What is Object-Based Learning?


Object-Based Learning (OBL) is a student-centred learning approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning. Objects may take many forms, small or large, but the method typically involves students handling or working at close quarters with and interrogating physical artefacts. The objects are brought into the learning environment for small group teaching or large group lectures. In this way, the use of objects can act as multi-sensory “thinking tools” to promote learning and engagement.

Objects can be used in multiple ways and, in all cases, the tactile nature of the object, the association made with it and understandings that come from it can become useful in making learning real. The objects are used to stimulate the learner’s imagination and to help them apply their understanding to other contexts and problems. The central proposition of OBL is that working with objects mediates and strengthens learnings (Romanek & Lynch, 2008).

What is Object-Based Learning?

OBL is a form of active learning (Freeman et al., 2014). Objects offer a tactile experience for students, which challenges them to interrogate the object and conceptualise their thinking. While the teacher facilitates this session, the students construct meaning for themselves through their interactions with each other centred on the object (Hannan et al., 2013). It represents a social constructivist approach therefore in which the students develop their knowledge and understanding though interaction with objects based on a prior understanding (Chatterjee & Hannan, 2015). This approach enables the student to explore ideas, processes and events related to the object and further link these observations to complex abstract ideas and concepts.

Where has it been used?

Students are often presented with a range of visual interpretations including drawings, images, dynamic visuals, animated visuals, multimedia, and virtual reality environments. Schönborn & Anderson (2006) state that the ability to visualise ideas is a key skill for all students. OBL can be used to aid in this visualisation and to act as a focal point on which to generate ideas. It has been used in the study of museum artefacts in small groups and to increase student peer-to-peer interaction in the fields of biology and chemistry, where it is used to help them gain a better understanding of structure-to-function relationships and as tool for reflective practice (Table 1).

How has it been used?

Students are asked to physically handle the objects and make observations about its form, draw meaning from it, make comparisons to other objects or discuss its function. OBL is useful to engage students who don’t respond well to written materials and can be used to reinforce material covered in other media. OBL sessions can be effective in increasing learning by delivering core knowledge, contextualising content, and explaining difficult concepts. A number of different approaches can be taken.

Table 1. Practical examples of Object Based Learning.
Picture2Biology3D printed objects have been used to discuss and understand function  


Designpresenting students with unfamiliar objects and asking them to consider design and function.

artArtusing art works spaced around a room to generate peer-to-peer interactions.

Chemistrymolecular models have been used to understand geometry.


Englishanatomical drawings have been used to help teach Shakespeare


LEGO Serious Play – objects used as metaphors to reflect on learning, either in tandem with, or instead of writing

  • Problem Solving – Problems can be set based on the object. What is this object? What is its function? The activity should be both mentally and physically stimulating through some form of problem solving or experimentation.
  • Questioning – Objects can be used to encouraging students to develop their own questions about the items they are exploring, and to learn to develop strategies for answering those questions. The object can also be used to compare with other objects
  • Peer-to-peer interaction – Objects can be used as a focal point for conversation. Lessons incorporating objects allowing students to work cooperatively, share their learning with peers, and pool their knowledge.
  • Abstract thinking – the object lacks connection to real world application but becomes a focus for more effective or aesthetic engagement in learning, especially in a social setting.

Teaching with objects creates a direct, sensory connection between learners and their subjects that results in new levels of interest and attention. Findings from a number of studies including Chatterjee’s (2015) have concluded that the students gain real knowledge by being actively involved in the experience of handling the objects. The benefit of these objects has also been demonstrated in an analysis of visio-spatial thinking in chemistry. In this study it was concluded that adept visual perception skills correlate with achievement in other tasks (Dori, 2001).