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Learning Theory and Instructional Design Vertoria L. Anderson Boise State University


Abstract Instructional design has changed and evolved as a result of the major and minor learning theories involved in educational technology. Instructional design approaches largely incorporate the epistemology and learning beliefs that are rooted in the major schools of thought and learning theories. However, as educational technology advances, it is important to design instruction efficiently. The question arises: Which learning theory is best in terms of improving instruction and instructional design. The research findings suggest that a single learning theory cannot be deemed best for all learners and all types of instruction. Keywords: instructional design, learning theory, educational technology, constructivism, behaviorism


Learning Theory and Instructional Design Instructional design is the process of systematically developing instructional specifications to ensure the quality of instruction (University of Michigan, 1996). Included in the process is an analysis of learning needs and goals and the development of a system that will achieve the determined goals (University of Michigan, 1996). The development of instructional materials, activities, and corresponding technology is also a component of the instructional design process (University of Michigan, 1996). A solid foundation in learning theory is an essential element in [the development of instructional design] (Baruque & Melo, 2004, p.343). It is important to note that technology is both a tool and result of instructional design and does not take the place of effective design. Technology is a benefit of overall and complete design and learning goals. The question may arise if there is one best learning theory for instructional design. The research findings suggest that different learning theories may apply, depending on the learners situation (Baruque & Melo, 2004). A single learning theory or major school of thought is not recommended for a broad, generic approach to instructional design. This research paper will synthesize instructional design methodology by analyzing a range of theoretical perspectives, with a focus on designing technology for education. The specific educational technology of online learning management systems and their instructional components, such as discussion forums and learning modules will be highlighted. Educators know and understand that technologies claiming educational value are created often. These technologies may be sampled and the conclusion is reached that they were not effective instructionally. The developer of the specific technology may have been focused on the object rather than on the learning aspect. This example reveals the importance of understanding


what learning is prior to the development of the technology. [Therefore,] it is imperative that a methodology to design educational content based [technology] be grounded in learning theories (Baruque &Melo, 2004, p. 344). Instructional designers need a thorough understanding of various learning theories, in order to incorporate the appropriate theory for the specific instruction being designed. Learning theories describe how learning occurs while instructional theories prescribe the best way to design instruction, in order to foster learning (Newby, Stepich, Lehman, & Russell, 1996). A learning theory encompasses principles which aim at explaining changes in human performance, providing a set of instructional strategies, tactics, and techniques from which to select, and the foundation for how and when to choose and integrate the strategies (Baruque & Melo, 2004, p. 346).

Overview of Major Learning Theories and Implications for Instructional Design Behaviorism Since the 20th century, educational technology has been rooted in Behaviorism (Deubel, 2003). As a result of this theory, the field of education has experienced such innovations as computer assisted instruction, mastery learning, minimal competency testing, and educational accountability. The focus of Behaviorism is behavior. The primary tenet of Behaviorism is that there is a predictable and reliable link between a stimulus and the response it produces(Deubel, 2003, p. 66). This perspective concentrates on how the learners behavior is shaped by the learning environment. Knowledge is viewed as a reaction to factors in the environment. The technique of providing reinforcements for learners stems from Behaviorism. Reinforcement, which is contingent on successful achievement at each stage, maintains previously learned behaviors (Deubel, 2003, p. 66). This learning theory makes assumptions about learners. One

LEARNING THEORY AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN major assumption is that learners are actively involved in their learning. Typical behaviorist

learners learn by doing and the conditions of the learning environment that supported the learned behavior must be observable and measurable. Behaviorism also assumes that learning has taken place only when there has been a change in behavior as a result of a learning experience. In regards to the instructional designer, under the behaviorist viewpoint, their primary responsibility is to identify and sequence the contingencies that help students learn (Baruque & Melo, 2004). When delivering instruction, objectives should be stated as behaviors of the learners. When implementing Behaviorism into the instruction delivered through an online learning management system, the modules should be listed and described in terms of an observable behavior. Learning is inferred from behavior, so it is important to identify the goal behavior and the actions involved in breaking that goal behavior into simple behaviors and arranging them in a sequence that will help students progress toward the goal (Baruque & Melo, 2004, p. 346). Following the behaviorist viewpoint, learning modules and learning goals (behaviors), should have a one to one correspondence. Each desired behavior should me a learning module in the online learning management system. Sub behavior goals will be the underlining goals of the modules. Designers need to also select stimuli and presentation strategies that build the sub skills required to master the goals. Learning tasks should be ordered logically according to a hierarchy. The performance of such tasks by the learners should then be measured against stated objectives for mastery and correctness. Online quizzes and activities that directly assess the objectives should be included in the online learning management system. Designers can assume that instructional strategies that were successful in the past will be beneficial for learners again. Behaviorist strategies are most beneficial to learners when their knowledge of the subject and content is limited.


