Imperial College London is aiming to become a leading institution for evidence-based and innovative teaching. As the UK higher education sector focuses on educational innovations to enhance student learning and understanding, it is important that we begin to evaluate these areas.

The pages in this section will help you to evaluate learning and understanding as experienced by Imperial students. Click on the links on the left-hand side of the page to explore areas such as how to evaluate students’ views on the nature of science, the quality and content of students’ conceptual understanding, students’ approaches to independent learning, and more.

Educational theory and the tools for evaluating learning and understanding

While these tools and pages do not intend to prescribe any single way of theorising or conceptualising education, several of the tools are underpinned by a constructivist educational theory, particularly through their operationalisation of the constructivist theory of ‘meaningful learning’ (Novak, 1998). ‘Meaningful learning’ is contrasted with ‘rote learning’ (similar to the distinction between ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ learning) (Hay, 2007). It refers the student’s “affective commitment” and “deliberate effort” to incorporate new knowledge into an existing “cognitive structure” (Novak, 1993, p. 179).

Like the constructivist view more generally, this notion of meaningful learning is grounded on the insight that “knowledge is not transmitted directly from one knower to another, but is actively built up by the learner” (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer, & Scott, 1994, p. 5). In other words, new knowledge is never received immediately as knowledge, but rather as information which the learner must actively interpret “through the perspective of [their] existing knowledge” (Smith, diSessa, A, & Roschelle, 1993, p. 116).

How does education theory relate to education practice at Imperial?

It follows from the above insights that a constructivist approach places “primary importance to the way in which learners attempt to make sense of what they are learning rather than to the way they receive information” (Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, & Soloway, 1994, p. 485). However, this does not mean the teacher’s role is unimportant. The teacher can play a significant role in encouraging and aiding students to make sense of what they are learning, particularly by presenting knowledge in ways which are likely to (i) connect with students’ existing knowledge and (ii) encourage students to consciously and meaningfully engage in making sense of and constructing new knowledge.

This latter point suggests incorporating ‘active’ and inquiry-led methods, such as problem-solving and discovery-oriented tasks (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer, & Scott, 1994; Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, & Soloway, 1994; Schwartz, Lederman, & Crawford, 2004). It is worth noting that this is in line with the College’s Learning & Teaching Strategy (see Section 3.3 on Evidence Based Education) which places emphasis on the strong evidence base for constructivist ‘active learning’ (Freeman, et al., 2014). 

How does education theory relate to these evaluation tools?

As noted above, several of the tools within the ‘Learning & Understanding’ webpages are grounded on constructivism and related theories. For example, concept maps (Hay, 2007), the Meaningful Learning in the Laboratory Instrument (MLLI) (Galloway & Bretz, 2015) and the Views on the Nature of Science (VNOS) questionnaire (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000; Schwartz, Lederman, & Crawford, 2004) all apply the constructivist notion of ‘meaningful learning’. Additionally, while the tools associated with professional understanding are grounded in a different strand of educational theory, it shares a focus on the way that individuals assign “meaning and significance” to learning experiences as central to educational practice (Dall'Alba, 1998, p. 103). Please browse the sub-pages and their related tools to explore these concepts in action.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., & Lederman, N. G. (2000). The Infuence of History of Science Courses on Students' Views of. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(10), 1057-1095.

Dall'Alba, G. (1998). Medical Practice as Characterised by Beginning Medical Students. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 3, 101-118.

Driver, R., Asoko, H., Leach, J., Mortimer, E., & Scott, P. (1994). Constructing Scientific Knowledge in the Classroom. Educational Researcher, 23(7), 5-12.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performances in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Galloway, K. R., & Bretz, S. L. (2015). Development of an Assessment Tool to Measure Students' Meaningful Learning in the Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratory. Journal of Chemical Eduation, 92, 1149−1158. doi:10.1021/ed500881y

Hay, D. B. (2007). Using concept maps to measure deep, surface and non-surface learning outcomes. Studies in Higher Education, 32(1), 39-57. doi:10.1080/03075070601099432

Krajcik, J. S., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., & Soloway, E. (1994). A Collaborative Model for Helping Middle Grade Science Teachers Learng Project-Based Instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 94(5), 483-497.

Novak, J. D. (1993). Human Constructivism: A Unification of Psycyhological and Epistemological Phenomena in Meaning Making. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 6, 167-193.

Novak, J. D. (1998). Learning, creating and using knowledge: concept maps as facilitative tools in schools and corporations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Schwartz, R. S., Lederman, N. G., & Crawford, B. A. (2004). Developing Views of Nature of Science in an Authentic Context: An Explicit Approach to Bridging the Gap Between Nature of Science and Scientific Inquiry. Science Teacher Education, 610-645.

Smith, J. P., diSessa, A, A., & Roschelle, J. (1993). Misconceptions Reconceived: A Constructivist Analysis of Knowledge in Transition. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(2), 115-163.