3C Framework for Deep Learning

This framework is built on understanding how learning and instruction are two separate processes.  Learning doesn’t always require instruction. Instruction doesn’t always lead to learning. In IDEAL situations these two processes balance each other.

The holistic view of learning considers learning to be a part of our everyday lives in a society, instead of being a function that only happens in the classroom.  The holistic view of teaching extends instruction beyond providing information and measuring retention, considering didactics, pedagogy/andragogy, and subject matter expertise being professionally combined to create an environment conducive for deep learning.

Learner agency is a central theme in the framework, and refers to the choices and degree of freedom students have about their learning. It is also the opportunity to perceive oneself as an actor and to “influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances” (Bandura, 2008, p. 16). Agency is an integral part of our identity and social life.

Interest is the foundation of learning. We all have tried to learn something that doesn’t interest us. It is hard, very hard. Instructing without interest is even harder. Most common way to increase interest is to support meaningfulness of learning and instruction, often by creating connections to real life experiences. Intrinsic interest in learning can be supported by providing choices (for content, assignments, assessments, etc.) Every child born to this world likes learning, which is also a survival skill, and thus a necessity. Somewhere along the way we lose that enjoyment of learning, and start to do things because others ask or mandate us to do so.

Dispositions for learning and teaching are always present in instruction. It would be unwise to deny their existence, because the classroom practices, beliefs of learning, and the tone of interactions are all based on our dispositions. Do we as instructors have a perception of teachability – the idea of a model student? Or, do we as students have a perception of the ideal teaching method? Dispositions can become a group of invisible elephants in the room, because beliefs about learning have an effect in how classroom experiences are perceived. (Here is a PDF about teaching dispositions.)

Engagement goes well beyond reading the textbook. Today students have access to more information – and misinformation – than ever before. This abundance of choices presents new requirements for instruction and measurements of learning:

  1. Instructors’ role has changed from being the source of information to the facilitator of learning – we must teach advanced learning strategies.
  2. Learning is ongoing and formal education is just a small part of this journey – deep learning cannot be done just for a grade but for life.
  3. Finding ways to support students’ individual learning process is the key to keep them engaged and support transfer.
  4. Anyone who wants to teach must learn how to ask non-googlable questions.

Engagement in one’s own learning process is different from participation in classroom activities.  The difference lies between autonomous and controlled activity, as seen in the Deci and Ryan (1985, 2008) metatheory of self-determination.  Intentional engagement reflects student’s intrinsic motivation and goal orientation for determined involvement in one’s own learning (Boekaerts & Cascallar, 2006; Appleton et al., 2008; Boekaerts, 2011; Upadyaya & Salmela-Aro, 2013).

Agency emphasizes students’ active role in their own learning process, providing a view into students’ perceptions of learning. This is why agency is so important for the 3C framework: People with agency are generally viewed as contributors to their life circumstances, not just products of their environment, and they make choices about their own life and learning (Bandura, 2006; Giddens, 1984). Development of learner agency depends on the experiences students have in the classroom and in the educational system in general.

Lifelong learning cannot be surface learning. Deep and deeper learning both refer to acquiring transferable knowledge through classroom experiences.  The instructional emphasis is in supporting students’ lifelong learning process.  The term “deep learning” resulted from the original phenomenographic research of Marton and Säljö (1976) where researchers found that university students had different approaches to learning.  These approaches describe how learners perceive tasks – either as disconnected pieces of information to be memorized in order to pass the exam (surface learning), or as knowledge to be constructed and understood in order to create new meanings (deep learning).  Deeper learning has been defined by American Institutes for Research as “a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job” (Huberman, Bitter, Anthony, & O’Day, 2014).

The theory for 3C framework is based on the works of Piaget (1952) and Kolb (1984), where the learning process is understood to be an internal procedure, enhanced by external events. The relational nature of learning process belongs to humanist socio-constructivist view where information is shared but knowledge is constructed. Most importantly, the experience of individual learning is vastly different from the experience of being taught. Most importantly, the experience of individual learning is vastly different from the experience of being taught.


IDEAL learning experiences




Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory.  Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development: A research annual. Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues, Vol. 6, (pp. 1-60). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science1(2), 164-180.

Boekaerts, M. (2011). What have we learned about the social context-student engagement link?. Teachers College Record113(2), 375-393.

Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Boekaerts, M., & Cascallar, E. (2006). How far have we moved toward the integration of theory and practice in self-regulation?. Educational Psychology Review18(3), 199-210.

Boss, S., Johanson, C., Arnold, S. D., Parker, W. C., Nguyen, D., Mosborg, S., … & Bransford, J. (2011). The quest for deeper learning and engagement in advanced high school courses. The Foundation Review3(3), 3.

Deakin Crick, R. E. (2012). Deep Engagement as a complex system: identity, learning power and authentic enquiry. In C., S. Reschly, & C. A. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement. (pp. 675-694). New York, NY: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_32

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macro-theory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182-185. Doi: 10.1037/a0012801

Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Huberman, M., Bitter, C., Anthony, J., & O’Day, J. (2014). The shape of deeper learning: strategies, structures, and cultures in deeper learning network high schools. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 1. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: http://www.air.org/resource/spotlight-deeper-learning

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Linnansaari, J., Viljaranta, J., Lavonen, J., Schneider, B., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2015). Finnish Students’ Engagement in Science Lessons. Nordic Studies in Science Education11(2), 192-206.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology46(1), 4-11.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origin of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International Universities Press.

Skinner, E. A., Pitzer, J. R., & Steele, J. S. (2016). Can student engagement serve as a motivational resource for academic coping, persistence, and learning during late elementary and early middle school?. Developmental Psychology52(12), 2099.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000232

Upadyaya, K., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2013). Development of school engagement in association with academic success and well-being in varying social contexts. European Psychologist, 18 (3), 136–147.  doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000143

Wolters, C. A., & Taylor, D. J. (2012). A self-regulated learning perspective on student engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L., Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 635-651) Springer US. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_30

3C Approach for Instruction

Educational change is occurring all over the world. Some educators are intrinsically interested in a paradigm shift to challenge the traditional views of learning. Others are invited to take part in professional development and collaborate within their institutions to make the change to happen (Butler, Schnellert & MacNeil, 2015). And some are trying to hang on to all the changes presented to their work environment.

At best the focus in education is moving towards supporting students’ individual  learning processes,  rather than emphasizing teaching. The importance of information delivery is just a tiny part of the whole teaching-learning interaction cycle (the other parts are feedback, assessment and transfer; sometimes also evaluation for external stakeholders). Receiving information to be learned is just the beginning of the learning process!

Teaching and learning are two separate processes. We shouldn’t try to discuss them as one process, but acknowledge the interaction between the two. In order to improve instruction, we need to know how learning happens. In other words, rather than assuming that it is the professor’s or teacher’s job to impart wisdom to students who will somehow magically absorb it, the focus is in the instructor’s ability to guide the students into building a knowledge base of their own.  Working with students’ need to know makes learning and teaching much more meaningful.

An important part of the 21st century teaching is asking non-googlable questions and emphasizing applications of learning over reproducing given answers. Students need to learn HOW to think instead of being taught WHAT to think. There is more information (and misinformation) available than ever before in the history of humankind and students need to be prepared to find the important information they need. This supports students’ own interests and curiosity, too. Understanding how students think, how to motivate them, and the importance of social context has been recognized by American Psychological Association (APA, 2015).

3C Approach is built on learner-centered and learning-centered educational practice, hence belonging to the humanist-constructivist paradigm, where knowledge construction is considered to be personal, situational, and contextual.

C1 – Cognitive approach makes teaching and learning easy and effective. Viewing learning as a student-centered and dynamic process where learners are active participants, it strives to understand the reasons behind behavioral patterns. Instruction focuses on application and transfer of the learning, supporting and building students’ higher order thinking skills. Learning strategies and metacognitive skills are discussed frequently, because this helps students to understand how to best support their own learning and what is needed for becoming successful in learning and life. Instructors provide graphic organizers and models, and discuss the hierarchy of the concepts in the learning material to support the transfer.

C2 – Constructive practice emphasizes the learning process and students’ need to construct their own understanding. Delivered or transmitted knowledge does not have the same emotional and intellectual value. New learning depends on prior understanding and is interpreted in the context of current understanding, not first as isolated information that is later related to existing knowledge. Constructive learning helps students to understand their own learning process and self-regulate and co-regulate their learning in the classroom and beyond. Regular feedback, self-reflection and joint reflection are important! Teachers individualize their practice and help students to connect new learning to their existing personal knowledge. Self-assessments are a regular practice.