Subject Matter Instruction designed using the Behaviorism theory breaks the subject matted into small, logically discrete instructional steps (Deubel, 2003). Content is often presented in the form of a category, definition, formula, principle, or rule. With the purpose of reinforcing understanding, positive examples are also provided in the instruction. In addition, negative or nonexamples are also provided to ensure conceptual understanding.

Sequencing Instruction and learning activities are design to increase in difficulty. Typically sequence and pace through learning material is determined by the instructor or provided of instruction. It is not uncommon for learners to be assigned learning objective repeatedly to increase learning. The need for repetition is determined by how well a learner performs.

Learning Before learning takes place, the instructor demonstrates the procedure or skill slowly with adequate explanation. Learners are then expected to copy the desired behavior. Learning increases over time with repeat practice and instructor-provided feedback.

Cognitivism Cognitivism is concerned with meaning or semantics. From the cognitivist viewpoint, learning has taken place when a change in knowledge has occurred within the learners memory. In other words, learning occurs when relationships are generated among new information and

LEARNING THEORY AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN knowledge already stored in long term memory. Cognitivists view knowledge as abstract

representations in the mind of the learner. The technique of organizing information for learners stems from Cognitivism. Under this school of thought, the instructional designer is required to present new information by linking and making connections with prior knowledge. From the cognitive perspective, structuring instruction means supplying a framework around task in which learners develop and test their own knowledge (Deubel, 2003, p. 73). Techniques must be used to guide and support the learners mental processes. Mechanisms, such as chunking or grouping like items and interactive mental imagery, promote memory (Deubel, 2003, p. 68). Other strategies that can be included in instruction include discovery learning scaffolding, an problem based instruction. Incorporating cognitivist instruction within an online learning management system would include chunking similar information together within each learning module. At the introduction of each module, the online learning facilitator should review what the learner previously learned and preview what the learner is expected to learn by the conclusion of the module. Links should be made between the two topics in order for knowledge to occur. In discussion forums, online learning facilitators should require posts from learners to include connections and relationships to prior learning.

Discovery Learning Discovery learning seeks to teach learner how to learn. Learners need the ability to question and evaluation their own learning strategies (Deubel, 2003). Educational technologies that correspond with discovery learning include virtual field trips, scavenger hunts, and jigsaw activities, for example.


Scaffolding Scaffolding is the gradual removal of a tutors support for the individual to become an independent problem solver as the individual appropriates knowledge and brings it under his or her own conscious control (Deubel, 2003, p. 68).

Problem Based Instruction During this specific type of instruction, learning is not organized around subject matter or content. However, problem solving is the central focus of learning. Students are responsible for content knowledge and critical thinking, with teacher support. What student should know is not taught by the teacher but rather acquired through solving problems. There is no time limit for the learning.

Constructivism The roots of constructivism may be traced back to a little known Latin treatise, De antiquissima Italorum sapienta, written in 1710 by Giambattista Vicao (Hirumi, 2002, p. 500). The constructivist perspective describes learning as a change in the meaning constructed from experiences (Baruque & Melo, 2004, p.346). Learning is built up by the interaction between the current knowledge the learner possesses and the problem being solved. Constructivists view knowledge as a meaning that is build by all learners in the process. The technique of learning from fellow learners stems from Constructivism. Learner autonomy and initiative are encouraged and accepted. Learner inquiry is also encouraged.


