Learning Theories in a Nutshell

learning theories

UI/UX Designer

A few years before the start of the 20th century, different psychologists started formulating learning theories, or the ways in which we learn. In time three main ones formed and are still in use even in contemporary eLearning - behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. Let’s see what they are!

According to the first one - behaviorism - knowledge and skills are acquired through repetition and positive reinforcement. This is usually accomplished by defining strict limitations, offering stimuli or explaining consequences. According to the followers of this theory, the learning processes that are happening in the brain aren’t important because they cannot be accessed. That is why learning is a passive process that can be simply viewed as a change of behavior due to external stimuli. The classic example is Pavlov's dog where innate reactions can be upgraded to situational ones. The belief is that our behavior is governed exclusively by external factors and things such as individual interests and capabilities, actually play very little role in learning. For certain things behaviorism defines the optimal way to learn - for example when we're learning to ride a bike or drive a car. We pick up skills that we don't have to think of while we are applying them. They’re just part of our behavior. And that's perfectly fine because there is no time to devise a strategy on how to avoid collision in the moment that it's about to happen. On the other hand it doesn't help when we apply it to chess or nuclear physics where critical thinking is required. So in an answer to behaviorism a new opposing theory arises - cognitivism.

Cognitivism claims that learners process information and organize it in their minds to form new meanings. According to it we learn by fostering curiosity and intrinsic motivation, by improving and solving new real problems. Contrary to what behaviorists believe, people can react in different ways to one and the same stimulus. That is why cognitivism focuses on the internal processes that happen inside the brain, the fact that people don’t learn based on external stimuli, but can choose what to learn and when to learn it. The role of the instructor here is to connect the information or ideas that already exist and the ones that are being taught so they can enrich the learner’s field of knowledge.

The newest and most contemporary one is constructivism, according to which learning is a social process and is based on connections to already acquired knowledge or in other words knowledge or skills are constructed and built upon instead of passively acquired. According to this theory the best way to learn is in realistic contexts and environments. Learning is based on individual experience and thought process and largely relies on the trust that is accumulated between the trainer and the learner by acknowledging their needs and ideas. This theory also summarizes four types of learners: those who learn best visually; auditorily; kinesthetically - through touch and trial and the fourth - through reading and writing. Here the responsibility for the learning process rests on the learners themselves and our task as trainers is to create an environment and ways for the learning to happen.

As you might have glimpsed already, these three theories are practically a mirror for the ways we create eLearning and follow the inevitable relationship between urgency and integrity. From the most common and simple trainings that are based on behaviorism (making use of repetition, memorization and testing) all the way to the more progressive methods (as scenarios and simulations) typical for constructivism. Which one is your cup of tea?

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