C3 – Cooperative learning is about providing a collaborative environment that supports the learning process. This environment must reflect the relational nature of learning. Therefore, the definition of learning used in 3C-approach follows the words of Illeris, (2003): “an 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. 298).  Cooperative learning environment is inclusive, and designed to make learning enjoyable by providing a variety of different activities. Students learn from each other and engage in collaborative meaning-making. Every student has their own strengths and areas to grow, and growth mindset is openly discussed in the class.

3C practices make instruction easier while also empowering students to move towards autonomous, self-regulated learning, because they focus more on learning than on teaching.

More information about 3Cs can be found at ninacsmith.com and at my Notes.


American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK–12 teaching and learning.

Butler, D. L., Schnellert, L., & MacNeil, K. (2015). Collaborative inquiry and distributed agency in educational change: A case study of a multi-level community of inquiry. Journal of Educational Change16(1), 1-26.

Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406. doi:10.1080/0260137032000094814

Choosing How to Teach

Constructive approach with cognitive and cooperative practices supports deeper learning for all students.

I help teachers, trainers, and faculty to improve students’ learning in their courses and classrooms.  Choosing how you want to teach is easier with a framework to support the professional growth and changing dispositions. That’s why I created the 3C-framework.

We cannot think about education as a fixed 12-year long period of learning that prepares students for living in 21st century world.  It is just the beginning of the journey. Lifelong learning belongs into a large scale paradigm change in education. The way we perceive the nature of knowledge and learning, and the role of a teacher are starting to change to reflect the 21st century and the needs of information/knowledge society, where lifelong learning is a must. Growth mindset is one part of lifelong learning.

The learning theories used in 3-C framework have been combined to meet the reality of 21st century learning needs. Cognitive approach combined with constructive and cooperative practices support deeper, self-regulated learning for students of all ages. The 3C tools  focus on emphasizing learner agency in a supportive learning enviroment.

These tools are compatible with all curricula and instructional design models, and the 3C tools reflect the best practices outlined by American Psychological Association publication Top 20 Principles.

Deep Learning

Deep and deeper learning are crucially important concepts in contemporary education. The fact is that what is taught is not necessarily learned. With deep learning approach students are likely to learn more.

Learning is a fundamental, subjective phenomenon, and an important part of being a human.  Once crucial part of 21st Century education is distinguishing learning experiences from the experience of being taught. In instructional situations, deep learning appears to be closely entwined with learner- and learning-centered teaching approaches, emphasizing the lifelong learning process.

I have been focusing on deep learning during my whole career, ever since I read about the original research about deep and surface learning (Marton & Säljö, 1976), which finally led me to do my doctoral research (2017) about learner agency.

In general, agency is the capacity to act, to make decisions about one’s own life, within the structure of our environment. In education, learner agency relates tightly into students’ perceptions of their own learning experiences. Within the context of  21st century education, learner agency means the need to change the structure of learning enviroments, so that students can make choices about their own learning. Supporting student’s individual learning processes also promotes deep learning.

Overemphasizing learning goals and targets instruction may overlook the importance of the individual learning process, especially when focusing the attention on gradable projects and tests. In my own experience, excessive goal orientation seems to be a problem in American education, when the evaluation focuses on achieving the standard.

With instructional approaches focusing on memorizing information in the tests, the deep learning strategies remain unused. However, in today’s flood of information, one of the key roles of a teacher is to guide the students to gather meaningful information, by helping the student to structure their experiences and build their own understanding of basic concepts.

Deep learning requires ownership and individual engagement with the content. Here is a succinct definition for deep and surface level learning strategies: “the basic processing operations that describe how students react to and interact with the learning material and with people present in the learning environment in order to enhance domain-specific knowledge and skills” (Boekaerts, 2016, p. 81).

Deep learning approach aligns with learner agency, because both are focusing on those transformative learning experiences that contribute to students’ learning for life, and constructing their own understanding of the world.

In all levels of education deep learning can be supported by instructional approaches that emphasize choice, learning ownership, knowledge construction, and making connections to one’s own experiences.

Suomenkielinen versio – This same post in Finnish – on page Suomeksi

Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and process*. British journal of educational psychology, 46(1), 4-11.