Learning theories in practice/Overview

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From teaching a classroom full of students, to introducing a new concept to colleagues during a presentation, to self-teaching a foreign language-- instruction and learning comprise a huge portion of our daily lives. Unsatisfied with a recent learning or teaching experience, you might wonder what the researchers who study learning have to say about best practices.

Many theorists have had ideas about the “best way to learn and teach” over the years, but thus far there has not been a general consensus[1]. Given this reality, individual practitioners interested in evidence based methods will have to make their own decisions among the choices available. This wikibook is organized to aid this process. This chapter in particular will serve as an introduction to Learning theories. It will discuss what a learning theory is exactly, what it means to apply one in the real world, and what some of the popular theories in the field are. To read more in depth about learning theories in general you might read the “Psychology of Learning for Instruction 3rd edition” by Marcy P. Driscoll (from which much of the content of this article is drawn).

What is a Learning Theory?

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A Learning Theory gives a general explanation of learning, relying on a wide variety of research findings for support. Learning theories usually include an account of:

  • what learning is
  • the process of learning
  • what is learned
  • the role of the teacher

To be viable, a theory must be supported by more than just common sense; rigorous experiments and data collection (both quantitative and qualitative) are necessary. Learning theories organize a large amount data into a comprehensible framework that can be used more efficiently, and attempt to explain these data, so that predictions can be mate about the future.

It would be unhelpful to offer a bald list of all of the current major theories, so instead below you will find some general paradigms which current theories can be separated into.

Overview of Learning Theories

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Two General Paradigms

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Modern day learning theories can be roughly divided into two camps: those that hold the cognitive perspective and those that hold the sociocultural perspective.

The cognitive perspective results from the relatively new Cognitive Science, itself an interdisciplinary field generally characterized by an interest in the workings of “mind and intelligence”[2]. In current practice this usually implies a focus on the workings of the individual mind as it comes to deal with information, often independently of any particular context. Cognitive Science, and thus the cognitive perspective within the Learning Sciences, has a modular view of the mind: it works under the assumption that the mind is made of various systems which can be rigorously studied independently of the others. Thus when considering a topic like memory, a cognitive scientist is interested in separating it into component processes: a sensory memory that is fleeting but large, a working memory which is used to temporarily store information while it is used, a long term memory where information can potentially stay indefinitely. Cognitive science is also marked by an interest in and cooperation with an eclectic assortment of other disciplines such as neuroscience (for “hardware issues”), artificial intelligence, linguistics, and philosophy.

As Sawyer[3] points out, Cognitive Science has made a number of contributions to the study of learning in particular. One legacy, which also appears in sociocultural studies, is constructivism: the idea that individuals construct new knowledge for themselves while making use of previous knowledge they have already. Constructivism is attributed to Piaget, who detailed what he viewed as the stages child cognitive development. Following in his tradition, there has been progress in the study of general domain-general cognitive skills such as reasoning, attention, and memorization strategies at various stages throughout life[4]. In accordance with the desire to break down the mind into its component modules, “knowledge” is also thought of in terms of “schemas”—unique information structures in the mind which can often be mathematically modeled. Many have found the most initial success in modeling expert knowledge (Sawyer 2006), but misconception and student knowledge concept models are also of importance[5]. Along with its success in modeling knowledge structures came an understanding of how these structures are modified: for example by the Piagetian notions of assimilation (simple addition of information) or accommodation (a more fundamental reorganization of knowledge structures to include anomalous information). It was discovered that having students themselves consider how they are thinking about and representing information, also known as metacognition, was a useful aid to learning[6]. Combining theories about cognitive processing abilities and knowledge structures, “task analysis” is one method by which a cognitive scientist analyzes a particular example of learning “in the field” [7]. It involves, for any given actor, a detailed examination of the specific tasks undergone, the goals of these actions, and the cognitive processes used.

Theories within the cognitive perspective usually argue:

  • Learning is the change of highly structured concepts in the brain
  • Learning occurs through the specific direction of various, mathematically defined (and thus amenable to computer simulation) cognitive processes such as attention, short term and long term memory.
  • Any abstract topic can be learned as long as it does not exceed the processing power or memory of the human brain
  • The role of the teacher is to present topics in a way that can be processed by the students most efficiently (e.g. meaningfully organized, clearly in the context of what they already know, attention grabbing so that the information is processed in the first place).

