Learning Theory can be defined as the analysis of how individuals learn. Instructional Design Theory can be defined as the analysis of effectively designing instruction to assure learning ensues. Learning theory is the basis from which instructional design theory is drawn.
Learning theories attempt to explain or predict learning (Smith & Ragan, 2005). Instructional designers must do more than just provide sources for adult learning. They must be aware of the theories that have paved the way for adult education, reflect upon these theories, and cultivate a learning experience that encourages learners’ perspectives and moves the learner into considerable self-reflection.
In the following paragraphs, three categories of learning theory are described. These theories, Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism, provide a theoretical basis for instructional design procedures.
Behaviorism focuses on an observable behavior rather than a cognitive activity. Behaviorists believe that learning has only taken place if a change in behavior is obvious, or observable. Behaviorism uses conditioning as its basis. Conditioning is a learning process in which behavior is dependent upon an environmental stimulus (Dick, Carey & Carey, 2005). The primary contributors to behaviorism include Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner who developed theories on classical conditioning and behavioral or operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning occurs when a natural, involuntary reflex responds to a stimulus (About Learning, Concept, Theories, 2008). Pavlov’s observation that dogs salivate when they eat or even see food provides the most popular example of classical conditioning. Basically, classical conditioning stipulates that behaviors can be “conditioned” by pairing stimuli with responses. Using Pavlov’s example, food would be the stimulus and salivation would be the response.
Behavioral or Operant Conditioning
Behavioral or operant conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced (Dick et al., 2005). This means that if reinforcement or encouragement is offered for the response to a stimulus, then the response becomes more likely to be repeated in the future. B. F. Skinner used this theory of behavior or operant conditioning to teach pigeons to dance and bowl a ball in a mini-alley. In contrast to classical conditioning, responses are voluntary in operant conditioning.
Behaviorism can be an effective form of learning and is often used by teachers who reward or punish the behavior of their learners. However, behaviorism is not effective in all learning situations since it does not take activities of the mind into consideration. It is important that this category of learning theory be used to encourage learning rather than manage behavior.
Certainly behaviorism has its place in organizations as well. A front end analysis or needs and task analysis conducted to identify an organization’s need often reveals that a performance problem has nothing at all to do with training but everything to do with motivation. Employees perform better when they are recognized or rewarded for their achievements. Similarly, negative influences, such as a verbal warning, day off without pay, etc. can defer employees from behavior (tardiness, dress code infringements, etc.) that the organization construes as unsatisfactory.
Cognition means being conscious, knowing, thinking, and forming an opinion. The study of cognition taps into the field of psychology. In contrast to behaviorism, cognitive learning theory emphasizes factors within the learner rather than within the learning environment. It focuses on an explanation of the development of cognitive structures and processes, and the intervention of these structures and processes between instruction and learning (Smith & Ragan, 2005).
Cognitive theorists view most human behavior as very complex. They believe that a person’s behavior is controlled by an internal intellectual process rather than external motivations. A cognitive learning environment would include instruction that is organized and activities that guide the mental processes of the learner. In a cognitive learning environment, learning is considered to have taken place when learners have committed the new information into their memories, allowing them to master new knowledge and skills.
Cognitivism has its roots in cognitive psychology and Information Processing Theory. Information Processing Theory concentrates on how the learner comes to know rather than respond in an instructional situation. An important contributor to cognitivism is Robert Gange. Gange theorized that in order for cognitive strategies to be learned, there must be a chance to practice developing new solutions to problems and in order to learn attitudes, the learner must be exposed to a credible role model or persuasive arguments (Dick et al., 2005). Gagne developed what he called the nine events of instruction to influence the process of learning. Gagne theorized that there must be stimulation to gain attention, the learner must be informed of the learning objective, learners must be reminded of content previously learned, material must be presented clearly, learners must be provided with guidance, performance must be elicited, feedback must be provided, performance must be assessed, and transfer of learning back to the job.
Designing Cognitivism Instruction
When designing instruction, the use of mnemonic devices can be an efficient processing strategy for the learners to increase memory retention of the new information, allowing them to master new knowledge and skills.
Constructivism is a branch of cognitive psychology that has greatly impacted the thinking of instructional designers (Dick et al., 2005). The fundamental point of constructivism is that the learner as an individual combines existing knowledge and experiences with new learning. Constructivism lies within rationalism, which holds that reason is the main source of knowledge and that reality is not discovered, but constructed. The primary contributors to constructivism include Jean Piaget (assimilation and accommodation) and Lev S. Vygotsky (sociocultural theory).
Main Assumptions of Constructivism
The main assumptions of constructivism are divided into three categories; individual constructivism, social constructivism, and contextualism. Individual constructivism holds that knowledge is constructed by learners who are actively engaged in experiences. The learners reflect upon these experiences and build upon their individual knowledge by adding the new experiences to their existing knowledge. Social constructivism regards learning as collaborative, suggesting that all learning has a shared goal or meaning, whether or not learning takes place in individual or group settings. Contextualism considers the realism of learning contexts, suggesting that learning and assessment of learning should take place in genuine environments.
Designing Instruction to Incorporate Constructivism
Designing instruction to incorporate the theory of constructivism would include activities that encourage learners to discover principles by themselves. The responsibility of the instructor is to deliver learning in a form that is suitable to the learners’ current comprehension level. The syllabus should be structured in such a manner as to build learning upon the knowledge and experiences the learners’ already possess.
In comparing a traditional classroom to a constructivist classroom, some of the main differences become evident. In traditional classrooms, learning is based on repetition, the teacher’s role is rooted in authority, assessment is made through testing and correct answers, and the learners work primarily on their own. In contrast, a constructivist classroom offers learning activities that are interactive and build on what the learner already knows, the teacher’s role is interactive, assessment includes student works and points of view, and students work in groups (Concept to Classroom, 2004).
Because of its classroom environment that stresses collaboration and exchange of ideas, constructivist learning can be beneficial in promoting the social and communication skills of the learners. In addition, since learning is based on the explorations and questions of the learners, learners own the material they have learned and are able to transfer this new learning into new learning experiences.
The goal of instructional design is to promote the cognitive and behavioral processes that lead to learning. In order to successfully achieve this goal, instructional designers must consider learning theories when designing and developing instruction. Understanding the strengths and weakness of each learning theory helps the instructional designer optimize their use in an instructional design strategy that appropriately addresses the needs and learning styles of the learners.
About Learning, Concept, Theories. (2008). Behaviorism. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from Funderstanding. Web site: http://www.funderstanding.com/content/behaviorism
Concept to Classroom. (2004). Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved June 12, 2009, from Thirteen ed online Web site: http://thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism /index_sub1.html
Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. (2005). The Systematic Design of Instruction (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon Publishers
Smith, P. L. & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional Design (3rd ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Jossey-Bass Education
By Shirley J. Caruso, M.A. Human Resource Development