual children to satisfy the better we can their needs.

    Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) developed the Ecological Systems Theory to explain how social environment affects the individual development, from macrosystem to the single child. The schema of his theory is very clear to see in this picture:

    If someone is interested on Bronfenbrenner’s theory, you can learn from the link below:

    Ecological Systems Theory

  10. As teachers we cannot afford not to know the environment where we are teaching. We must understand the context where children develop. Vygotsky state that children must love their environment to learn from it. They need belonging feeling to grow up interested in learning new things about their context.

    This feeling is needed to develop the intellectual joy that provide flow experiences Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988).
    As teachers we can incorporate this believes in our lessons changing the methodology and the point of view to approach curriculum contents. In Finland, I have been observing and teaching in a school where I have seen it several times.

    A clear example of it is going to the forest directly to see mushrooms instead of learn them from book pictures. They feel what they are learning closer to them, and development is higher.

  11. Thanks for the article!

    “Learning by doing” is a useful tool that not only make children learn something on their own, apart of a single explanation from the teacher, or just by looking how others make what they could do by themselves. It also helps children to develop skills, physical and mental, to learn from their errors and also to learn not to imite or copy what others make, but trying to achieve the goals themselves. Of course there are another methods useful and worthy to apply when you are teaching and we cannot forget that when children experiment or “do” on their own, teacher cannot avoid give them some feedback, some instructions and guidelines about what and how are they doing and how it would be supposed to be. Supervision avoids mistakes and guides children to a good learning.

    It reminds me the term “Scaffolding”. To give the guidelines and necessary direction until making sure people are able to understand and to create on their own.

  12. Sometimes, if not always, learning from the mistakes we make is the only way to learn, or at least the fastest one. One of the keys of self-improvement and success is not to be afraid of making mistakes. If we want to progress, sooner or later we will make some mistakes, we cannot avoid it. In fact, making mistakes should be seen as something positive because by making mistakes we learn how we have to do things correctly.

  13. To begin with I would like to say that I really like this article, it is so interesting and easy to understand.

    I am going to be a primary school teacher as well and I think like in most jobs we learn by doing. Of course everyone has to have a previous knowledge and a specific training but we learn with the experience. So, we have to try our students to learn by doing and to learn from their mistakes. This is an important responsibility because if we, as teachers, don´t take into account each individual and we are not able to teach them in an appropriate way we will not be able to get the best of them.

  14. I found the article interesting. Thanks for it because the topic learning by doing is really important nowadays.

    I think that learning by doing is really important. When you have to learn new things, the theory about them is important and essential. But I think that when you really learn is when you put into practice what you have learned. I mean, when we do things.

    In the article it is also said that experts solve problems in an effective way. Related to this, we could say that experts think and solve problems in different ways and these differences explain why experts are more effective in a variety of problem-solving endeavors. So, expertise can refer to the characteristics, skills, and knowledge that distinguish experts from novices.

  15. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
    Environmental safety equipment townsville

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