Instructional designers working under this school of thought are challenged with creating good problems and learning activities that guide the learners knowledge construction (Baruque & Melo, 2004). The responsibility of the instructional designer is to develop effective learning experiences. According to Honebein (1996), a series of seven events should occur within constructivist learning environments. The first event is to provide experience with knowledge construction process. The second event is to present multiple perspectives. The third event is to embed learning in authentic context. The fourth event is to encourage ownership and voice in the learning process. The fifth event is to embed learning in social experiences. The sixth event is to encourage the use of multiples modes of representation. The seventh and final event is to encourage reflection and self-awareness of knowledge construction process. There are several ways in which the constructivist view on learning can be incorporated into the educational technology of online learning management systems. Online learning facilitators can provide authentic learning experiences by integrating webtours and webquests in the learning modules. Online learning facilitators can provide learners with ownership and voice by allowing learners a choice and options of interactive activities. Online learning facilitators can encourage reflection and self-awareness by requiring frequent reflection posts to an online journal or blog, as well as in the discussion forum embedded within the online learning management system. There are several teaching principles and practices that align with the constructivist viewpoint: mind, raw materials, authentic problems, student autonomy, team choice and common interest, meaningfulness and personal motivation, social dialogue and elaboration, conception organization, group processing and reflection, prior knowledge and misconceptions, and teacher explanations (Hirumi, 2002).

LEARNING THEORY AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN Mind There are two viewpoints on the mind under Constructivism. The first states that the learning focus of the mind is on cognitive reorganization, while the other viewpoint states that learning comes from social interaction in an established community (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998) . Raw Materials


Learning modules should include primary resources. Examples of raw materials include virtual manipulatives, applets, and other interactivities.

Authentic Problems Under the constructivist view, authentic, real-world problems and experiences should be provided to the learner via the online learning management system. [The] learning environments should reflect real-world complexities (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998, p.38).

Student Autonomy Online learning facilitators should provide learners with the opportunity to voice their personal theories about the content at the introduction of each learning module. Facilitators should also allow student thinking to drive lessons and alter instruction based on responses (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998, p.38).

Conclusion Each theory has benefits and advantages for certain learning situations. Some situations lend themselves to be better suited instructionally using the behaviorist theory. However, other

LEARNING THEORY AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN situations would exhibit better instruction if the instruction was designed from a cognitivist viewpoint. It is important to note, that all theories have a place and their usage can be complimentary rather than mutually exclusive(Baruque & Melo, 2004, p. 366). The findings


show that several factors should be considered when choosing a learning theory on which to base instructional design and include when delivering instruction via and online learning management system. One of the major factors to consider is learner characteristics. Learner characteristics should be considered when deciding on which learning theory to incorporate into the design of the instruction. One should come familiar with the learner characteristics by analyzing the motivational, technological, and demographic profile of the student (Baruque & Melo, 2004, p. 351). Characteristics that should be considered include age, grade, and educational background. The amount of prior knowledge is a major determining factor. Learners with limited prior knowledge will gain the most benefit from behavioral strategies (Baruque & Melo, 2004). However, as knowledge increases and students learn more about the subject and content, cognitive and constructivist principles may become the better strategies to employ. Orientation of the learner is also important. Learning orientations recognizes the impact of emotions and intentions of learning (Martinez, 2003). Some learners are actively engaged in their learning. However, there are also learners that are passive. Different learning theories apply to each type. Passive learners are not benefited by a constructivist approach (Baruque & Melo, 2004). There are many others factors to consider designing instruction, in addition to learner characteristics and orientation. Therefore, all three learning schools are equally important and no single theory provides a complete prescription for the entire instructional design process (Baraque & Melo, 2004). It should be noted that each school has ideas that appear to be of value for particular educational settings. Some principles may be useful in almost all situations; these

LEARNING THEORY AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN include reinforcement (from the behavioral perspective), organized information (from the cognitive approach), and learning from one another (from the constructivist perspective). However, these theoretical perspectives focus on different aspects of the learning process . Therefore, it is possible to use a combination of theoretical principles, depending on the requirements of the specific instructional situation (Baruque & Melo, 2004, p.349). Theories continually evolve or are revisited as a result of research or critique by designers or theorists in


the field. In the long term a blending of [learning theory] approaches seems inevitable (Deubel, 2003, p. 63). Instructional designers are adopting a mixed approach to design because of the increased flexibility offered (Atkins, 1993). Whether instructional designers choose a single theory or a combination of depends on the nature of the materials to be developed and the context in which the materials will be used. All three approaches to instructional design value meaningful learning experiences and realistic application of knowledge and skills.



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