Principles of Learning David Robertson

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As the Course Lecturer for the Automotive Department at Newcastle College it is my responsibility, and goal, to ensure that the basic underpinning knowledge (both practical and theoretical) of Motor Vehicle Engineering is delivered to the students of the department so they may prepare, either for City and Guilds examination, or employment in a local motor vehicle establishment.

Many weighty volumes have been penned with regard to the vexed question of Learning Theories in education, their supposed benefits, and their effects upon learning and whether they exist as separate entities at all. However, before any conclusions can be arrived at, an understanding of the various theories, their main protagonists and their effect upon learning will need to be grasped. After a cursory investigation into the individual theory I will follow up with my thoughts as to the implications in relation to my particular area of teaching. Prior to this analysis it is necessary to provide an overview of the learning styles currently used in the field of Education

These styles fall into three groups:

A/ Cognitive- In the Cognitive style students gain theoretical knowledge through the dissemination of information usually in a class based environment. This is highly relevant to motor vehicle engineering as the subject is inherently complex.

B/ Psychomotor- In the Psychomotor style students are required to demonstrate a range of practical workshop based skills. This is vital in that the subject is one that demands a degree of manual dexterity.

C/ Affective- In the Affective style students learn how to conduct themselves perform and adopt the correct attitude in a workshop environment. This is simply a case of survival; a workshop is a potentially dangerous place to exist in.

All of the above styles are, to varying degrees and dependant upon the lesson in question, employed in the theories listed below.

Learning theories, or principles of learning, have been developed (sometimes over decades) and honed to improve the teachers understanding of the process of student learning.

Therefore, teachers require an understanding of these principles, which highlight areas where students are most likely to relate to, and so learn from. These principles include the fields of:





Social Learning

We as teachers, sometimes without knowing it, tend to adapt our mode of delivery to accommodate these principles subconsciously. However, with an understanding of these principles combined with a background knowledge of the students themselves, such principles, as listed above, could well improve the way in which a lesson is delivered, and so, consequently, improve the learning of the students.


The group of educationalists, known collectively as the Cognitivists, among whom are the notable figures of Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky place major emphasis on the students themselves and how they acquire, and mentally organise, the knowledge they gain, in effect how they "cognize" the world around them. The overall process is a complex system of invisible mental activities functioning together to produce a nett gain in understanding. Basically, it is about thinking, gaining knowledge, remembering and reasoning.

Pioneering work in the field of cognitive development was mainly done with children in an attempt to understand how they learn, so cognitive development can be viewed as the growth of logical thinking over time (say as the child matures) and with due reference to the learners environment from childhood to adulthood. Professor J.Bruner termed this as a form of "scaffolding", whereby an adult would gradually remove the reinforcement built up around the child (or older learner) as they become more able to understand, or master, a particular task.

The Russian Marxist Philosopher Lev Vygotsky however (working in pre WWII Russia), given he is in the Cognitivist camp, did not use the scaffolding theory at all, instead he developed a parallel theory called The Zone of Proximal Development in which the learner is at the centre of a group of concentric circles, with what is already known at the centre and what is to be learned radiating out in rings. The overall concept is that the learner, with help from either older children or adults, moves (via instruction) from the inner areas to the outer thereby gaining knowledge and proficiency.

This is reinforced by Reece & Walker who state "Students do not merely receive information, but actively create a pattern of what it means to them". (Reece & Walker 2003 p86)

In the Cognitive approach to teaching, knowledge is viewed as symbolic and as the overall result of learning while learning itself occurs through the repetition of a particular task. The student is encouraged and motivated to experiment, from which they will hopefully derive a sense of achievement.

With reference to my teaching the Cognitive approach is clearly evident, and indeed it lends itself ideally to the area as problem solving and experimentation (for example repeating a task until proficient) is a major tool in the assessment process of my learners. An example of this is when a particular student listens to my verbal delivery, then understands the concept and finally remembers the solution to a problem; also if they can grasp the reasoning behind the problem then they will have fulfilled all four criteria for cognitive learning. They can then progress and use this retained knowledge to solve other, more complex, Motor Vehicle Engineering questions.

