Theories of Learning

Theories of Learning

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1542-6.ch004


There are a host of theories of learning. Many of these have been around for a long while, and all of them offer sound insight into how people learn, but none offer a unifying theory of learning. Of all these theories, four are treated in this chapter: behaviorism, constructivism, cognitivism, and connectivism. The issue becomes one of selecting a learning theory that matches instructional content and learner characteristics. Instructional objectives guide how the instruction is to be delivered and assessed. These objectives cover three domains: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective with skills contained within them structured hierarchically. The learner's age, interests in the subject content, the nature of the subject, and time available for instruction significantly affect the instructional process. The most important thing an instructor can do is to make the content in their course interesting and relevant to their students.
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Theories Of Learning

Figure 1.



Over the years approximately 100 theories of learning have been developed and expanded. These theories fit into general classifications: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, motivation and humanist, identity, media and technology, mental models, design theories and models, descriptive and metatheories, child development theories, and paradigms. For a comprehensive list of models, see Appendix A. The more commonly recognized theories are the behaviorist, cognitivist, constructivist, and the connectivist. These four theories were chosen because they are considered by some to be the most popular and appropriate learning theories for online learning (“Learning Theories”, 2019; Little, 2015; “Four Top Learning Theories In The Digital Age”, 2015). These four are examined in more detail as follows:



Behaviorism is perhaps the oldest of these four families. David (2017) noted that “Behaviorism is a worldview that operates on a principle of “stimulus-response.” All behavior [is] caused by external stimuli (operant conditioning). All behavior can be explained without the need to consider internal mental states or consciousness” (p. 19). A foundational concept holds the view that the learner is a passive vessel who responds to stimuli in his or her environment. Positive or negative reinforcement determines subsequent behavior.

One of the first and most successful examples of the application of behaviorist principles to learning was the military. Faced with the task of training recruits from varied backgrounds and with varied educational attainments, the military chose to use behaviorist principles to prepare these diverse individuals to function in demanding jobs with high degrees of competence. A former petty officer was a product of this training in the Navy in the mid-1960s. He took an aptitude test in boot camp that indicated that he would make a great radioman. Upon being asked if he would like to do this, he strongly agreed. It turned out that he excelled in this rating.

At this sailor’s first duty station at a remote radar site in Iceland (H2), he was within a few weeks after arriving there made the transmitter deck supervisor of his watch. At his next duty station onboard the USS Adroit (MSO-509), he was soon the leading radioman for the division of four ships. A short stint in the CIA as a telecommunications specialist followed next where he worked as the second radioman in a two-man station. He went on to more and more responsible positions onboard a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research ship as a radio officer. He became an amateur radio operator and still holds his general class license with the call sign N4NGF.

Upon discharge from the Navy, he took a correspondence course (a precursor of distance education before the computer and Internet age) to prepare for the FCC Radiotelephone First Class and the Radiotelegraph Second Class licenses. This correspondence course used what was called programmed instruction, which was based entirely on behaviorist principles. This learning theory really works; he experienced it. It also led to his interest in electronics theory, which constitutes a good part of physics, thus going far beyond the operational objectives of the course.

A more radical form of behaviorism was developed by B. F. Skinner (David, p.20). What contributed to the radical nature of this form of behaviorism was acceptance of the role of emotions and mediating structures. This system of behaviorism seems to be that which drove its application to military training and other forms of training. Skinner also originated the concept of the black box. The black box signifies viewing a system in the context of its inputs and outputs while paying little attention to what happens within the black box. Along with Skinner other contributors to behaviorism were John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, E. D. Thorndike, and Albert Bandura (David, p.19).

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