Monday, November 30, 2009

3 Primary Learning Theories

Last week I introduced my “Trainers Toolbox”. For my second blog, I would like to discuss Learning Theory. In my time, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go in the training field, many of which enter the field with no prior experience. I’ve learned that being a trainer is not a job, it’s a career. Much like one would hope that a pilot would have some previous knowledge and experience in flying an airplane, so to must a trainer gain experience in training and educating.

Learning Theories are basically attempts to describe how people learn. Three Primary Learning Theories are:

• Behaviorism
• Cognitivism
• Constructivism

In the future, I will go more in-depth on each of these.

Behaviorism was championed by B.F. Skinner back in the mid 1900’s. The theory revolves around a concept known as “Operant Conditioning,” and involves stimulation, a response by the learner, and then feedback from the instructor. This learning theory is used to develop rapid reflex skills in the learner. An implication for instructional design is that learning can be controlled by manipulating the learner’s environment; however, much of the learning comes from the feedback received after the response. Perhaps this should be called a “Training Theory”, rather than a “Learning Theory” because the learner is being taught to act in a certain way, rather than being taught the knowledge of something.

Cognitivism is based on work by Dewey, Vygotsky, and Bruner. This Learning Theory is used when dealing with Problem Solving, Organizing, Exploring, and Synthesizing Content. This type of instruction is more group based, where they teacher presents a problem and the group must solve it. The teacher then serves as more of a resource/guide to the students. An important concept in Cognitivist instruction is known as the “Zone of Proximal Development”, or ZPD, which is the difference between what a person can do without help vs. what a person can do with help. The idea is that the instructor will provide learners in a group with an activity that is inside their ZPD. Working collectively with a group, they slowly increase their knowledge, skills, and abilities to work as an individual. There are many reasons why this is effective, and I hope to go into this in a later blog.

The development of Constructivism is generally attributed to Jean Piaget and M. Knowles, although I find that many of the same people worked to formulate Cognitivism and Constructivism. The idea behind Constructivism is that learners “Construct” their knowledge through experiences. Instructors set up a collaborative environment, and then create a base for learning, or common ground between the learners. Once a common ground is discovered, learners and instructors then work together to build on this base of knowledge. One important theory to Constructivism is Knowles Andragogy, which essentially relies on the idea that once adults understand why they need to know something, they will have a vested interest in learning and gaining experience.

When I design a course, I ask myself which approach would best suit the situation, often times, I will use concepts from multiple theories in the same course. Currently, I am not able to use constructivist approaches when developing on-line courses because of a lack of collaborative technology. However, as we gain tools such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc, I believe I will be able to take on a much more constructivist feel to many of my courses.

Please feel free to add your thoughts and comments concerning these Learning Theories.


  1. I have learned all of these theories in my Education classes, psychology classes, human development classes and now that I am in the training field, they are useful but also very hard to integrate because a classroom of "individuals" might learn differently and therefore teaching in a single manner to one type of learner is next to impossible. I do create e-learning and this too must be somewhat generic. To help resolve this issue, I have given people multiple ways to get information.
    -Learning labs, which are more collaborative "Cognitivism"
    -e-learning which is for the self learners
    -Traditional hands on training step by step
    -One on one coaching

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  3. Curt,

    You do bring up a good point about learner styles. I will typically plan the course based on these three primary learning theories, an then try to gauge learner styles during a course, (Vocal, Auditory, Kinesic, and Intellectual).

    Of course, if something calls for a Behaviorist approach then I usually try to make it as much hands on as possible, because I want to make training as close to realistic as possible.

    When it comes to eLearning I also want to make it as close to realistic as possible, but there are so many other things to take into account.

    I would love to have learning labs and one-on-one coaching, but we are not set up for that right now. Are you using social media for learning labs, or are they onsite?

  4. I am a student of educational psychology. I have benefited so much from the write up. keep keeping on.