Instructional design/Cognitive behaviors/Invariant Tasks: Principles for Learning

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Back to Topic:Instructional Design > Cognitive behaviors > Invariant Tasks > Define > Learn > Teach > Tactics > Try It > Example

Source: Invariant Tasks by Charles M. Reigeluth. Used by Permission.

Overview: Before you can figure out how to teach an invariant task, it is helpful to know how invariant tasks are learned. Different learning theories provide different perspectives on how they are learned. In this section, we provide a description from the perspective of behaviorist theory, cognitive / information processing theory, cognitive / schema theory, and constructivist theory. We then provide an integrated view of principles for learning invariant tasks.

Behaviorist Learning Theory

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There are several kinds of behaviorist learning theories. You may be familiar with "conditioned response theory" developed by Pavlov, whereby a response that already occurs in the presence of one stimulus can be "conditioned" to occur following a different stimulus. This learning theory is very important for emotional learning, but has little relevance to most learning of invariant tasks.

Far more relevant is "reinforcement theory," first developed by E. L. Thorndike (1913). and further developed by B.F. Skinner and others. In reinforcement theory, an invariant task is viewed as a "response" and is learned when it becomes "associated" with an appropriate stimulus. For example, "3.14" is a response that should become associated with "Pi". This learning process occurs whenever "reinforcement" follows the response. For example, each time a learner responds with "3.14", a reinforcer such as "Right!" or "Good!" or even just a smile with a nod will increase the probability of the learner responding the same way in the future. With sufficient repetition of these stimulus-response-reinforcement events, the response will come to occur automatically in the presence of the stimulus.

Cognitive / Information Processing Theory

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There are at least two major kinds of cognitive theory relevant to learning invariant tasks: information-processing theory and schema theory. According to the information-processing model of learning (see Figure 1 below), there is a series of stages by which new information is learned (Gagné, 1985). Information is received by receptors (such as the eyes and ears), from which it is passed to the sensory register where all of it is held, but for only a few hundredths of a second. At this point, selective perception acts as a filter which causes some aspects of the information to be ignored and others to be attended to. For example, the ears (receptors) receive the sounds comprising "Pi equals 3.14," along with various other background sounds, and all those sounds are passed on to the sensory register in the brain. Then through the selective perception process, some of the information (hopefully the "Pi equals 3.14 part) is attended to."

Figure: The Information-Processing Model of Learning

That information which is attended to is transformed and passed on to short-term memory, which can only contain a few items of information at a time (usually identified as 7+2 items, depending on their complexity). For example, if "Pi equals 3.14" is attended to, it is then passed on to short-term memory, where it might be said to "echo" for a few seconds, and the echoing can be prolonged through rehearsal." Items can persist in short-term memory for up to about 20 seconds without rehearsal, but with constant rehearsal they can be retained indefinitely.

Finally, the information may be passed to long-term memory. This process is called encoding. For example, if appropriate encoding processes are exercised to link the "Pi equals 3.14" with prior knowledge, then the information is passed on to long-term memory." It is likely that different types of knowledge are encoded in different ways, which is why they require different methods of instruction. It is typically only this stage which we call "learning", for information which is not passed on to long-term memory is lost (at least, it is not retrievable). It is necessary to turn to other theories, such as schema theory, for descriptions of how the encoding process may occur.

Cognitive / Schema Theory

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The other major kind of cognitive theory is schema theory. It proposes that, when new knowledge is encoded, it is organized into schemas, which are networks of related pieces of knowledge. For example, an invariant task can be encoded as a new schema, complete with such contextual factors as conditions for its use, in which case it will be at least loosely related to other schemata, or more typically it can be assimilated into an existing schema. But more importantly for instructional purposes, specific elements of the invariant task can often be learned--or more accurately, retrieved--more easily by relating them to certain carefully selected prior knowledge, especially meaningful knowledge. For example, it is easier to remember the colors of the rainbow and their order (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) by associating them with the name, "Roy G. Biv."

Constructivist Theory

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In contrast to the objectivist views of learning from both the behaviorist and cognitive information processing theories presented above, constructivists do not subscribe to the notion that knowledge exists independent of the learner. Instead, constructivist theory is founded on the premise that knowledge is both individually constructed and socially coconstructed by learners as they interpret their experiences (Jonassen, 1990). Unlike the theories presented above which focus on how information is encoded into long term memory, constructivists focus on the way that knowledge is constructed by the learner in working memory (Mayer, 1999).

This difference in perspective on learning impacts how learning is supported. Given the constructivist emphasis on the learner’s experience, there is a strong focus on “learning in context”. Therefore, as described by Driscoll (2005, p. 393), constructivist conditions for learning typically include:

  • Embedding learning in complex, realistic and relevant environments
  • Providing for social negotiation
  • Supporting multiple perspectives and the use of multiple modes of representation
  • Encouraging ownership in learning
  • Nurturing self awareness of the knowledge construction process

An Integrated View

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There are two major degrees of memorization: recognition and recall. In recognition for a list, the name of the list and an item from the list are both presented to the learner, who indicates whether or not the item belongs to the list: "Which of the following were Presidents of the United States: Abraham Lincoln, Fred Washington, . . . ?" For an ordered list, two or more items from the list are presented or performed, and you indicate whether or not they are in the right order. In recall for a list, the name of the list is presented, and you have to retrieve the items from your own memory: "List ten Presidents of the United States below" or "Change the oil in your car."

Does association learning occur the same way? An association, in its simplest form, has two elements which must be paired together (associated with each other): a stimulus, which is presented to the learner, and a response (either mental or physical), which is provided by the learner. A state with its capital, a person with her name, a painting with its artist, a symbol with its name, and the letters of the alphabet with the finger movement necessary to type each on a standard keyboard are all cases in point. In its more complex forms, an association can have many elements which are all to be associated with each other, such as a person, a place, a date, and (the name of) an event. In this case, you usually have one stimulus and multiple responses. For example, "the discovery of America" might be associated with "Christopher Columbus," "1492," "Queen Isabel of Spain," and "the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria."

In recognition for an association, the stimulus and a response are both presented, and you indicate whether or not they are a correct match, or you match up the correct ones. "Was the Declaration of Independence signed in 1770?" is such an item. In recall for an association, the stimulus is presented, and you have to retrieve the response from your own memory. "When was the Declaration of Independence signed?" is a case in point.

In spite of these differences, association learning is similar to list learning in that it is a rote (nonmeaningful) form of learning which is committed to memory primarily by repetition. It is also acquired gradually over time with practice, and it can be learned to the point of recognition or to the point of recall.

Learning a rote procedure may require learning two things: when to do each action, and how to do each action. But in many cases, the learners may already know how to do each action, such as an experienced computer user learning how to use a particular web browser to search the Internet. That learner just needs to learn what actions to take when, not how to take them.

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