The important thing to remember is that my learners are not passive in this situation, but creative in terms of what the teaching and learning means to them, they are active participants in the learning process, using their cognitive skills to understand a novel situation.


As Curzon (1997 p36) states "Behaviourism arose as a reaction to learning being interpreted as mere mental functioning".

The Behaviourist approach to learning is based on a mainly 19th century concept that adopting a scientific approach to the study of human beings, and their responses to outside stimuli, may well provide an insight into how people learn. It was heavily influenced by animal experiments (a favourite of many behaviourists) which demonstrated the effect on brain patterns of controlled conditions and stimulus; it was further argued that this could be carried over to humans.

The Russian Physicist Pavlov (1849-1936) is best known for his experiments with dogs. Basically, he linked a specific sound with the provision of food which caused the dog to salivate. After some time he discovered that the mere sound would cause the dog to salivate, so reinforcing the theory that a stimulus based response was taking place in the dog. However when this was carried over to conditional human responses the ability of humans to use language to communicate "muddied the waters" somewhat as this skill interfered with pure instinct based responses.

He concluded that humans have fewer instincts than animals (or rather the ones we had have been eroded by evolution) therefore human behaviour is governed by conditional responses. He also believed that mental phenomenon could be dealt with objectively and scientifically when it is seen as observable and measurable behaviour.

John B Watson was another main proponent of the Behaviourist school of thought in relation to human learning. He thought that behaviour could be modified through the actions of various stimuli upon the person and that, as a consequence, the individual in question could be "conditioned" through these stimuli to induce a change in behaviour so leading to learning taking place.

In my teaching I use the process of giving feedback as a form of encouragement, and sometimes challenge, whether it is in the form of verbal praise, following a direct question aimed at a particular student or in a written manner after assessing an assignment. I have found that positive feedback from me will lead to better future work, and an increased level of confidence, from the student. So in this way a stimuli based response system is productive in my field. Positive feedback is an almost guaranteed way of inducing learning in a student but this has to be tempered by the times when I have to be critical of the work of a student, it is a balancing act, on my part, to find the right level of stimuli (feedback) to encourage a student without discouraging them by being too critical.

Sometimes a critical feedback report from me is designed, and worded, to promote a response in the particular student as if I am throwing down a challenge to them to improve.


The Humanist learning principle, or Humanism, grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with other learning theories, especially Behaviourism. The humanistic Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1890-1970) believed a learner's physiological requirements, safety needs and the sense of belonging to a group had to be fulfilled before the motivation to learn was realised, and his now famous 'Hierarchy of Needs' pyramid highlights this in detail, ranging, as it does, from the basic needs of food and shelter at the base up to self-actualisation at the apex.

Maslow confirmed this, as quoted by Curzon (1997 p121) who states that "education has the task of helping each person to become the best that he is able to become".

Among his beliefs were that scientific psychology was inherently sterile and dehumanising, he argued that people should be viewed as whole human beings and that the role of the teacher was to help, advise and guide the student towards understanding. The basic needs however (at the base of the pyramid) are mainly issues beyond the teachers' control.

However, Kyriacou (1998 p72) states "the increasing awareness of the importance of fostering pupils' self esteem has been a major development over the years".

This holistic approach to education pioneered by Maslow was shared by Carl Rogers who proposed that learning should be student discovery led. Building upon the consensus that students retain about 5% of teaching delivered purely by lecture and that they retain a great deal more if the student finds out, or discovers, the information for themselves. Rogers called for the "humanisation of the classroom" in order to create the ideal environment for learning.

In relation to my teaching the humanistic approach to learning has the following implications:

The need to set the room environment in a manner conducive to learning (so at least attempting to fulfil Maslow's most basic needs) for example heating, lighting and chair arrangement to name but three is not always possible for logistical reasons.

I need to act as a facilitator, or conduit, through which student learning can occur. In other words become a resource for the students to utilise and exploit.

There is a need to incorporate my own experiences of the subject into the lesson delivery, but some of my "stories" loose something in the telling.

