Overview & Objectives

In this lesson you will be introduced to many of the issues to understanding and applying learning theory for instructional design purposes. The objectives for this lesson are these:

  • Define learning, instruction, and cognition
  • Identify and classify the three paradigms that encompass learning theory
  • Identify and define the minimal attributes of a learning theory
  • State why learning theory is critical to instructional design
  • Formulate a statement describing your personal theory of learning
  • Identify and define key concepts and principles regarding approaches to learning theory
  • Critically analyze readings in the context of your own learning and instruction

Required Readings

Textbook: Driscoll (2005), Chapters 1 & 12

Available through course website:
Dewhurst, D. & Lamb, S. (2005). Educational Stories: Engaging teachers in educational theory. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 37 (6), 907-917.
Ertmer, P. (2005). Teacher pedagogical beliefs: The final frontier in our quest for technology integration. Educational Technology Research & Development, 53 (4), 25-39.
Ertmer, P. A. & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivisim, constructivism: comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6 (4), 50-72.
Hofer, B. K. (2001). Personal epistemology research: Implications for learning and teaching. Educational Psychology Review, 13 (4), 353-383.

Instructor Notes

The purpose of these notes is to provide a general orientation to the topics covered in this lesson. While an overview is provided, it will be up to you to cover assigned readings and complete all assignments to thoroughly understand what is being conveyed.

Some fundamental questions about learning
A few questions that you should have in mind as you go through this course are these:

  • What is learning?
  • How does it occur?
  • How can we explain this occurrence?
  • How do we know when someone has learned something?
  • How can we influence learning in others?
Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to these questions. Therefore, in this course we will examine several different theories or sets of theories (paradigms) that have attempted to address these questions over the past 150 years or so. Our goal is not necessarily to identify the “best” theory. If scientists, experts, and practitioners agreed on a “best” theory, then our task would be easy - just study that one best theory.
Many of you may remember some chemistry class in high school where you were supposed to hypothesize two competing outcomes for an experiment then test your hypothesis. One way was right and one was wrong. Unfortunately, the science of human learning isn't nearly as clear-cut. Two competing theories (either from the same paradigm or two different paradigms) may be equally good at explaining an idenitical learning or behavior outcome. However, and this is where things get interesting, they'll most likely explain the outcome in entirely different ways. You might ask: “Then which explanation is right "? Truth be told, there is not likely an absolute answer to that question. As we'll come to learn in this course, how you decide to explain learning has to do with personal beliefs and what you're interested in explaining.
So, the recommended approach is to understand that each of theory covered in this course illuminates a different aspect of the instruction and learning process. More importantly, each may be more useful to understand a particular situation or context.

Assumptions and contextual issues
Below is a list of guiding assumptions and contextual issues that must be addressed and contemplated to ensure you get the most out of this course:
  1. This course is concerned with scientific approaches to the study of learning and cognition. Nevertheless, we should recognize that there may be other legitimate ways of "knowing", including authority, tradition, expert opinion, and personal experience. An objective of this course is that you learn to think of learning in scientific terms, but also are able to balance this with other ways of knowing. By doing so you will have obtained a much more sophisticated approach to understanding and explaining learning, and grounds for proposing interventions that attempt to induce learning.
  2. No single learning theory is adequate to account for all aspects of learning. In fact, it is quite possible that learning is not a single entity at all, but an assortment of phenomena that we lump together. (Humans are good at inventing categories.) In a sense, you will need to express yourself from what is referred to as a “mature relativistic” position. This position allows you to perceive and accept explanations from multiple perspective or frameworks. Moreover, you should be able to choose one or several perspectives that resonate with your own thinking able to defend this choice with sound, scientific reasoning.
  3. A theory of learning does not automatically prescribe the best way to teach. This assumption is usually quite confusing for students at this stage of their learning. “If these theories can't guarantee learning outcomes, then what are they good for?” you might think. The thing is that, as we'll see throughout this course, instructional principles are not always easily derived from learning theories. Some learning theories--behaviorism, for example--have had elaborate instructional theories developed in their wake; others--schema theory, for example--have had relatively little direct impact on teaching. One of our main tasks in this course will be to see whether we can determine useful educational applications for the theories we examine and derive (perhaps tentative for now) efficacious instructional principles.
  4. What people have learned through formal instruction is only a very small subset of what they have come to know. It's important to remember that, while our concern in this course is primarily on learning theories as they apply to instructional settings, most learning takes place in the “natural“ world. Therefore, the types of learning to be covered in this course are limited in scope and context. As for scope, we will see that the types of learning addressed by different theories is only a small subset of what occurs in an average classroom or training session. Second, especially for theories that fall under Behaviorism and Cognitivism, the context of learning was often in a clinical setting, thus making it difficult to generalize from laboratory to “the real world.”
Key terms & definitions
It is advised that you not only take note of the terms and definitions listed below, but that you make an effort to modify these based on the evolution of your beliefs and understanding as you progress through this course. As mentioned above, depending on what assumptions you bring with you and the theoretical perspectives you choose to adopt may alter how you define terms. The most important thing is that you make sure your beliefs, assumptions, and definitions align appropriately based on one or more theoretical perspectives.

