Is Learning a Product or a Process?

30 Sep

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

When learning is viewed as a product, and the same performance measure applies to all students, learning facilitation can be reduced to cookie-cutter teaching: same pieces of information and instruction are seen sufficient for all students.  This is also visible in classroom practices: proving students with an example of the ready product and asking them to copy that – whether it is an “art” project, notes, homework, an essay or anything else. There is not much room for individualization or differentiation, because the products are seen as the measure of learning – which of course is not reality, but may greatly satisfy administrators and policymakers.

In a product-centered learning environment emphasis is often in doing activities – worksheets, charts, pre-designed projects – that are either teacher-made or provided by the publisher of the curriculum. The important part of completing these products is getting them right because these products are usually graded! 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 is more advanced it it. Assessment reflects memorization and regurgitation [1]. 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 situations: 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 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 [2], 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. Student 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. (APA, 2015)

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, I think approaching learning as a process is applicable everywhere, because independent learners also perform better in the tests. Independent learners often engage in deep learning.

Edit on March 20, 2017:

It seems that overemphasizing competition in education leads to the perception of learning as a product instead of emphasizing the learning process, and pushing the teacher-centered instructional model [6]. The decision is made on the level of curriculum and instructional design when learning outcomes are defined and aligned with the values of the educational system or the institute or district. Noddings [7] discusses the aims of education in curriculum development,  and states how the curriculum for 21st century must promote the attitude of continuing interest to learn. 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.



More about learning as a process:

We often talk about learning without defining what it means. This causes confusion! [3] 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)[4]: 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.

Please also check this page: Process or product? and these links: Quality of learning process and Neverending learning

My book about supporting learning process: Choosing How to Teach

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



[1] Baker, E. L., & Gordon, E. W. (2014). From the Assessment OF Education to the Assessment FOR Education: Policy and Futures. Teachers College Record, 116(11).

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

[3] American Psychiological Association (APA),

[4] De Houwer, J., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Moors, A. (2013). What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 20(4), 631-642.

[5] Lachman, S. J. (1997). Learning is a process: Toward an improved definition of learning. The journal of psychology: interdisciplinary and applied131(5), 477-480.

[6] O’Neill, G. (2010). Initiating curriculum revision: exploring the practices of educational developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 15(1), 61-71.

[7]   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: RoutledgeFalmer.



24 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.


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