Sunday, July 14, 2013

Learning Theories: Introduction

by Jaimon Jacob Kotteckaly

An instructional designer enables a learner to do something which he/she was not able to do. Instructional design becomes a success when the learner learns and demonstrates a new skill. Thus, if you know how your target learner learns, you can develop instructions accordingly.

However, it is not as easy as it sounds. Not every individual learns the same way. Therefore, it is impossible to create instructional materials that are perfectly tailored for every learner.

This is where learning theories come in to the picture. Learning theories explain the factors that affect learning and how these affect learning. They give factual explanations of how learning happens.

The knowledge of learning theories helps you focus on the factors that affect learning and design instructions that are suitable for the situation.

There is a multitude of learning theories in use. Nobody has yet been able to propose a single theory as ideal for instructional design. Sometimes, instructional designers use a combination of learning theories.

In addition to the learning theories that exist, educational experts continue to develop new theories. This makes instructional design more challenging and exciting.

You can categorise learning theories into three schools of thought:

  • Behaviourism
  • Cognitivism
  • Constructivism


The behavioural school of thought is the most simple and the oldest of the learning theory groups. Behaviourists consider the learner's mind as a "black box." They do not worry about what is going on inside the "black box."

Behaviourists explain learning with stimuli-response relationships. They debate that learning happens as result of conditioning the learner for a particular response with favourable stimuli.

All the learnings are observable, and a person is said to have learned something when there is an observable change in his/her behaviour. The main contributors to behaviourist theories are Thorndike, Pavlov, and Skinner.


The cognitive school of thought argues that learning does not always happen with conditioning a learner with repetitive, favourable stimuli.

An individual learns something by processing the information, and the factors like memory, thinking, motivation, and reflection affect learning. They state that instruction is effective when the instructor is able to design instructions in such a way that it is retained in the memory of the learner.

In addition, cognitivists also argue that all the learnings are not observable. The noted contributors to cognitive school of thought are Merrill, Gagne, and Bruner.


Constructivists go one step ahead of cognitivists and state that learners not only process the information but also interpret the information according to their views. According to constructivists, learners construct knowledge based on their experience and pre-existing knowledge.

This theory is more suitable for online learning as in this type of learning, the learner is the centre of instruction and is able to contextualise the knowledge. Some of the renowned constructivists are Kolb, Baud, and Schon.

In a high-level overview, the three strategies can be used to teach the following types of instructions:

  • Behaviourist: What?
  • Cognitivist: Why?
  • Constructivist: How?

In the following articles, I will try to explain how each of these strategies can be used while developing online learning materials. Keep an eye for my coming articles:

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