The sociocultural perspective, traceable to the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky[8], argues that learning is fundamentally “situated”. Situated here means that learning context is fundamental (where “context” is understood to include entire communities such as the scientific community, the environment in which learning occurs, and the tools used in learning It rose to prominence decades later as a reaction to Cognitive Science’s focus on the individual at the expense of all else[9]. Proponents charge “as an outcome of their general theoretical commitments” that the cognitive perspective lacks ecological validity—it works in the laboratory but not in the real world (Joshua Danish, personal communication). The basic sociocultural intuition is that cognition involves the context: the physical environment, the social context, and the culture. People think together in social contexts and they use their environment as part of their thinking. Socioculturalists argue that it is much more useful to consider larger systems of cognitive activity (such as groups or groups in environments); an idea known to many as distributed cognition. Within this general framework there are several influential ideas. An example is the use of tools. Tools are seen as fundamentally “mediating” the nature of cognition from the individual; the result can be represented as a triangle with three labeled corners: the subject (the person involved), the medium or artifact (the tool as determined by the subject and her culture), and the object (goal)[10]. When socioculturalists claim tools “mediate” learning they mean that tools create a bidirectional relationship between learners and their environment with both simultaneously affecting each other. Another influential idea of the sociocultural perspective is a focus on the activities being learned rather than just the set of facts[11]. Learners are seen as being enculturated into a community of practice and they must accordingly learn how to practice the activities of that community authentically (as actual members do). Apprenticeship is seen as a central method by which this learning happens[12].Vygotsky himself had important ideas on effective apprenticeship: he argued that an effective master practitioner should keep her protégés in the “zone of proximal development”, the space between what they can do on their own and what they can accomplish with the help of an expert [8]. By keeping students working at a level just above what they could accomplish on their own, the master can advance their development.

Sociocultural theorists usually argue:

  • Learning is integration into a community and culture
  • Learning occurs via apprenticeship in a community of practice and through authentic practice in the proper context.
  • ways of acting, feeling, and thinking in addition to a new personal identity are learned.
  • the role of the instructor is to give authentic practice to learners, to push them tasks difficult enough that they can just barely accomplish them with minimal expert help.

Other Ways to Organize Modern Theories

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Of course other historical threads, beyond the above divide, tie together modern learning theory. Below are two other important movements in modern theory.


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At it's apex in the first half of the 19th century, Behaviorism, as a theory of learning, claimed that learning can be defined solely in terms of observable behavior. It was originally motivated by the argument that internal mental states are too difficult to study objectively. Instead of guessing what's happening inside a persons head, why not just look at what they do?

A tremendous amount of insight was gained from this approach of a reassuringly precise nature. Key concepts from Behaviorism include classical conditioning in which some "unconditioned" stimulus (say the smell of a juicy ham) which always elicits a certain "unconditioned" response (say, salivation) becomes tied together in the learner's mind to some other "conditioned" stimulus (say, a bell ringing) such that the conditioned stimulus elicits the unconditioned (now called the "conditioned") response. This learning occurs solely by presenting the unconditioned and conditioned stimulus together to the learner. while classical conditioning is the manipulation of behavior that the learner exhibits in response to some stimulus, operant conditioning is the manipulation of behavior that learners exhibit for no particular reason at all by selective reward and punishment.

Although behaviorism is became overshadowed by cognitive theory in the late 20th century, many of the basic ideas are still incorporated into modern practice (e.g. cognitive-behavioral therapy).

A particularly notable offshoot of behaviorist theory is Gagné's instuctional theory which is a sort of modern day synthesis of behavioral and cognitive psychology of learning.


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Motivation is an important theme in many learning theories,and much work has been done in this area over the past two decades. One important concept to develop in the literature is that of self-efficacy which amounts to the intuitive idea that people have certain beliefs about their own abilities and they will not attempt learning tasks they perceive to be impossible for them[13]. This becomes an issue when students underestimate their own ability and overestimate the difficulty of the material. This leads to a lack of engagement and poor performance that justifies their earlier fears in a vicious circle.

One popular model for maintaining motivation in learners, developed by Keller[14], is known by the acronym ARCS. ARCS stands for "Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction". Relatively self-explanatory, the model asks instructors to make sure that students are paying attention by whatever means (say, by giving an interesting example), that students understand the relevance of the topic to their own lives, that students are confident that they can learn the material (i.e. high self-efficacy), and that students are satisfied with their learning experience through, for example,showing them the real world uses of what they've learned or offering praise.

How Should You Apply a Learning Theory?