Learning : A relatively permanent change in the capacity of an organism to make a response, provided that the change cannot be explained on the basis of maturation or temporary states of the organism. In other words, if you're capable of doing something today that you couldn't do a year ago, you can infer that you've learned, so long as this can't be explained by something such as, you were 6 months old a year ago, and 18 months old now; or, you were sick a year ago, and now you've recovered.

Cognition : Refers to all the processes by which sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. This includes such hypothetical stages or aspects as sensation, perception, imagery, retention, recall, problem solving, and thinking (i.e., how we receive information from the outside world through our senses; how we organize it and use it.) AS one colleague has put it: “Cognition is mostly about processes in the head.”

Theory : A set of interrelated concepts or constructs, definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of phenomena for the purpose of explaining, predicting, and controlling the phenomena. (For example, a set of concepts such as attention, perception, memory, motivation, development, and how they interact with one another, allows us to understand and predict specific types of learning or behavior.) As mentioned above, a theory is bound by scope and context.

Learning theory : A set of constructs linking observed changes in performance with what is thought to bring about those changes. A learning theory should address inputs , processes , and results .

A few additional words about theories and theories of learning
At times you may make a statement beginning with these words: “My theory is that” When you make this statement, it often more accurately indicates that you're expressing an opinion. When we talk about theory from a scientific perspective, the use of the word “theory” is more restricted and subject to close scrutiny from the scholarly and practitioner community. Here are a few things to keep in mind about theory in general and learning theories specifically.

Theories originate with questions: Why does X occur? Why does the soft drink machine take some dollar bills and not others? Why won't the billing clerks in the department use the new software system we installed for them? Does the technique of taking notes in class increase learning, even if you never look at them again? In essence, theories originate in response to questions about observed (or hypothesized) phenomena, either naturally occurring or emitted through experimental manipulation. For this class, your questions will most likely arise from personal experience either as a student, or instructor or trainer.

Questions lead researchers to conduct systematic observations, on the basis of which plausible answers can be constructed. What sort of observations would you conduct, or what kind of data might you collect for each of the three questions above? This is not as simple as it sounds, as we'll discover in this course, as questions should be aligned with personal assumptions on knowledge and the types of phenomena one or more theories claim to address.

Systematic observations lead to theories and principles, with the purpose of explaining, predicting, and controlling. A researcher's theory might include the principle that a little person resides in the beverage-dispensing machine, and if she likes the way you look, she accepts your dollar. If not, she rejects it. (I didn't say it was a good theory.) Or, a researcher's theory may include the principle that taking notes increases learning even if one never reviewed them because note taking contributes to the active organizing of information in long-term memory.

Theories don't give us "the truth of the matter," only a conceptual framework for making sense of the data collected so far. This may seem like an odd statement. However, time and again, in both the natural and social sciences, a theory widely taken to be "true" is eventually questioned and then replaced with another judged to have greater explanatory power. This change can take place gradually (what Kuhn referred to as “normal science”) or quite dramatically (referred to as a “paradigmatic shift”.) For example, we can safely claim that a paradigmatic shift occurred among educationists in the US as Constructivism superceded Cognitivism as the predominant paradigm.

A particular theory stems from a particular perspective: thus, theories carry "worldviews." For example, a theory that says we can explain and control all human behavior in terms of stimuli and responses (Behaviorism) obviously embodies a very different view of the world than one that says we construct knowledge through negotiation and consensus with others (Constructivism). That being the case, the assignments and deliverables in this course will explicitly request that you state your “worldview.” By making underlying assumptions explicit, our positions and claims carry more gravity and become open to more thoughtful scrutiny from the community of scholars and practitioners.

Different disciplines approach phenomena with different assumptions, beliefs, and methodologies for collecting and analyzing data. This leads us to be very cautious on two fronts. First, care must be taken when adopting assumptions and beliefs from other disciplines. Currently in education, it is common for researchers to adopt worldviews from areas including anthropology and sociology. The danger is that those who adopt a worldview from an outside discipline may have only a cursory understanding. Second, different disciplines account for different phenomena within a particular instruction and learning context. Thus, an educational psychologist may prefer to examine specific cognitive processes within a highly controlled clinical setting. On the other hand, an education anthropologist may prefer a natural classroom setting where minimal intervention and disruption occurs, instead preferring to focus on the emergent properties of instruction and learning.

