Active learning in the workplace: a case study of conceptual reconstruction

Published to UBC Connect on 5 June 2012
It is generally believed that learning is the result of interaction between new knowledge and existing knowledge (Posner et al., 1982). The drivers for learning can be internal to the individual, external in the individual’s socio-cultural environment, or a combination of both.
Learning theorists have described the interaction of new and existing knowledge as ‘conceptual reconstruction’ and stated it involves two types of cognitive activity, assimilation and accommodation (Posner et al., 1982).  A minor change in knowledge or experience is reported to easily assimilate into what a person already knows and believes about the world.  Ideas that ‘radically conflict’ with a person’s existing knowledge and beliefs are reported to require accommodation, and accommodation occurs only where the individual sees the new ideas as sensible, plausible and useful (Posner et al., 1982).
Constructivist models of teaching and learning can facilitate the cognitive process of accommodation (Sunal, n.d.; So, 2002). They have been reported to be helpful for formal learning where pre-existing or ‘naïve’ knowledge can be resistant to change (Ozdemir & Clark, 2006).
In this context of formal learning, I am interested in workplace learning and the situations in the workplace where employees struggle to acquire new knowledge. It seems that the situations that create a great deal of ‘conceptual conflict’ for new employees are induction, on-boarding, and role handovers.
Some causative factors for the difficulty in accommodating new knowledge and skills are:

  • Business complexity. The diversity of knowledge of business activity and culture, company standards and company systems that an individual has to master on entry to the organisation.
  • Business risk management. The learning an individual has to undertake to reassure the company that he/she can perform a role in a legally compliant manner (i.e. compliance training).
  • Role-specific learning.  The learning of particular processes and tools that the individual must use to perform their technical/professional role.
  • Time restrictions.  The short period of time in which an individual must acquire knowledge and skills, and deliver back to the organisation.  Induction and role handover are usually only a few days or a week for an average knowledge worker. For executive positions, it may be longer and involve a period of ‘shadowing’.

I have analysed how the models of constructivist instruction that facilitate conceptual reconstruction might have facilitated my accommodation of new knowledge during a role handover in a large corporation in March 2012.
The analysis is presented as a matrix (Figure 1) and it shows the mentor’s sequence of steps to train a newcomer in a specialist role, my cognitive responses to each of the mentor’s steps, and some pedagogical strategies that the mentor could have applied to make my learning easier.
The scope of the data in Figure 1 is Day One of a five-day handover. The intention of the mentor was to use this first day of training to provide me with an orientation to the role, an introduction to the company’s learning management system, and a review of some of the system’s operations.

Figure 1:  Handover – Day 1

Mentor goals and sequence of training

Mentor delivery method

Cognitive actions of the Mentee

Pedagogical Strategies for Conceptual Reconstruction that could have been applied


  •  Present a list of training topics that reflect the core functions of the role



Printed document


Looked for familiar terminology on the list.

Tried to connect items on the list to prior conceptions of the core tasks/duties acquired from an interview and job description.


Elicit preconceptions of the job and its functions (Nussbaum & Novick, 1981; Osbourne & Wittrock, 1983; Karplus, 1979). Present a concept map to show a hierarchy of functions.

Foster a positive and safe learning environment (Karplus, 1979).


  • Present the learning management system



Demonstration of the main menu and sub-menus of the learning management system by clicking on the GUI and navigating to different locations


Looked to see how the GUI and navigation compared with prior experience of LMS GUI and navigation tools.
Wrote notes of new terms.


Exploration. Create an activity where the mentee has to discover the GUI and navigation structure (Renner, 1982; Karplus, 1977).

Introduce terminology for navigation/structure once the activity is underway (Renner, 1982).


  • Explain a complex company structure and how this is presented in the learning management system

Visual sketch on whiteboard and verbal explanation of company structure (very complex).
Printed diagram of the organisational structure in the LMS (also very complex).


Became aware of acronyms used to describe business entities and business departments but made no association with them.


Elicit preconceptions of the business, its size and diversity of operations.

Exploration. Get the mentee to produce the organisation structure. Provide an incomplete flow chart (images as a scaffold) and give the mentee a source of information for the discovery exercise.


  • Demonstrate the computer network drive where files are stored and highlight key folders





After demonstration, enable exploration.  Set tasks that require the mentee to locate folders/ files on the network. Link the tasks to core functions of the role.


  •  Explain “job role programs” and how a core function of the job is to do monthly reporting on employee progress with job role programs



Printed handout of business process for managing change to job role programs.

Physical demonstration of operations in an Excel file and operations in the learning management system.


Asked questions for clarification of the steps and terms printed in the handout.
Made notes on the handout.
No meaningful connection to the process.



Create a task that requires hands-on use and discovery of the LMS menu for job role programs.


Set more tasks that require use of the LMS menu for job role programs but provide new cases and situate them in a real workplace context, e.g. emails from people in the business that request changes and which reflect real requests that the mentee will be required to action (Driver & Oldham, 1986)


Provide a period of time for reflection on the tasks (Driver & Oldham, 1986). Invite questions.


At the end of the day, ask the mentee to explain in a few words what they have learned (Driver & Oldham, 1986).

Driver and Oldham (1986) recommended four instructional stages for conceptual reconstruction, namely:

  1. Orientation (motivation) and elicitation of prior knowledge
  2. Restructuring
  3. Application
  4. Review (reflection)

I ended the first day of handover with a headache and ‘information overload’.  I was confused as to how to order information into higher or lower priorities. I was motivated to retain what had been presented to me, but didn’t have a means do so (no activity to apply or practice what I had heard or read).
The pedagogical strategies listed in the far right column of Figure 1 would have enabled an active learning experience and reduced the ‘information overload’. In summary, the better instructional approach would have incorporated:

  • elicitation of my prior knowledge
  • use of discovery tasks to enable conflicts to arise that would necessitate my restructure of existing concepts and allow for a deeper learning experience
  • use of application tasks to ‘bed down’ my meaning and expand it, and
  • a period of time for reflection and review.

For pedagogical strategies like these to be incorporated into the organisational training framework and adopted for on-boarding and role handover, there would first need to be acceptance that “conceptual change is a time consuming process” (Ozdemir & Clark, 2006). Time must be given to allow the new employee to conceptually accommodate everything they are expected to.
An employee exiting an organisation will not feel motivated to take the extra time to facilitate ‘conceptual construction’ by a newcomer, preferring to simply ‘present the facts and get it over with quickly’. Likewise, the organisation will want the newcomer to ‘get up to speed quickly’. However, induction, on-boarding and role handover are all situations that demand the human conceptual process of accommodation.  Time invested in active learning from the start will save any time lost later to confusion, mistakes, and retraining. There is no gain in ‘getting up to speed quickly’, only in ‘getting up to speed effectively’.


Özdemir, G. & Clark D. B. (2006). An overview of conceptual change theories. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 2007, 3(4), 351-361

Posner, G.J, Strike, K.A, Hewson, P. W & Gertzog, W.A (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education. 66(2), 211-227

So, W. WM. (2002). Constructivist Teaching in Primary Science. Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, 3(1), Article 1.

Sunal, D. W (n.d.) The Learning Cycle: A Comparison of Models of Strategies for Conceptual      Reconstruction: A Review of the Literature. Retrieved October 9, 2010, from



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