Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How People Learn

What are your beliefs about how people learn best? What is the purpose of learning theory in educational technology?
My personal beliefs about learning are continuously informed and shaped by theory, research and practice.  Learning is indicated when there is a continuous change in behavior.  An individual might have several hypotheses about learning, for instance, I believe that the more involved students are in the learning process the greater the possibility that learning will take place.  I also believe that holding exclusively to one theory prevents the exploration of others through research and inhibits their application in the classroom.  I believe that for the teacher instructor there is a smorgasbord of theories with which to engage depending on the individual, the content, and the context.  If there is to be an understanding of how people learn there has to be an understanding of theories of learning which has evolved from research. 
How do theorists say people learn?
Siemens (2008, p. 9) saw linkages between theories and noted that theories form a progression with new ones building on previous ones. He advised that any discussion of learning must include a revision of learning theories.  Learning theory has evolved from three basic epistemological philosophies: (a) Pragmatism which is the belief that neither knowledge nor reality can be definitive or absolute but is dependent on empirical or rational processes.  (b) Interpretivism states that reality is shaped within and thus individuals construct their own knowledge.  (c) Objectivism states that reality is external and perceived through the senses and has nothing to do with the individual’s consciousness (Siemens, 2008 & Driscoll, 2005).  These epistemologies underpin three broad learning theories –behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. 
Behaviorism traces it origins in objectivism.  Behaviorism argues that it is impossible to observe what occurs within the learner.  Behaviorists proffer that learning occurs as the individual responds correctly to external stimuli offered in the form of reward or punishment (Driscoll, 2005 & Siemens, 2008).  Behaviorist theory is useful in educational technology when the aim is to help students learn a concept or skill through repetition. Programs have been devised which provides drill and practice.  For examples of these programs see: 

Math Practice at located at, and 
Chemistry Drill and Practice Tutorials at     

Cognitivists focus on the individual’s mental processes.  This involves insight, memory, perception and the way information is processed.  For the cognitivist learning is a change in what we know.  Learning occurs when information is organized internally (that is, in our memory) in a meaningful way.  Connections can be made between cognitivism and pragmatism.  Education technology connects with cognitivism with programs that target a range of knowledge and skills.  Comprehension programs whether in the form of interactive games or simply programs that offer a passage followed by comprehension questions are a good example.  Challenging Our Minds at,  is a program that can be used to develop cognitive skills.

For the constructivist learning is an active process in which the learner constructs their own knowledge as they interact with and seek to interpret the world around them.  In the constructivist classroom educational technology allows the teacher to be a facilitator The teacher provides material with which the students can interact and explore.  For example a geography class might explore a country’s topography online.  History and language students can participate in museum and archive tours online.  Students can create online journals.  These are just a few of the activities the constructivist teacher can do.
Siemens (2008) briefly examined connectivism, another learning theory.  In “Connectivism: A Theory for the Digital Age” (Siemens, 2005) he describes the limitations of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism and argues for connectivism as an alternative learning theory appropriate for the digital age.  Connectivists see knowledge as constructed of connections and networks.  Learning occurs in changing environments over which learners do not have complete control and in which they seek to make connections between specific types of information and so increase their knowledge (Siemens, 2005).  Classroom 2.0 provides a video discussion of connectivism and networked learning titled “Connectivism and Networked Learning” at  
How do people learn?
This discussion would be incomplete without noting the importance of learning styles.  It is important that practitioners are aware of the various learning styles since this can affect the learning process.  Visual learners favor using pictures or images; aural learners prefer sound; verbal learners use words both oral and written, and physical learners favor using their bodies.  Learning styles connect with educational technology.  There are tools available that can meet the needs of each type of learner.  For example, for the physical/kinesthetic learner can access word rocessors, music synthesizers, video cameras, and computer simulations to actively involve themselves in the learning process.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Pearson.
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from
Siemens, G. (2008, January 27). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. Paper presented to ITFORUM. Retrieved from

Additional Resources
How people learn: The National Academies Press
Technology Alliance found at scroll down the list to: December 8, 2006 - Dr. John Bransford, Professor of Education and Psychology, College of Education, UW, talks about how people learn. DOWNLOAD MP3 (30MB)
The Learning Theory Podcasts
A series of podcasts dealing with learning theories done by De. Daniel J Campbell found at
George Siemens on Social Learning Networks: From Theory to Practice
George Siemens argues for using social networks in the learning process in an interview found at Xyleme Voices: A Podcast Library on the Evolution of Training  
How Students Learn; How We Should Teach. Learning Theories
This site offers insights into the various theorists and their theories through brief articles and podcasts, together with suggestions for how these theories apply to goals and objectives, individual differences, motivation, teaching methods and evaluation
Tomorrow’s Professor Blog
This blog is sponsored by Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning. TP Msg. #1180 Learning Theory and Online Instruction, examines behaviorist’s, cognitivist’s, and constructivist’s learning theories.  It can be found at
E-Learning Provocateur: Provoking Deeper Thinking

In this blog located at the writer presents “A Taxonomy of Learning Theories” at


Segla Kossivi said...

