What are learning theories and why are they important for learning design?
This is the first in a series of posts looking at learning theories and how they can inform the design of blended and online learning in Higher Education.
This opening post begins with some definitions of ‘learning’ and ‘learning theories’. I then highlight nine major learning theories. In subsequent posts, I will provide concise summaries and analyses of each theory. Following this, I present a table which compares the pedagogic properties of these theories. Next, I look at how learning theories can inform learning design and teaching practice. After that, I discuss how we can assess how useful a learning theory might be to inform our teaching practice. Finally, I consider if we need learning theories which specifically address digital technologies and online learning.
Some definitions of learning
There is no one definition of learning that is universally accepted by theorists, researchers and educators (Schunk, 2020). I find the following definitions most useful.
Ambrose et al. (2010) adapt Mayer (2002) to define learning as “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning”. For Brown et al. (2014), learning means “acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities.” Sweller et al. (2011) write that “If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”
Schunk (2020) writes that “learning is an enduring change in behaviour, or in the capacity to behave in a given fashion, which results from practice or other forms of experience”. He also adds that learning “involves acquiring and modifying knowledge, skills, strategies, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours” and that “people learn cognitive, behavioural, linguistic, motor, and social skills”.
Lefrançois (2019) states that learning is “is an invisible, internal neurological process”. His view is that learning involves relatively permanent changes in disposition (the inclination to perform) and capability (knowledge or skills required to do something) as a result of experience. It is not always possible to directly observe changes in disposition and capability. Therefore to assess whether learning has occurred, some type of performance is required.
What are learning theories?
Harasim (2017), states that “a theory is an explanation for why something occurs or how it occurs”. She defines a learning theory as a theory which aims “to help us to understand both how knowledge is created and how people learn”. Lefrançois (2019) writes that a learning theory aims to “systematise and organise what is known about human learning”. He argues that a robust learning theory seeks to explain behaviour, to predict it and even to shape or change learner behaviours.
Many theorists contend that all learning theories fall within one of two groups based on epistemology. There are theories based on an objectivist epistemology (Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Connectivism) or a constructivist epistemology (Constructivism and Online Collaborative Learning). Harasim (2017) argues that most theories fall into one of two categories: scientific (hypothesis-driven or experimental theories) and social or critical theories. These categories reflect the broader theoretical discourse of ‘hard’ science (STEM) versus ‘soft’ social science theories and quantitative versus qualitative scientific research. This divide is still present in educational discourse, but there are increasing efforts to lessen it.
Most learning theories have “an empirical element and a formalised way of study, analysis and conclusion” (Harasim, 2017). They establish a language and discourse which influence both educational research and practice. However, they have limitations, as learning is a complex phenomenon. Learning theories cannot provide complete and definitive answers to pedagogic questions, but they can improve our understanding of how people learn.
It is also worth noting that these theories did not evolve in a linear progression and that the newest theories do not supersede earlier ones: “the earliest theories continue to have a profound influence on current theories and research” (Lefrançois, 2019).
Nine key learning theories
Learning theories have a long history dating back to the Greeks. There are dozens of learning theories which seek to address how children and adults learn. See 100 learning theorists (Clark, 2020) and the comprehensive learning-theories.com website if you are interested in exploring this range of theories further.
Given this long history and the broad spectrum of learning theories, in this series of posts I will be focussing on what I consider to be the nine most relevant theories for designing blended and online learning for Higher Education:
- Cognitivism / Information Processing Theory
- Constructivism and social constructivism
- Social Cognitive Theory and social learning
- Theories of motivation and self-regulated learning
- Online Collaborative Learning (OCL)
- Multimedia learning theories
- Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)
My choice of these nine theories stems from a synthesis of three major books on learning theories: Schunk (2020), Lefrançois (2019) and Harasim (2017). Additional research sources were Bates (2019), Bower (2017), the Instructional Design.org website (Culatta & Kearsley, n.d.), the Plan B website (Clark, 2020) and the Simply Psychology website (Mcleod, n.d.).
A note on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)
I have included Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) as a distinct theory even though it is a cognitivist theory. The reason for this choice is that there is a global CLT research community which has generated significant research which is worth exploring in more detail. Findings from CLT are also very relevant to the design of digital and online learning. Interestingly, two of the key learning theories sources I am using (Harasim, 2017) and (Lefrançois, 2019) make no reference at all to CLT. However, in the UK, Professor Dylan Wiliam has stated that he thinks CLT “is the single most important thing for teachers to know” (Wiliam, 2017).
