Different Learning Theories

This is a broad topic that is too big to tackle in one post. So to begin the conversation I’d like to focus on the main types of learning in general versus learning theory as it applies to instructional design.

Let’s start with this premise: There are three generally accepted components of learning – emotional, cognitive and environmental. These components make up the learning philosophies of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism.

Behaviorism is a learning theory that only focuses on objectively observing behaviors and discounts any independent activities of the mind. Think Pavlov’s dog to Skinner.

Cognitivism is a theoretical approach to understanding the mind using quantitative, positivist and scientific methods. This approach describes mental functions as information-processing models. Basically, this is the opposite of behaviorism. Think computers or computational.

Constructivism is a philosophy of learning based on the premise that we “reflect” on our experiences and then construct our own understanding of the world (lesson) to “make sense” out of it.

By combining these components it can be said that we learn by:

  • Behaving in a way that we learn
  • Computing in a way that we learn and
  • Using prior experiences to make sense of what we learn

So how does this apply to instructional design?

An example of behaviorism impacting instructional design would be saying something like: “After having completed this module the student will be able to…”

Examples of cognitivism in instructional design would be anything computational such as the need to recall information previously discussed as in the use of knowledge checks, quizzes, games, etc.

The easiest way to understand constructivism is by thinking “context.” Taking a new concept but teaching it through an already understood or experienced situation. An example is “Building a business plan is like building a house…”

So we learn by paying attention to how others (or we) have learned in the past, by putting mechanisms in place to aid in learning and retention and by providing context through examples with which we are already familiar.

Any learning system, electronic or otherwise, must contain these theories in order to be effective.

Agree? Disagree? Could a learning system work without containing one or more of them?


3 comments on “Different Learning Theories”

  1. Ted Risner Reply

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    • dbenjamin Reply

      Hi Lenny – Thanks so much for the kind words. Glad you’re enjoying our content. Please feel free to share with others in your network that might also enjoy.

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