Project on Learning (1997-2004)

Project Director:      
Professor Graham Nuthall
School of Education
University of Canterbury

Description of the Project

The Project on Learning was a long-term research project looking at how students, during their middle school (9 – 11) years, learn from their classroom experiences. The focus of the project was on how students’ knowledge and thinking are progressively shaped by classroom activities, and how teachers influence this development.

The Project on Learning was unique in the extremely detailed data gathered on individual student experiences and in the extent to which students’ parallel knowledge and thinking processes were explored. During each of the 12 studies that make up the project, sets of miniature videocameras, individually worn microphones, and trained observers were used to obtain every detail of the continuous experiences of selected individual students during the course of a science, social studies or mathematics unit.

Based on previous research in the Understanding Learning and Teaching Project, Nuthall and his colleagues developed methods for analysing the data on individual student experience that allowed them to predict, with 80-85% accuracy, exactly which concepts, principles, generalisations and procedures each student would learn and remember. A manual detailing these data analysis procedures can be downloaded from this site (click here).

Two PhD theses were undertaken in the context of the Project on Learning:

Dr Ronnie O’Toole obtained extensive data on student feelings and emotions as they participated in classroom activities and explored how the emotional life of students is related to their learning in her PhD thesis.

Dr Sue Collins examined how teachers structure and manage classroom activities and how this affects the patterns of thinking that students develop in the classroom.

The following link provides access to a description of the data base of the Project on learning which was established by Graham and his fellow researchers. The purpose of this document is to provide those who might want to use the Project on Learning data with an understanding of how the data was obtained.

Studies in the Project on Learning and transcribing completed





Study 7 Social Studies – Ancient Egypt 10.3 8 completed
Study 8 Social Studies – Ancient Egypt 13.2 8 completed
Study 9 Science – Light 7 colour 7.4 8 completed
Study 10 Science – Light and colour 8.9 6 completed
Study 11 Science – Colours  8.4 9 not done
Study 12 Science, Art – Light and colour 14.2 10 not done
Study 13 Social Studies – Ancient Egypt 14.8 15 completed
Study 14 Social Studies – Migration and other cultures 16.9 14 part done
Study 15 Maths, Science and Social Studies - House planning and design 20.2 13 completed
Study 16 Science – Kitchen science 8.3 11 completed
Study 17 Science and Social Studies – Space 12.2 9 part done
Study 18 Social Studies and Art – Ancient Aztecs 20.2 19 part done

Availability of Classroom Data

The data obtained in this project (video-recordings, transcripts of audio-recordings, observational records) is stored in the School of Education and is available for research use. Those wanting to make use of any of the data should contact the Graham Nuthall Classroom Research Trust ( A description of the classroom recording procedures, and a copy of the manual for analysing the data and predicting student learning can be downloaded as pdf files (see below).

Five types of data are available:

  1. Video-recordings made from cameras with wide angle lenses from diagonally opposite corners of the classroom. Children’s faces and specific activities are not visible. Available only with specific permission from the class teacher.
  2. Audiotapes of talk (recorded on individually worn microphones) by individual students and the other students they talk with. Names and identities of the individual children are not identifiable. Available only with the specific permission of the class teacher.
  3. Transcriptions of the audiotapes for individual students collated with observer notes on student behaviour and resource use. Divided up into 15-second intervals.
  4. Photocopies and photos of the students’ own writing, drawing, etc; of the books, posters etc, that the student looked at or read; of what the teacher wrote on the board, and so on.
  5. Copies of the tests used to assess learning with the pre- and post-test scores of the students. Transcripts of the interviews with the students in which they were asked to explain their answers and their recollections of how they learned them.

For privacy reasons, the video-recordings of individual students are not available.

Those wanting to know how the classroom recordings were made should download this file:

Project on Learning: Classroom Recording and Data Analysis (PDF 180 KB)

Those wanting to know how the team analysed the classroom recordings and used them to predict individual student learning should download this file:

Manual: Procedures for coding the information content of student classroom experiences and predicting student learning. (PDF 370 KB)

Potential use of the Project on Learning database

The comprehensive data covers all aspects of the reality of the classroom experience for individual students and teachers. The data lends itself to a variety of quantitative and qualitative approaches including individual case studies, analysis of teacher and student behaviour in small group and whole class contexts, and discourse analysis.