All the time not forgetting that I am the teacher and the students are at College to learn through my instruction so there will inevitably be a certain degree of remoteness on my part even if only for the fact that I can never be a part of the group totally, there is, and has to be, a demarcation line between teacher and student. For this reason alone (if no other) the Humanism theory of teaching is one that I do not favour in its classical complete sense. However parts of it I can, and do, use for example I find it benefits most groups if I adopt the "older brother" ethos occasionally rather than always portraying the remote teacher.


Gestalt (from the German for structured pattern) is the school of educational thinking concerned with adopting an overall perspective to learning, in other words the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Gestaltists believe that understanding needs awareness, on the part of the student, of the relationship between various facts and how they interrelate to produce an overall picture.

Previous experiences in the life of the learner will help to contribute to the process of understanding, but the actual process of thinking is more important than mere recall. Understanding, according to Gestaltists, is based upon a process known as Insight. Insight is not a lucky guess, arrived at by mere chance, but is when a student suddenly becomes aware of the solution to a problem; the "light bulb above the head" or the "penny dropping" seems to sum up the situation perfectly. Something that, on the surface, is an anathema to repetitive or rote learning. It is basically the gaining, or acquisition, and retention of insight, by the student, that is at the heart of the theory of Gestalt. Also the selection and retrieval of information is essential if other, new structures of perception are to be created.

The idea is that the teacher must structure learning during the lesson so that learners reach an overview, detect inter-relationships, and can therefore practice independent productive thinking.

In the reality of my everyday teaching the whole concept of allowing the student to come across the correct answer by insight is to say the least

impractical. Faced with a group of Motor Vehicle students struggling to grasp the complexities of the internals of a car engine and saying to them that the answer will come if only they had insight is remarkably brave of any teacher let alone me. This may well work on a one to one basis when I, the teacher, have the time to devote but with a large class, of varying ability, it is a non-starter in terms of a teaching strategy.

Social Learning

Also known as the Social Cognitive Theory, this particular field of interest narrows in on how people learn in a social context or, in other words, the process whereby people gain knowledge through social interaction either by speaking to, observing, or following the example of another person, or group of people, in a social (or vocational) setting.

An example of Social Learning (that most people will have undergone) is when a new employee is inducted into the ethos of their new employer.

The pioneers of Social Learning Theory (among whom are the esteemed figures of A. Bandura, J. Lave and E. Wenger) propose that the group situation is ideal for engendering learning via the individuals in that group working together to achieve a common goal. Inevitably, in any group, there will be a wide variety of prior learning or experience but it is this very diversity that is the strength of this particular theory.

Because a diverse range of people are "thrown" together in a group situation this requires them to talk, interact, communicate & get involved in the problem in question hopefully leading to a solution to the problem and inducing a change in behaviour (learning) in the individuals. Because the group have a question to answer this is the foundation upon which dialogue is built and, as Lindeman (1926 p86) says:

"Active participation in interesting affairs furnishes proper stimulations for intellectual growth".

In my teaching I use the Social Learning approach quite often. I find that a group work situation will usually be more productive in terms of retained learning than a lecture based delivery style. I see myself as more of a 'facilitator' than a 'teacher' in these sessions, by guiding the students towards achieving learning by their own, co-operative, efforts. I merely lay the foundations for the session by posing certain questions and then 'taking a bit of a back seat' as it were, all the time monitoring progress. At the end of the allowed time for the exercise I will pull together the thoughts from the disparate groups hopefully reinforcing the learning that has taken place and rounding up any achievement in the session.

Of the teaching theories illustrated above I have found that I personally favour the Cognitivist approach; it has beneficial implications for my teaching, it lends itself ideally to the teaching of Engineering although the other theories are, to varying degrees, helpful (except Gestalt) depending upon the particular learning activity in question. Understanding the various learning theories can be useful, if not essential, in incorporating different teaching methods into the lessons. I recognise that over time I teach, and deliver in, all of the learning areas however, focusing on the most appropriate area (and student learning style) should help to improve the success of my teaching.