Theories of Learning

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Introduction


Learning theories provide a philosophical basis or framework which can guide the development of course materials. Wilson (1997), states that although there are all sorts of theories, they all seem to share certain characteristics:

  • They are meant to explain something, or to help us understand the way things are within a certain domain
  • They include a cluster of concepts organized together to form a whole
  • They usually come with some way of connecting to observations and evidence


According to the author, “Seen in this way, theories bear a resemblance to our mental schemas, which help us make sense out of the world and provide a framework for behaving intelligently”.


Bearing these observations in mind, what then are the theories that will help you make sense of the design and development process and provide a framework for the writing of your course material? They are theories of learning.


In this Module, we are going to examine the most commonly used as well as the emerging theories of learning associated with instructional design and development.


Objectives


After completing this Module, you will be able to:

  • identify the most commonly used and emerging theories of learning in instructional design and development;
  • determine the instructional principles and learning tasks derived from each theory of learning;
  • determine the theories of learning appropriate to your course material;
  • select the instructional principles and learning tasks derived from the selected theories of learning appropriate to your course material.


Theoretical Approaches to Instructional Design and Development

There are three learning theories that instructional designers draw on at different times. We will refer to the Commonwealth of Learning’s Handbook for Authors and Instructional Designers (2005) to guide our discussions.


The earliest learning theory was the Behavioural Theory of Learning developed by Gagné (1968) who stressed that the aim of instructional design was to create the particular conditions needed for a particular type of learning. Under this behavioural approach, Gagné described the conditions that a learner needed for learning things such as rules, concepts and problem-solving.


The next theory was the Cognitive Theory of Learning which was dominated by cognitive approaches, and emphasized design based on characteristics of individual learners.


The most recent learning theory is the Constructivist Theory of Learning. This approach emphasizes the learner’s own activities as the mechanism for learning (Elen and Clarebout, 2001, in the Commonwealth of Learning’s Handbook, 2005).


According to Savery and Duffy (1991), constructivism is a philosophical view on how we come to understand or know, characterized by the following three primary propositions:

1. Understanding is in our interactions with the environment. What we understand is a function of the content, context, the activity of the learner, and, perhaps most importantly, the goals of the learner.

2. Cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned. When we are in a learning environment, there is some stimulus or goal for learning – the learner has a purpose for being there. That goal is not the only stimulus for learning, but it is a primary factor in determining what the learner attends to, what prior experience the learner brings to bear in constructing an understanding, and, basically, what understanding is eventually constructed.

3. Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings. The social environment is critical to the development of our individual understanding as well as to the development of the body of propositions we call knowledge. All views, or all constructions, are not equally viable. [Therefore] we seek viability and thus we must test understandings to determine how adequately they allow us to interpret and function in our world. Our social environment is primary in providing alternative views and additional information against which we can test the viability of our understanding and in building the set of propositions (knowledge) compatible with those understandings (Cunningham, Duffy, and Knuth, 1991 in Savery and Duffy, 2001).


An additional learning theory that is worthy of note and consideration for inclusion in the writing of your course material is:

  • Problem based learning i.e., focused, experiential learning (minds-on, hands-on) organized around the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems. A detailed examination of this theory of learning is available at: http://www.studygs.net/pbl.htm


Reading


Savery J.R., and T.M. Duffy. 1995. Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. http://www.ouwb.ohiou.edu/this_is_ouwb/papers/savery-duffy.pdf


Summary


In this Module, we discussed three commonly used theories of learning:

  • The Behavioural Theory of Learning developed by Gagne, which emphasizes that the aim of instructional design is the creation of specific conditions that are needed for a particular type of learning
  • The Cognitive Theory of Learning which emphasizes that instructional design should be based on the characteristics of individual learners
  • The Constructivist Theory of Learning which emphasizes the need for learners’ own activities as the mechanism for learning


We also briefly examined Problem-based Learning, which focuses instruction on the investigation and resolution of real-world problems.


References


Commonwealth of Learning, 2005. Creating Learning Materials for Open and Distance Learning: A Handbook for Authors and Instructional Designers. http://www.col.org/colweb/webdav/site/myjahiasite/shared/docs/odlinstdesignHB.pdf

Savery J.R., and T.M. Duffy. 1995. Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. http://www.ouwb.ohiou.edu/this_is_ouwb/papers/savery-duffy.pdf

Wilson, B.G., 1997. Thoughts on theory in educational technology. Educational Technology, 37 (1), 22-27. Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs, NJ07632-0564. http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~bwilson/theory.html