What are the pedagogic properties of the major learning theories?
The table below is adapted from a table by Bower (2017), who based his on one devised by Conole et al. (2004). I have used a slightly different set of learning theories to Bower, and I have used additional properties. As Bower (2017) notes the ratings assigned are “coarse generalizations, and there may be quite a variety of possibilities along each polarity for each pedagogy, depending on how the teacher and students engage in the task.” He also points out that understanding these pedagogic properties can be useful for helping teachers to think through which technologies are most suitable for a given approach. For example “if the activity is to be completed socially rather than individually, then technologies with communication capabilities will most likely be required. If students are to produce a final product, then a technology that enables creative output will often be needed” (Bower, 2017).
Click here to check the comparative table showing the pedagogic properties of nine major learning theories.
Schunk (2020) argues that the central purpose of learning theories is to improve teaching and that “effective teaching requires that we determine the best theoretical perspectives for the types of learning we deal with and their implications for teaching”. Harasim (2017) also takes the view that learning theories should not exist purely as high-level abstractions; theories are integral to educational practice. An understanding of learning theories can help educators to “reflect on their practice, improve upon, reshape and refine their work, and contribute to advancing the discipline” (Harasim, 2017). Theories also provide a link between educational research and practices providing “tools to organize and translate research findings into recommendations for educational practice” (Schunk, 2020). They can also “provide a basis for judging the accuracy and usefulness of beliefs” (Lefrançois, 2019).How can learning theories inform learning design and teaching practice in Higher Education?
Harasim (2017) makes the point that each learning theory is associated with particular pedagogies and learning technologies. Bates (2014) also argues that “the choice of or preference for one particular theoretical approach will have major implications for the way that technology is used to support teaching”. Schunk (2020) suggests that teachers need to ask the question ‘How does learning occur?’ and that whatever answer they come up with will inform lesson design, teaching practices and student activities. Ultimately, teachers use learning theories (consciously or not) and their related educational approaches and technologies to design, develop and deliver effective learning experiences.
The challenge of applying learning theories to educational practice
However, making use of learning theories is not always straightforward. Harasim (2017) cites Robert Calfee (2006), who argued that “educational psychology continues to struggle with the most appropriate relation to practice …It can come across as highly theoretical and detached from the practicalities of everyday teaching and learning”. Calfee also highlighted that “theoretical discussion is mainly focused on the teaching of children in the age range of 3-18 rather than on adults”. Schunk (2020) notes that historically there has been a disconnect between the domain of educational psychology and the practice of teaching. Most learning theorists have been psychologists carrying out experimental and lab-based research. Whereas most educators have been “primarily concerned with directly applying teaching methods to classrooms and learning environments”. The experience gained whilst teaching is still important because “theory without experience can be misguided because it may underestimate the effects of situational factors” (Schunk, 2020).
Learning theories and epistemology
Different theories of learning reflect diverse views and beliefs on the origin, nature and limits of knowledge. Bates (2014) states that “every teacher starts from some epistemological or theoretical position, even if it is not explicit, or even if the teacher is not fully aware of their beliefs”. Harasim (2017) also thinks that all teachers hold “some perspective on how to teach (and concomitantly, even if unconsciously, a perspective on how people learn)”. Therefore teachers may have different views as to how best to teach. For example, Pugsley (2011) sees the roles of educators “more as facilitators of learning, rather than imparters of knowledge”. In contrast, Hirsch (2016) and proponents of direct instruction argue that knowledge and curricula are fundamental to education.
Alongside the role of individual beliefs, Bates (2014) argues that each academic discipline has an agreed consensus about what constitutes valid knowledge within that subject domain. Harasim (2017) also highlights the role of disciplinary knowledge communities: “Deciding what to study when we seek to explain how people learn or deciding how to teach depends upon our disciplinary beliefs and perspectives”.
How can we assess how useful a learning theory might be to inform our pedagogic thinking and learning designs?
For Wheeler (2015), a robust theory “stands the test of time and continues to provide adequate, generalisable explanations.” Lefrançois (2019) makes the point that evaluating theories is not always about assessing whether they are right or wrong. Instead, he suggests that they can be assessed mainly by how useful they are to educational practice.
