Inductive Learning (aka Concept Attainment)

A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for a magazine article (for OHS Canada). I had a wonderful conversation with Marcel Vander Wier about education and training in occupational health and safety.

Although we discussed many topics, the most noteworthy topic was inductive learning (also known as concept attainment). I have recently realized, through conversations with many learning and development professionals, that this is still a relatively uncommon instructional design strategy despite its many benefits.

This post scratches the surface of inductive learning. Hopefully, I will delve more deeply into the topic in a future post.

What is inductive learning?

Inductive learning involves the learner using their prior knowledge to discover new ideas, skills, concepts, or information.

How do inductive learning strategies differ from traditional learning strategies?

Courses that use traditional learning strategies simply present ideas to passive learners, often without any attempt to bridge the gap between their prior knowledge and the new information. This traditional design strategy typically involves content being forced onto the learner and then assessing ‘learning’ (even though the learner will promptly forget the information presented).

Inductive learning stands in stark contrast to traditional learning design. Inductive learning flips learning design on its head. The basis of this strategy involves encouraging learners to activate their prior knowledge. Learners then use this to interpret the new information that the course was designed to deliver. If the learner struggles to successfully acquire the new information, support is given. In some cases, this support may fall in line with a more traditional learning design strategy; however, this is a last resort.

Why is inductive learning effective?

Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. To incorporate new information into our long-term memory, we must be able to link this new information to memories that already exist.

Traditional learning design often misses this experience. It requires the learner to make their own connections, which they wouldn’t know to do without prompting. Ultimately, the new information doesn’t root deeply into the learner’s memory.

Inductive learning, on the other hand, requires activation of prior knowledge as a prerequisite for learning. Learners who experience inductive learning activities retain a significantly higher percentage of information long after the course concludes.

This occurs for three reasons. First, learners can more easily link the new information to their prior knowledge, thereby integrating the new information into long-term memory. Second, by having to discover the new information on their own, they are more likely to engage in metacognition. Third, the continuous feedback afforded by inductive learning promotes competence and confidence.

When is inductive learning appropriate?

As with any instructional design strategy, inductive learning is not a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. It works exceptionally well in some cases and is ineffective in others. Typically, inductive learning is an appropriate strategy under any of the following conditions:

  • When learners have a significant amount of prior knowledge
  • When the new information has significant similarities to the learners’ prior knowledge
  • When relatively safe skills are being developed (e.g., I wouldn’t recommend using inductive learning to teach someone how to use a forklift for the first time, unless the learning is occurring on a simulator)
  • When continuous feedback is required
  • When learners need an opportunity to fail in order to learn

What is an example of an inductive learning activity?

Compare the experience of learning through traditional learning and inductive learning with the two examples below. They teach similar concepts but with vastly different styles.

It is worth noting that the course built using inductive learning resulted in a 3-fold higher post-activity assessment score compared to the traditional course. Furthermore, long-term learning retention was 91% in the inductive learning course, compared to only 33% for the traditional learning course.

Traditional learning course

Launch Presentation

Inductive learning course

Launch Presentation


Inductive learning is wildly successful when used in the right conditions. It promotes long-term memory integration, metacognition, and active learning. Gone are the days when traditional learning was the singular strategy in the learning and development toolbox. Inductive learning is the new kid in town, and it is taking instructional design by storm.