Three Basic Learning Theories  Return


On this page I have opted to first set the background for the main learning theories; Behavioral Theory, Cognitive Theory and Constructivist Theory by providing definitions and the basics of each.  Secondly I wish to share how I see myself applying each of these theories within my on  teaching practices.  Third, I have tried to explain why one or more of theories would be easily applied to the design of an Instructional Design Model that integrates Information Technology.


   Integration of Instructional Design and Information Technology

The following learning theory definitions were retrieved from a paper entitled Instructional Design and Learning Theory, written by a graduate student, Brenda Mergal.

What are Theories and Models?


The Basics of Behaviorism                                     

My thoughts

Based on observable changes in behavior. Behaviorism focuses on a new behavioral pattern being repeated until it becomes automatic

Behaviorism, as a learning theory, can be traced back to Aristotle, whose essay "Memory" focused on associations being made between events such as lightning and thunder. Other philosophers that followed Aristotle's thoughts are Hobbs (1650), Hume (1740), Brown (1820), Bain (1855) and Ebbinghause (1885) (Black, 1995).

The theory of behaviorism concentrates on the study of overt behaviors that can be observed and measured (Good & Brophy, 1990). It views the mind as a "black box" in the sense that response to stimulus can be observed quantitatively, totally ignoring the possibility of thought processes occurring in the mind. Some key players in the development of the behaviorist theory were Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike and Skinner.

The Basics of Cognitivism

My thoughts

Based on the thought process behind the behavior. Changes in behavior are observed, and used as indicators as to what is happening inside the learner's mind.

As early as the 1920's people began to find limitations in the behaviorist approach to understanding learning. Edward Tolman found that rats used in an experiment appeared to have a mental map of the maze he was using. When he closed off a certain portion of the maze, the rats did not bother to try a certain path because they "knew" that it led to the blocked path. Visually, the rats could not see that the path would result in failure, yet they chose to take a longer route that they knew would be successful (Operant Conditioning [On-line]).

Behaviorists were unable to explain certain social behaviors. For example, children do not imitate all behavior that has been reinforced. Furthermore, they may model new behavior days or weeks after their first initial observation without having been reinforced for the behavior. Because of these observations, Bandura and Walters departed from the traditional operant conditioning explanation that the child must perform and receive reinforcement before being able to learn. They stated in their 1963 book, Social Learning and Personality Development, that an individual could model behavior by observing the behavior of another person. This theory lead to Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory (Dembo, 1994).

What is Cognitivism?

"Cognitive theorists recognize that much learning involves associations established through contiguity and repetition. They also acknowledge the importance of reinforcement, although they stress its role in providing feedback about the correctness of responses over its role as a motivator. However, even while accepting such behaviorist concepts, cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information." (Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187).

As with behaviorism, cognitive psychology can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle. The cognitive revolution became evident in American psychology during the 1950's (Saettler, 1990). One of the major players in the development of cognitivism is Jean Piaget, who developed the major aspects of his theory as early as the 1920's. Piaget's ideas did not impact North America until the 1960's after Miller and Bruner founded the Harvard Center for Cognitive studies.

Key Concepts of Cognitive Theory


The Basics of Constructivism

My thoughts

Based on the premise that we all construct our own perspective of the world, through individual experiences and schema. Constructivism focuses on preparing the learner to problem solve in ambiguous situations.

Bartlett (1932) pioneered what became the constructivist approach (Good & Brophy, 1990). Constructivists believe that "learners construct their own reality or at least interpret it based upon their perceptions of experiences, so an individual's knowledge is a function of one's prior experiences, mental structures, and beliefs that are used to interpret objects and events." "What someone knows is grounded in perception of the physical and social experiences which are comprehended by the mind." (Jonasson, 1991).

If each person has their own view about reality, then how can we as a society communicate and/or coexist? Jonassen, addressing this issue in his article Thinking Technology: Toward a Constructivist Design Model, makes the following comments:

If one searches through the many philosophical and psychological theories of the past, the threads of constructivism may be found in the writing of such people as Bruner, Ulrick, Neiser, Goodman, Kant, Kuhn, Dewey and Habermas. The most profound influence was Jean Piaget's work which was interpreted and extended by von Glasserfield (Smorgansbord, 1997).

Realistic vs. Radical Construction

Realistic constructivism - cognition is the process by which learners eventually construct mental structures that correspond to or match external structures located in the environment.

Radical constructivism - cognition serves to organize the learners experiential world rather than to discover ontological reality
(Cobb, 1996, in Smorgansbord, 1997).