Although theories are not built in a precise or predictable way, there are generally stages that can be discerned in the theory-building process. In the textbook, Driscoll provides these questions to mirror the process (although we should not assume the process is linear nor unidirectional. In instructional technology terms we can say the process is “iterative”):
  • What kinds of assumptions and beliefs will you bring to the question?
  • What specific questions would you start with?
  • What sort of observations or data collection would you use?
  • How would the results of your data collection help you in the next step of building your "theory"?

For example, suppose the question is, "How does note-taking affect learning of concepts and principles in a particular domain (say, instructional technology) in college classrooms?" Some initial assumptions and beliefs would include the idea that note-taking does have a positive affect on learning, that notes best facilitate learning when they are well-structured and when they are expressed in the student's own words, rather than copied by rote. If one were to study note taking in a particular class, an initial questions might be: What kinds of notes do students in this class take? Will variations in the way notes are structured or organized be found? How do students use notes after they have taken them? How is note-taking related to student grades in this course?

To actually begin such a study, assuming one had access to a very cooperative class, one might ask to randomly collect notes from a different group of students at each class session, so that samples from all students at various points throughout the semester were obtained. One would then find a way (preferably from a scheme derived from a particular theoretical perspective) to categorize the notes, e.g., by how well they were organized and what information was contained within. Students could also complete a survey to reveal how they used their notes outside of class. At the end of the course, one could analyze the data to see if any relationship between how notes were organized, how students used them, and their performance in the course existed. If a relationship was indeed found, more specific questions could be formulated for a follow up study to further refine the theory.

Classifying paradigms and learning theories
In the textbook, Driscoll classifies learning theories according to their underlying epistemologies, or philosophies about how we come to know the world, what is “knowledge,” and what it means “to know.” She identifies these epistemologies as objectivism (reality is "out there" and our task is to know it as fully and accurately as we can); interpretivism (there is no single reality; we each construct our own); and pragmatism (reality is "out there", but our understanding of it is always an interpretation).

In this course, we will use a slightly less esoteric way of organizing learning theories, according to three dominant paradigms, or research traditions, of learning psychology in the 20th century: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism.
  • Behaviorism is a research tradition that focuses on observed behaviors, sometimes to the complete exclusion of mental events, and attempts to determine how reinforcements and punishments in the environment shape behaviors. We will classify Skinner and Gagne as essentially behaviorist (although he eventually converted to cognitive psychology and you see some of this reflected in his learning theory).
  • Cognitivism attempts to understand how information that comes through the senses gets processed, stored, and used “in the head.” For this course, the theories that follow this paradigm will include cognitive information processing, Ausubel's meaningful learning, and schema theory.
  • Constructivism contends that knowledge is constructed uniquely by each individual (although often through a process of social negotiation) and that there is no single reality "out there"--or if there is, it is in principle unknowable and therefore we may as well behave as if there were not. For our purposes, cognitive development theories (e.g., Piaget's genetic epistemology) and constructivism (e.g., Vygotsky's zone of proximal development) belong in this category.

Assignments & Deliverables

lesson 1 summary & analysis
Concisely summarize what you have read and learned in this lesson. Below are help and directions for completing this assignment.
Guiding Questions:

  • How do you define "learning”?
  • What is the relationship between “learning theories” associate with “learning”?
  • How do the three (3) major epistemological traditions align with Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism?
Additional directions:
  • Convey your knowledge of information found in readings and critically analyze in terms of personal position and larger issues at hand; you must cite at least one additional reading found in the syllabus or an education database.
  • The summary and analysis will not exceed 500 words and must be single-spaced.
  • You are required to use concepts and principles from textbook and readings, citing sources in APA format.
Draft of personal theory of learning
The word theory can be used to refer to formal, scientific theories, but also to an everyday understanding of how something works. The purpose of this activity is to help you reflect on your personal "theory" of learning, as it exists now. Please write a paragraph or two describing your beliefs about the principal factors that contribute to learning. You may find it helpful to limit your response by specifying a particular setting or kind of learner (e.g., young children, or adult workers).
The point of this is simply to get you to think about your current beliefs and understanding of what contributes to human learning. This is not an academic exercise; it is a personal one. Nevertheless, you may find it helpful to refer to the theory matrix found in Chapter 12 of the Driscoll text.