Indeed, a continuous change in behavior characterizes learning. The perpetual exchange in societal functioning occurs in varieties of ways, as individuals interact with the world (Driscoll, 2005). Moreover, “holding exclusively to one theory prevents the exploration of others through research and inhibits their application in the classroom”. The existing and emerging learning theories guide learning, which transpire best in a community of learning or practice and personal networks (Tennyson, 2010). Apart from varied learning styles, as most people subscribe to the continuous accretion method of learning (Siemens, 2008, p. 35), they experience the agglomeration of various learning theories. Thanks to the advanced and emerging technologies, most institutions offer rich experiences in learning, where adult learners’ “autonomy, metacognition, self-regulatory skills, positive self-efficacy” (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008, p. 64) contribute greatly to their success in the online learning environment.
Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Coleman, C. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63-67. doi: 10.1007/s11528-008-0199-9.
Siemens, G. (2008, January 27). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. Paper presented to ITFORUM. Retrieved from
Tennyson, R. D. (2010). Historical reflection on learning theories and instructional design. Contemporary Educational Technology, 1(1). 1-17.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review of learning theories. Learners do have different learning styles. As a practicing teacher, we are asked to differentiate our teaching as to appeal to the different learning styles. I do my best; however, it is difficult to appeal to all of my students because as a middle school connections teacher I have a new grouping of over 200 students each 9 weeks. What do you believe is the degree of difficulty to actually practice what is taught (teaching to the learning style of the student)in public education, and what can be done to decrease the degree of difficulty?

Anonymous said...

I also believe that the more actively engaged a student is, the more they will be able to understand and are able to apply their new knowledge. Holding on to one particular learning theory does not look at the whole learner. As we are complex beings, learning takes place in many facets, often at the same time. Since student learning is multifaceted there cannot be one model that will be a good fit. Different theories build upon each other as we notice more about our learners and we are asking more of our learners.

Anonymous said...

Dorothea, I agree with you that learning theories are constantly evolving. As we are placing greater demands on our learners and we study them to see how they are adapting to those changes, we are going to have to modify our thinking about learning. I also think that it would be a mistake to completely align oneself to a specific learning theory. Learning is dynamic. It is also multifaceted. I think that to say I'm a behaviorist or I'm a constructivist only looks at how a learner is coping in a specific way.

Dorothea Nelson said...

Hello bhiet,

The degree of difficulty for teaching to students' learning styles depends on class size, the content to be taught, the environmental conditions, available resources and so on. For example, I taught English to eleventh and twelfth graders. In each class there was approximately 35 to 40 children. My ninth grade literature classes were the same. The classes had no access to the Internet or computers. Add to that the classrooms were small. How does a teacher overcome these difficulties? When planning lessons try to target at least two learning styles. Have a lot of visual aids. Take children out whenever possible so that they get to experience what is being discussed in the classroom. I hope that helps.

Royjr. said...

I agree that there are different learning theories and people learn in different ways. It is important that teachers identify individual differences among learners so that they can help us to better understand and guide the learning process. Unfortunately, most teachers use these theories as a “hard and fast” guide in the classroom. They do not recognize that each individual learns differently and events in the classrooms are influenced by many different variables, and no single theory explains how they will all come together under different circumstances.

I can recollect the time when one of my lecturers commented that he was aware of each individual learning style. He definitely had my attention and I was grateful that he took the time out to observe his students.

Dorothea Nelson said...

Hi Sandra,

I appreciate your use of the word modify. It implies a recognition that as teachers, we should not remain stagnant but be open to change. It also implies a recognition that theories are indeed constantly evolving. Finally it indicates a willingness to change. I remember reading a long time ago that the only constant is change. I agree with you that learning is multifaceted. When reading chapter eleven of our text I noted that the constructivists suggest the behaviorist's method of drill and practice as one of the ways that can be used to ensure that children have the previous knowledge they need to enable them to solve new problems.


Dorothea Nelson said...

Hi Roy,

I couldn't agree with you more. The student should be at the center of the process and teachers should choose the method appropriate for each student.