7 Theories of Learning

[I wrote this during module H809 Week 7 of the MA ODE. I was suitably intrigued by learning theories but not knowledgeable of their application lacking as I was in practical experience. December 2020].

Thank you Elodie. You’re far braver than me to give this a go. It looks great. Really useful. I am slowly getting there but still feel overwhelmed by the number of learning theories and how they interrelate – all human constructs of course.

I’ve come across a very useful book, Learning Theories A to Z. I have bought it yet – even the Kindle version is $42, but spinning through the pages I can see its value … several hundred learning theories, 500-700 words on each, also organised by author with the multiple overlaps explained. I need to get back to Conole’s ‘tool box’ to understand how ‘off the shelf’ a theory might be matched up to a practice and in that way start to understand, retrospectively, what theories I was using in the TMA01 … so that I can write TMA02. Good luck, a bientot!

Stefaan on Learning Theories

With the submission of TMA03 the focus in H807 shifts to the design of e-tivities (Salmon, 2000).  The ultimate block starts with a study of the theoretical foundations that underpin activity design explicitly or, more often, implicitly, as pedagogic assumptions.The key text is a review of e-learning theories by Mayes and de Freitas (2004), complemented by e-books from Terry Anderson (2008) and Peter Goodyear (2001).

Learning theories are not new theories, but rather e-enhancements of existing learning theories (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004). They form “sets of beliefs: about the nature of knowledge and competence, about the purposes of learning, about how learning occurs, about how people should and should not be treated, etc” (Goodyear, 2001, p.51)

Consecutive learning theories don’t replace each other, but complement each other, each contributing its legacy to learning.  Theories can be considered as various levels of aggregation, with associative/behaviourist approaches addressing observable factors, cognitive approaches focusing on the ‘detailed structures and processes that underlie individual performance’ and situative approaches taking into account the social and cultural aspects of learning (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).

Activity designs are usually a blend of different learning theories.  Being aware of the main learning theories helps building a consistent design and clarifying what type of learning and interaction is intended.An example provided by Goodyear (2001):

It is not uncommon to find some members of a team believing that learners are poor at  organizing themselves and learn best by being fed information in small amounts, while other members of the team want to promote active, student-managed learning.The table below summarizes key concepts of different learning theories and their implications for online learning, taken from the publications from Anderson, Mayes and de Freitas and Goodyear.

Associative/ Behaviourist approachesDesign principles
Looking for observable behaviourExplicitly mentioning course outcomes
Behavioural objectivesAbility to test achievement of learning outcomes
Instructional Systems Design (ISD)Decomposing learning into small chunks
 Routines of organised activity
Learning hierarchies (controversial!)Sequencing learning materials with increasing complexity
 Giving direct feedback on learning
 Individualized learning trajectories
Cognitive psychology (constructivism) 
Types of memory (sensory – short term – long term)Maximize sensations: strategic screen layout
Research on memory, perception, reasoning, concept formation.Maximize sensations: well-paced information
Learning is activeMaximize sensations: highlighting main elements
Learning is individual (knowledge construction)Relate difficulty level to cognitive level of learner: providing links to easier and more advanced resources
 Use of comparative advance organizers
 Use of conceptual models
Importance of prior knowledge structuresPre-instructional & prerequisite questions
 Experimentation toward discovery of broad principles
Promote deep processingUse of information maps zooming in/ out
Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al, 1989)Interactive environments for construction of understanding
Metacognition (reflection, self-regulation)Relate to real-life (apply, analyse, synthesize)
Learning styles (controversial!)Address various learning styles
Cognitive stylesLet students prepare a journal
Dual coding theoryUse both visual information and text
Motivate learners (ARCS model)Use techniques to catch attention, explain relevance,  build confidence and increase satisfaction
Situated learning (constructivism) 
Personal knowledge constructionPersonal meaning to learning
Situated learning: motivationRelate to real life (relevance)
Holistic/ Systemic approachesConduct research on internet
 Build confidence with learners
Identity developmentUse of first-hand information (not filtered by instructor)
Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger)Collaborative activities
Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky)Fostering the growth of learning communities
Learning as act of participationLegitimate (peripheral) practice, apprenticeships
Lifelong learningAuthentic learning and assessment tasks
Information explosionDigital literacies
Learning in network environmentKeep up-to-date in field
Knowledge baseMulti-channel learning
Distributed learningBuild diversity, openness in learning (different opinions), autonomy
Personal Learning Environmentself-directed learning, just-in-time

Some comments on the table:1. It’s difficult to draw sharp lines between these theories. 

Some authors distinguish between cognitive constructivism (based on the work from Piaget) and social-cultural constructivism (based on the work from Vygotsky).  The work of Vygotsky formed the basis for the anthropological work from Jean Lave and the concept of ‘communities of practice’. 

The work of Engeström on activity theory forms a bridge between situative learning (with the activity system, it takes a more social unit of analysis than the individual) and constructivist approaches.2 .

Constructivism doesn’t really fit into the overview.  Goodyear (2001, p.75) mentions the following description of constructivism:“…learning is a constructive process in which the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended….this view of knowledge does not necessarily deny the existence of the real world..but contends that all we know of the world are human interpretations of our experience of the world….learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts…”

In other words, constructivism states that knowledge is relative and is different for every user.  Learning, in this position, means actively building a personal and contextualised interpretation of experience.ReferencesGoodyear, P. (2001)

Effective networked learning in higher education: notes and guidelines, Networked Learning in Higher Education Project (JCALT), Lancaster, CSALT, Lancaster University, [online] Available from:http://www.csalt.lancs.ac.uk/jisc/guidelines_final.doc(Accessed 28 May 2012)

Anderson, T. (ed.) (2008) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, 2nd ed. Athabasca University Press.

Mayes, T. and de Freitas, S. (2004) Review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models, Bristol, The Joint Information Systems Committee, [online] Available from:http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/Stage%202%20Learning%20Models%20%28Version%201%29.pdf(Accessed 28 May 2012).

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