While not a definitive list, the data would be particularly relevant to researchers who have an interest in the following:

Teacher planning of science and social studies units for use in middle school classrooms:

  • Task and activity design, implementation and management by both teachers and students
  • The use of pre and post-tests to measure student understanding
  • Teacher and student use of resources
  • Individual, small group, and whole class tasks
  • Instructional and activity phases of lessons (purpose and structure)
  • Teacher monitoring of student behaviour
  • Constructivist practice.

Characteristics of individual learners:

  • Factors relevant to individual students’ concept learning and understanding
  • Student compliance with task instructions
  • Task engagement
  • The relationship between student interest and task engagement.
  • Analyses of subjects’ written work
  • Presentation of student work

Task and activity preferences.

  • Teacher and student questioning (content and non-content related)
  • Peer interactions in the context of the classroom
  • Student and teacher interactions
  • Student self-talk
  • Teacher language related to management of student behaviour
  • Teacher language – type and complexity
  • Teacher assumptions about students’ existing knowledge and understanding.

Teacher and student relationships:

  • Student hand raising behaviour
  • Teacher accessibility to individual students
  • Social and academic hierarchies
  • Teacher and student perceptions of teaching and learning
  • Opportunities for students to be agentive in the learning process.


  • Socio-cultural factors operating in the classroom
  • Influences and constraints on teachers’ practice
  • Teacher and student co-construction of classroom culture.

Selected Publications

These are some of the publications that report the results of the analysis of some of the data obtained in this and previous projects.

Nuthall, G. A. (1997). Understanding student thinking and learning in the classroom. In B. J. Biddle, T. L. Good, & I. F. Goodson (Eds.), International handbook of teachers and teaching, Vol. II (pp. 681-768). Dordecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Nuthall, G. A. (1999). Learning how to learn: the evolution of students’ minds through the social processes and culture of the classroom. International Journal of Educational Research, 31,(3), 139-256.

Nuthall, G. A. (1999). The way students learn: Acquiring knowledge from an integrated science and social studies unit. Elementary School Journal, 99, 303-341.

Nuthall, G. A. (2000). How children remember what they learn in school. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Nuthall, G. A. (2000). The anatomy of memory in the classroom: Understanding how students acquire memory processes from classroom activities in science and social studies units. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 247-304.

Nuthall, G. A. (2000). The role of memory in the acquisition and retention of knowledge in science and social studies units. Cognition and Instruction, 18, 83-139.

Nuthall, G. A. (2001). Understanding how classroom experiences shape students’ minds. Unterrichtswissenschaft: Zeitschrift für Lernforschung, 29,(3), 224-267.

Nuthall, G. A. (2002). Social constructivist teaching and the shaping of students’ knowledge and thinking. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Social constructivist teaching: Affordances and constraints (pp. 43-79). New York: Elsevier.

Nuthall, G. A. (2004). Relating classroom teaching to student learning: A critical analysis of why research has failed to bridge the theory-practice gap. Harvard Educational Review, 74, 273-306.

Nuthall, G. A. (2005). The cultural myths and realities of classroom teaching and learning: A personal journey. Teachers College Record, 107(5), 895-934.

Nuthall, G. A., & Alton-Lee, A. G. (1993). Predicting learning from student experience of teaching: A theory of student knowledge acquisition in classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 30,(4), 799-840.

Nuthall, G. A., & Alton-Lee, A. G. (1995). Assessing classroom learning: How students use their knowledge and experience to answer classroom achievement test questions in science and social studies. American Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 185-223.

Nuthall, G. A., & Alton-Lee, A. G. (1997). Understanding learning in the classroom. Report to the Ministry of Education. Understanding Learning and Teaching Project 3. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Other Related Publications

Bourke, C. (Producer). (2004, 21 February). Interview with Graham Nuthall. Saturday Morning with Kim Hill [Radio broadcast]. Wellington: Radio New Zealand.

Collins, S. E. (2005). Excuse me, do we have to put a border around it? The culture of learning that provides opportunities for students to learn or not learn in middle school classrooms. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Canterbury.

Kaur, B. (Ed.) (2006). Graham Nuthall’s legacy: Understanding teaching and learning [Special issue]. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22,(5), 525-626.

O’Toole, V. M. (2005). Thank you for giving me the opportunity to actually tell you what I know: The role of emotion in children’s learning task engagement in the elementary school classroom. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Canterbury.