Bates (2014) notes that some form of empirical evidence supports some theories such as Behaviourism whereas other theories such as Connectivism do not have a strong basis in evidence. He also notes that why people base their teaching on a given theoretical approach “is as much about values and beliefs about knowledge as it is about the effectiveness of each theory” (Bates, 2014).
Harasim (2017) considers how we assess the value of learning theories to our teaching practice. She quotes Entwistle et al. (2010) who state that “It is not sufficient for a pedagogical theory simply to explain how people learn; it also has to provide clear indications about how to improve the quality and efficiency of learning”. Entwistle at al. (2010) suggest assessing how useful a learning theory might be to educational practice by asking:
- Is the theory derived from research data or observations in an educational context?
- Does the theory have direct practical implications for teaching and learning [in the particular context in which you are working]?
- How realistic and practical are the suggestions?
- Can the aspects identified as affecting learning be readily changed [by the teacher]?
- Is the theory presented in clear language which is understandable to teachers?
- Will the theory spark off new ideas about teaching?
Lefrançois (2019) also offers questions for evaluating ‘good’ learning theories. Many of his questions overlap with Entwistle al. (2010). Additional questions which I find helpful are:
- Can the theory be used for predicting as well as for explaining?
- Is the theory internally consistent?
- Are there any unverifiable assumptions?
I will be using these nine questions to evaluate each of the nine learning theories which I have selected for this series of blog posts.
Do we need learning theories which specifically address digital technologies and online learning?
The field of instructional design from 1945 onwards made use of behaviourist thinking with its focus on the systematic design of instruction based on concrete and discrete learning steps. Early learning theories did not specifically address digital technologies. However, behaviourist learning theory continued its development from the 1950s onwards alongside the invention and eventual widespread use of computers. Harasim (2017) describes the ‘mechanisation’ of the instructional process and recounts the rise of learning technologies such as “teaching machines, programmed instruction, computer-assisted instruction (CAI) and, eventually, courseware and massive open online courses (MOOCs)”.
The development of computers and the model of learners mentally processing information (just as computers process information) influenced cognitivist learning theories. Cognitive scientists developed educational technologies such as intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) and AI “in an attempt to mimic or replicate the human mind through computer programs” (Harasim, 2017). From this brief history, we can see that links between learning theories and technologies have existed over the last 75 years.
Harasim (2017) observes that in the field of online learning there is often an over-emphasis on training teachers in the use of specific tools and technologies, “but a theory-informed approach to transforming our educational practice remains elusive”. She critiques the view that new technologies have led to transformational pedagogies and notes that the most common practice amongst educators has been “to merely add technology onto traditional ways of teaching”.
Furthermore, she argues that the Internet has not led to a qualitative transformation of learning but merely quantitative changes such as improvements in speed of delivery and increases in scale to deliver education to higher numbers of people. She concludes that the field of online learning “lacks a theoretical framework to guide educational design, pedagogies and use of online technologies”. Wheeler (2015) suggests that educators should question whether older theories are still useful, “but we should also ask whether the newer theories add anything significant to our understanding of learning in new digital contexts.”
Connectivism is a learning theory focussed on technology and achieved some traction in the early 2000s. However, arguably it isn’t a fully formed learning theory, and it has very little to say about how people learn using technology. Online Collaborative Learning theory (Harasim 2012), is a more recent constructivist theory which focuses on the use of technology “to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners” (Bates, 2015).
I am not convinced that we need a learning theory which specifically addresses digital technologies as this seems to be a very deterministic way of thinking. For me, learning is fundamentally about people rather than technology. Many of the existing learning theories can inform designing for learning with digital technologies. As Harasim (2017) suggests, we need to reflect more on how these theories can inform our pedagogic approaches and teaching practices in the context of the opportunities afforded by online technologies.
Learning theories are critical because they “help us to understand both how knowledge is created and how people learn” Harasim (2017). While evaluating theories is not always about assessing whether they are right or wrong, Lefrançois (2019) suggests that they can be mainly assessed by how useful they are to educational practice. Teachers make use of learning theories (consciously or not) and their related pedagogic approaches and technologies to design, develop and deliver effective teaching and learning experiences. As we design for learning, we need to be aware that our theoretical starting points will inform our teaching practices, choice of learning technologies and the kinds of activities we provide to our students.
The next post in this series is an interactive learning theories timeline showing the historical evolution of the nine theories I am focussing on. This timeline highlights critical theoretical ideas and provides links to key books and research papers.