Sunday, August 06, 2006

Learning Theories, Characteristics, and Weaknesses

Why study learning theories?

Learning theories are an organized set of principles explaining how individuals acquire, retain and recall knowledge. Theories allow you to put yourself in the learner's shoes and make predictions about learning outcomes. They can be used as guidelines to help us select instructional tools, techniques and strategies that promote learning and enable students to effectively complete course objectives. We will be discussing three learning theories: Behaviorism, Cognitive Information Processing and Constructivism.


The behaviorism theory views the learner as a blank slate and the instructor must provide the experience. A cue or stimulus from the environment is presented and the learner reacts to the stimulus with some type of response. Consequences that reinforce the desired behavior are arranged to follow the desired behavior. The new behavioral pattern is repeated until it becomes automatic. The behavior of the learner signifies that learning has occurred.

Instructor's Role with behaviorism

The responsibility of learning is on the instructor. It is a instructor centered environment and the instructor sets up and controls the environment of the learner. Learning is created by reinforcing behavior. When using this method state the learning objectives as learner behaviors and arrange the rewards and consequences in ways that reinforce the behavior. Instructional methods used with behaviorism are:
  1. Direct instruction or presentations
  2. rill and practice or repetition
  3. Instructional games

When to use behaviorism

The conditions under which the behaviorism theory most effectively contributes to learning:
  1. When the learner is inexperienced or has little or no prior knowledge of the subject.
  2. Recall of basic facts or automatic responses are required
  3. Task completion requires little to no deviation from standard practice.
  4. Learner will gain mastery through successive reinforcement of desired behavior.
  5. Accuracy and speed are necessary
  6. Instruction will need to be accomplished in a relatively short period of time.

Skills that could be learned with behaviorism

  1. Basic keyboarding or data entry
  2. Basic lab tests or procedures
  3. Changing the oil in an automobile
  4. Spelling or learning multiplication tables
  5. Speaking with a helpful attitude while keying an order.

Weaknesses of Behaviorism

Behaviorism instruction does not prepare the learner for problem solving or creative thinking. Learners do what they are told and do not take the initiative to change or improve things. The learner is only prepared for recall of basic facts, automatic responses or performing tasks with well defined procedures

Cognitive Information Processing or Cognitivism

Cognitive information processing is based on the thought process behind the behavior. The changes in behavior are observed, but only as an indictor to what is going on in the learner's head. The learner's mind is like a mirror and new knowledge and skills will be reflected. Cognitive information processing is used when the learner plays an active role in seeking ways to understand and process information that he or she receives and relate it to what is already known and stored within memory. The learner is viewed as having a more proactive role in his/her own learning with this theory.

Instructor's Role with cognitive information processing

The instructor must provide ways to help the learner process the information. The emphasis is on presenting the information in a clear and logical manner. The learner must organize the information to digest and process it, so chunking and logical sequencing are essential. Instructional methods used with cognitive information processing are:
  1. Discussions and reasoning
  2. Problem solving or trouble shooting
  3. Analogies or imagery
  4. Classifying or chunking information into logical groups
  5. Mnemonics (abbreviations or phrases that help learners remember i.e. for screws -lefty loosy, righty tighty)

When to use cognitive information processing

Conditions under which cognitive information processing effectively contributes to learning:
  1. Learner has experience with subject matter or related area of knowledge.
  2. Resources are available to help the learner link subject matter with existing knowledge.
  3. Learner needs or wants to be guided to a more developed understanding of information.
  4. Instruction time is not severely limited.

Skills that could be learned with cognitive information processing

  1. Troubleshooting basic computer or automotive problems
  2. Classifying the severity of an injury
  3. Identifying hazardous materials and proper storage and transportation
  4. Estimating shipping time on an order.

Weaknesses of cognitive information processing

The learner must have at least a basic knowledge of the subject. The learner needs link to what they all ready know. Learning may be distorted by what the learner all ready knows.


Constructivism is based on the premise that we all construct our own perspective of the world, based on individual experiences and internal knowledge structure. Learning is based on how the individual interprets and creates the meaning of his/her experiences. The learner is very active in the process of creating meaning from his/her experiences. Knowledge is constructed by the learner and since everyone has a different set of experiences, learning is unique and different for each learner. Learning may occur though interaction with others. This theory is used to focus on preparing the learner to adjust his mental model to incorporate new experiences and problem solve in ambiguous situations.

Instructor's Role with constructivism

The instructor should design instruction so that the learner has opportunities to solve realistic and meaningful problems. The learner needs to experience real world applications and construct knowledge. The instructor should provide group learning activities to allow learners to interact and solve problems. The instructor helps by guiding and coaching. Instructional methods used with constructivism are
  1. Case studies or problem based learning
  2. Presenting multiple perspectives or guided reflection
  3. Mentoring or apprenticeships
  4. Collaborative learning
  5. Discovery learning
  6. Simulations.

When to use constructivism

Conditions under which constructivism effectively contributes to learning:
  1. Instruction will occur as an interactive process.
  2. Learner will incorporate current knowledge to gain insight and understanding of new situations
  3. Diverse resources to aid discovery are available
  4. There is adequate time for the learner to discover and process the knowledge.
    Skills that could be learned with constructivism
  5. Inventing a faster computer processor
  6. Building a bridge over a wide, rapid river
  7. Researching cures for a disease.

Weaknesses of constructivism

Learners need a significant base of knowledge. Outcomes of instruction are not always predictable because learners are constructing their own knowledge. Constructivism does not work when the results always need to be the same i.e. an automobile assembly line.

Learning Styles vs Learning Theories

In Seminar 2 we took learning style inventories to increase our knowledge of how people process information in a learning situation. We are now studying learning theories to help you understand how the learning occurs. You may have also heard about visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. These terms refer to the learner's preference for the way the data is presented. This means learners may have a preference for whether information comes into them by seeing, hearing or hands-on activities. We are studying these topics to increase your awareness of how people process information and learn. This knowledge will help you to be able to plan a variety of learning activities and design courses that will facilitate student learning. You will also be able to adapt to different groups of students with a variety of needs as necessary.


The three theories are all equally important. When deciding which strategies to use, it is vital to consider both the level of knowledge of your learners and the thought processing demands. Think about the requirements of the learning tasks or the level of intellectual processing required to perform it and the proficiency level of your learners. A well stocked "tool box" of theoretical knowledge increases the likelihood of finding a theoretical perspective that supports the type of learning being attempted. Some strategies overlap and it may be necessary to incorporate strategies from different theoretical perspectives as needed.

A "spiral" curriculum works well for some courses or degree programs. A course may spiral or cycle through different phases or learning theories in the course. An example of this would be a basic introduction to computers course. At the beginning of the course the instructor would use the behaviorism model and be very directive because the learners have no experience. As the learners get experience, the instructor can move up to cognitive information processing instructional methods such as problem solving and classification to help students develop higher order thinking skills. They may even be able to move up to constructivism and progress to complex problem solving. However, when the instructor introduces the next new concept they will need to move back down to the directive behaviorism model again to teach the new concepts. This spiral may continue thought out the course or degree program.

Learning theories can be thought of as a set of glasses that give us lenses to focus the educational experience. One prescription may not be enough. It may take bifocals to focus and combine theories to create the desired outcome. Each eye sees slightly differently, so some adjustments in plans may be necessary.

Source 1

Source 2


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