An exploration of constructivism through educational interventions in tertiary education
: an activity theory perspective

  • William Farrelly

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education


Barber and Fullan (2005) assert that the moral purpose of education is to raise the bar on student achievement and narrow the gap, while Kivunja (2014) states that “the value of what we teach is not just in the pedagogical content knowledge, but in the process of its application to real-life situations to solve problems” (Kivunja, 2014, p.87). Students must have the skills to think logically and solve problems independently in situations that mimic the real-world (Ertmer and Newby, 1993; Kivunja, 2014). The cartesian position of this thesis is that learning emerges from the facilitation of thought. This thesis reports on the design, implementation, analyses, and comparative evaluation of two tertiary-level constructivist educational interventions founded on situated knowledge construction and problem solving. The work focuses paradigmatically on mixed methods with a predominantly qualitative flavour. The emphasis, for learners, was not on the elicitation of intact knowledge structures, but on providing those learners with the means to create novel and situation-specific understanding by combining prior-knowledge with newly acquired knowledge and skills (Ertmer and Newby, 1993). Utilising the framework of Activity Theory as a foundation for intervention design, a pre-/post-intervention was administered to Year 2 students, followed by a similar intervention administered to Year 4 students. In both cases, the objective was to promote deep learning and contribute to an improved educational experience for students. Activity Theory, when applied to intervention design and implementation, provides insight into how individuals collectively and cognitively function, to create an artefact (the outcome of an activity process) by regulating activity system inputs for the benefit of the community of learners. Analysis of the activity system highlighted contradictions and helped to focus attention on the critical weaknesses and imbalances that occurred between components of the activity system. A finding of this thesis is that the application of constructivist education in the early years (Year 2) of tertiary-level education is problematic; students do not seem to possess the requisite degree of educational experience to achieve intended outcomes; however, in the latter years (Year 4), constructivist education has a positive effect on the student educational experience and educational outcomes, which include critical thinking and deep learning, the ability to problem solve, the acquisition of communication skills, leadership, teamwork and collaboration skills, and creativity in the application of theory to practice. This is in line with Jonassen (1992), who argues that constructivism is most effective for more advanced levels of education. It can be inferred that introductory modules are best taught through traditional mechanisms. A second finding is that constructivism with minimally guided instruction (minimal scaffolding), in the early years of tertiary education, does not seem to promote learning. This finding concurs with Sweller, Kirschner and Clark (2006b). However, not all academics agree; Jamil and Hafizi (2018) conclude that guided and minimally guided teaching strategies are both effective in small groups, while Hmelo-Silver, Duncan and Chinn (2007) argue against heavily guided instruction. Finally, learning is a complex process that requires cognitive application, on the part of the student; engagement with the task at-hand; and the absence of distraction. In addition, a student’s readiness to learn is a critical, but often overlooked, component of the learning process.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 December 2024.

Date of AwardDec 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsAtlantic Technological University, Letterkenny
SupervisorAndy Biggart (Supervisor) & Pamela Cowan (Supervisor)


  • Constructivism
  • activity theory
  • mixed-methods

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