The Assumptions of Constructivism - Merrill



As an individual who attended school in the late 60's early 70's I firmly believe that I was instructed with a Behavioral Theory in mind.  a great deal of my learning involved my memorizing and repeating word for word what it was the teacher wanted us to know or do.  Perhaps in my senior high school years I began to question the validity of this manner of teaching and often felt that the teachers preferred to instruct the more academically inclined.  I certainly remember wondering how the teacher knew what it is was a certain poet meant when writing their prose or question my math teacher as to what the importance of my learning quadratic equations.  Where and when in my lifetime would I ever find any of these things useful.  Perhaps History was my most intriguing subject because it did have some relevance to my existence at the time but I did not appreciate the importance of this until much later when discussion was the prevalent form of learning instead of copying notes from Challenge and Survival.

Perhaps it was then that I had decided that there had to be a more exciting way to learn but had not realized the direction or path that my life would take me on.  Yet, I sensed that there was some importance to this model of learning yet was not completely sold that it was the be all and end all of learning theories.

Today, I find in my teaching that I will revert to the behavioristic approach to teaching and learning when I know that down the road the specific skills, or knowledge will be required in order attain success in their future learning.  Multiplication tables come to mind as I write this down.  Some students understand and apply the concept of using multiplication to speed up the addition process yet, there are many who need to memorize because cognitively they are unable to make the connection so readily between addition and multiplication.




Cognitive learning strategies are useful in teaching problem-solving tactics where defined facts and rules are applied in unfamiliar situations. Tasks requiring an increased level of processing are primarily associated with strategies having a stronger cognitive emphasis.

In the early 80's I began to pursue studies in teacher education.  It was during this time that I began to separate or understand the differences that existed between the Cognitive Theory and the Behavioral Theory of learning. New teachers had jumped onto this the Cognitive Theory of learning and Learning Centers within the classroom where popping up all over the place.  However, the learning environment was set up in such a way that the learners would without fail discover what it was the teacher wanted them to learn.  Although these experiences included a hands on approach to learning, the outcomes were absolute and once the outcome had been achieved teachers and students moved onto the next topic. Very little revisiting or comparison to other topics took place.

Time was a factor, just as it remains today, and teachers felt that they had or were doing a good job at bringing authentic learning to their classrooms.  However, there still lack the opportunity for individuals to be taught according to their learning style and little opportunity for any of them to construct knowledge that was new and inspiring.

Within my teaching practice I will often stage lessons so that students achieve an absolute response.  However, I to know and recognize the excitement, value and need to expand and connect lessons to student's personal experiences and encourage further examination of a topic beyond what we have learned in the classroom.  More often than not, I can be found taking the long way around to meet the outcomes but the adventure in doing so is wonderful.  Students need to feel that their contributions are important and valuable not only to themselves but to other around them.




Constructivist strategies are especially suited to dealing with ill-defined problems through reflection-in-action. Perhaps as a teacher this is what I feel is the best approach to teaching.  However,  because the theory is so entrenched in attending to the learner's experiences and their individual learning styles it can be very challenging for teachers when dealing with large numbers and various learning styles within their classroom.  However, it can be the most rewarding approach to learning and facilitating for all involved.

I realize that our curriculum guides are very linear in design and that outcomes are often listed according to specific courses but a constructivist approach to teaching and learning opens up a multitude of avenues in which the teacher can choose to cover the outcomes that we find in our curriculum guides. 

In teaching I find that I am constantly trying to have students recognize how what it is we are discussing applies to them as a person. In return I want so much for them to share with me their experiences and the relevance of what we are learning is to them.  Every year I begin the year with, "I have has a much to learn from you as you  do from me!"  This is so important for me because I remembering believing that the teacher knew it all.  In reality, there is no one who can possibly know it all and I have learned to relax both in my teaching and as an individual who I feel is a lifetime learner.  Which is what I hope to inspire my students to become.  A constructivist approach to teaching and learning does open those doors for individual and is perhaps the theory that I feel is most conducive to the inclusion of technology as a tool for learning.



Integration of Instructional Design and Information Technology 

When one looks at developing a model of Instructional Design and Information Technology with learning theories in mind, I would have to say that it would probably be easier for the designer to design such a model from the behaviorist/cognitivist point of view.  These theories can be information focused in nature and evaluation would consists of whether or not the outcomes had been achieved or met.  Learning is transferable in design so therefore design models that include technology can include software that is designed to be repetitious, responses to errors may be immediate yet students are limited to choice in answers with an absolute chance of getting it right eventually, and other technology could be very linear.  Models such as this would be far more affordable to design and less expensive to maintain as they really do not need to be that flexible in nature.

However, a constructivists model would require the design and implementation of technology that is much more facilitative in nature. There are no predetermined correct responses and evaluation or assessment is more subjective than objective.  The learner themselves would need to make the judgment-calls as to the correctness of their responses and to recognize when they may need to revisit and revise their attempts at problem solving.  Models of this nature would I feel be very expensive to design and nearly impossible to create because of the nature of the diverse nature of the users that one is attempting to design for.