The learning theories


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Theories of learning are based on psychological understanding and seek to explain what happens when learning takes place (p71). As educational practitioners we can interpret these theories, making informed choices in planning and delivery to enable that our students learn effectively.

The main learning theories include: behaviourism, cognitive, Gestalt and humanism. Behaviourist, cognitive and Gestalt theories have usually used children and animals as their test subjects. Humanist theories are more concerned with the study of andragogy and the theories of adult education much of which founded by the studies of Malcolm Knowles.

Behaviourist theories form the basis of all learning theory (p72). The theory argues that all behaviour is learned and rules out any pre-existing biological influences. Early theorists such as Pavlov with his experiments of the salivating dogs and Skinner with rats and pigeons showed that under controlled conditions they could promote measurable and predictable responses from a prescribed stimulus. Skinner's work involved putting hungry rats in a box and conditioning them to pull levers to obtain food. The initial pulling of a lever could be put down to accident but it was observed that the rats began to intentionally pull the levers for food; this becoming learned behaviour. Skinners experiments differ from Pavlov's earlier experiments (classical conditioning) as Skinner added the environment as another element (operational conditioning). The Behaviourist theory promotes an S-R (stimulus-response) approach to learning and also that learning is positively reinforced through reward (or punishment, negative reinforcement).

In education these rules of S-R and reinforcement are fundamental to the learning process and provide the basis of objective driven learning. As an example within a numeracy course a student could be taught that 2+2 = 4. There is a test every day for the question, what is 2+2? The student answers 4 every time. The student is then rewarded with praise and a pass mark for getting the answer correct, this in turn makes the student feel proud. The stimulus is the test and question (what is 2+2?) and the response is the answer (4) that has been positively reinforced by the teacher (praise). This then puts the student onto a virtuous cycle of learning. What If the next day the question for the test is changed to what is 2+3? What would the student answer? Without prior conditioning to the specific question, the student may not know how to respond. This is where classical behaviourism begins to falter with regards to humans, as animals and children represent subjects at lower levels of learning, with limited comprehension.

Neo-behaviourists like Robert Gagne believed that not all learning can be measured and describes that before a subject can begin to link S-R bonds they must first have the capability of making individual lower level bonds in mental processing. Gagne's 'Types of Learning' outlined eight steps in a hierarchal model and each type must be mastered before you can move on to the next type with each type moving on in complexity.

Understanding Gagne's learning hierarchies provides us with an insight into the sequencing of learning. In addition Gagne's 'Conditions for learning' (1965) identifies the teacher as a process designer and facilitator that shapes the learning path for the student. According to Gagne In order for the student to efficiently process learning the teacher must design a program to systematically exercise the nine 'Conditions of Learning'. It is also fundamental that the student has mastered each of the lower order skills in order to progress to higher level skills (formative assessment).

Conditions of Learning

  1. Gaining attention (reception)
  2. Informing learners of the objective (expectancy)
  3. Stimulating recall of prior learning (retrieval)
  4. Presenting the stimulus (selective perception)
  5. Providing learning guidance (semantic encoding)
  6. Eliciting performance (responding)
  7. Providing feedback (reinforcement)
  8. Assessing performance (retrieval)
  9. Enhancing retention and transfer (generalization).
There are also other elements involved such as motivational factors but how does this relate to educational learning theory and educational practise?
  • Armitage, A.,Bryant, R.,Dunnill, R.,Flanagan, K., Hayes, D., Hudson, A., Kent, J., Lawes, S. and Renwick, M. (2007) Teaching and Training in Post-compulsory Education, 3rd edn. London: Open University Press.
  • Wallace, S. (2003) Teaching & Supporting Learning in further education. Exeter: Learning Matters.
  • Nicol, D J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Teaching in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

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