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General Advice

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How you should integrate learning theory into your day-to-day teaching practices depends in part on what you want from it. Given the divisions of the field there you can not easily find the one "correct" way of teaching. As Driscoll notes[15] any given modern learning theory only explains some of the experimental results that have been found. They all largely work in their own defined spaces. Accordingly, until the field becomes more united, you should mix and match depending on your particular needs. For example, focus your energy on solving particular problems. What is it that you want to change about your teaching and learning experiences? If you're having a particular problem with motivating your students then you should read theories that specifically address motivation.

A Case Study: Intelligent Tutoring Systems

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Here's one quick example making use of learning theory: Firmly within the cognitive perspective would be a proposal for a software program consisting of a network of math tutors connected by a “diagnostic” central program. Math knowledge would be seen as structures “in the head” which may or may not be present. Users would input biographical information and choose a desired area of math to get preliminary access to a certain tutor. The computer would then offer a “pretest” of the area. Student responses would be analyzed to indicate missing concepts from earlier levels of math. If they were found to be absent then students would be automatically redirected to another tutor. If student responses indicated they have the requisite skills to learn the topic of the tutor, then learning would commence and an ongoing model of their knowledge would be updated as they continue through the tutor. The behavior of the tutor would be customized depending on estimations of the student’s math knowledge structure. The cognitive perspective within the learning sciences upon which the proposal is based, is marked by a focus on the individual learner, an interest in abstract knowledge structures, and an interest in how these information structures are implemented in the brain. Much like the competing sociocultural perspective, modern cognitivists view as important the context of learning as well as the social interactions among students and teachers, but, unlike sociocultural theorists, cognitive theorists work under the assumption that the central “unit of analysis” can be the individual, everything else a property that affects the individual or is an effect of the individual. This background is important because, this proposal is for a software program designed with solely individual learners in mind and not necessarily any particular social or environmental context (aside from say, a relatively quiet environment where focus is possible).

Other Online Resources

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A good general list of sites concerning learning theories online

A Video which gives a quick overview of learning theories

Another good overview of learning theory


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  1. http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/802papers/mergel/brenda.htm#IsThereOneBestLearningTheo
  2. Thagard, P. (2011). Cognitive Science. (E. N. Zalta, Ed.)The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cognitive-science/
  3. Sawyer, R.K. The New Science of Learning. The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences 1-16 (2006).at <https://resources.oncourse.iu.edu/access/content/group/FA11-BL-EDUC-P544-9880/Readings/handbook_chapter1_introductionocr.pdf>
  4. Bransford, et al, 1999 J.D. Bransford, A.L. Brown and R.R. Cocking, How people learn, National Academy Press, Cambridge, MA (1999).
  5. Athanasios Drigas, Katerina Argyri, John Vrettaros: Decade Review (1999-2009): Artificial Intelligence Techniques in Student Modeling. WSKS (2) 2009: 552-564
  6. Flavell, J.H. (1981). Cognitive monitoring. In W. P. Dickson (Ed.), Children's oral communication skills (pp.35 - 60). New York: Academic Press.
  7. Siegler, R. S., Deloache, J., & Eisenberg, N. (Eds.)(2006). How Children Develop, 2nd edition. New York: Worth. pp. 129-167
  8. 8.0 8.1 John-Steiner, V. & Mahn, H. Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygotskian Framework. Educational Psychologist 31, 191-206 (1996).
  9. Sawyer, R.K. The New Science of Learning. The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences 1-16 (2006).at <https://resources.oncourse.iu.edu/access/content/group/FA11-BL-EDUC-P544-9880/Readings/handbook_chapter1_introductionocr.pdf>
  10. Cole, M. & Engestrom, Y. A Cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. Distributed Cognitions 1-46 (1997).doi:10.2277/ 0521574234
  11. Brown, J.S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher 18, 32-42 (1989).
  12. Rogoff, B. Conceiving the Relationship of the Social World and the Individual. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognition Development in Social Context 25-41 (1990).at <https://resources.oncourse.iu.edu/access/content/group/FA11-BL-EDUC-P544-9880/Readings/Rogoff_Apprenticeship_in_Thinking_Chapter_2.pdf>
  13. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 195-215.
  14. Keller, J.M. (1987a, October). Strategies for stimulating the motivation to learn. Performance and Instruction Journal, 1-7.
  15. Driscoll, Marcy P. Learning For Instruction (2005) 3rd Ed. Boston: Pearson Education, p. 413