No two learners are alike and the way every person learns varies. Like with fingerprints, our brains are all unique. Additionally, all of us have different backgrounds and have had different experiences. This is why there are a number of different ways we learn, leading to learning theories.
Learning theories consist of premises and conclusions, sometimes based on models or taxonomies. These explain how we best acquire, retain, recall and apply new knowledge and skills. Psychologists and researchers have spent countless hours hypothesising, researching, and testing theories to better understand how we learn.
Here we will focus on the five most commonly used learning theories and how they should affect your learning and development programmes. If you’d like to learn more about the key models and taxonomies that affect learning and development programmes, then please check out this article: 10 Learning Models You Have To Know. In the meantime, let’s get stuck into the theories.
Behaviourism Learning Theory
In essence, behaviourism refers to the notion of learning to display or not to display certain behaviours through reinforcement or punishment. This implies that external stimuli affect a learner’s behaviour. As a result, by conditioning the learner’s response to the stimuli they can be taught new behaviours. Behaviourism is therefore a universal learning process.
Behaviourism was founded by the American psychologist John B. Watson. However, it was the research and work conducted by Ivan Pavlov, Edward Thorndike, and B.F. Skinner that led to the classical and operant conditioning. The most classical example of behaviourism was the experiment led by Ivan Pavlov (aptly called Classical Conditioning), which involves:
- An unconditioned stimulus (e.g. food) which naturally produces a response (e.g. dog salivation).
- Another unconditioned stimulus (e.g. the bell) which naturally produces no response.
- The combination of two unconditioned stimuli (e.g. bell and food) to programme (i.e. condition) a response (e.g. salivation).
- Resulting in the conditioned stimulus (e.g. the bell) eliciting the same response as the food. Hence, the dog salivates when the bell rings as the only stimulus.
Similarly, behaviourism can be applied to an L&D programme with the use of positive and negative reinforcement in training. Some programmes may impose a meeting with a supervisor to explain why a training module has not been completed on time.
On the other hand, gamification is the perfect way to introduce behaviourism to your learning strategy. You could use experience Points (XPs) as a reinforcement for learners to complete specific pieces of content. Additionally, you can use leaderboards where learners can see that they are behind to motivate them to complete more content.
Cognitivism Learning Theory
Cognitivism theory suggests that learning is more than just responding to stimuli (as suggested by behaviourism learning theory). Instead, the cognitive theory suggests that internal thoughts and external forces are both an important part of the cognitive process to supplement learning.
As learners understand how their thinking impacts their learning and behaviour, they are able to assert more control over it. Whilst behaviourism suggests that learners have a passive conditioned role in learning, cognitivism suggests that they actually have a more active role.
Plato and René Descartes (famous for “Cogito, ergo sum”, i.e. I think, therefore I am) are two of the first philosophers that focused on cognition and how we as humans think. This led to a lot more research in the area. Jean Piaget is a highly important figure in the field of cognitive psychology. According to Piaget and this theory, understanding experiences is the way to learn.
You should engage those who naturally do cognitive learning with activities encouraging them to think. This should include many analogies and real-world examples, preferably within a formal learning approach (such as digital learning courses and webinars). You should also make sure you use lots of images and short text.
Constructivism Learning Theory
Constructivism learning theory is based on the idea that learners build their own understanding based on their experiences as well as previous knowledge and skills.
This learning theory focuses on learning as an active construction process, that is personal and unique to each learner. Therefore, learning is dependent on how learners individually interpret the provided information.
The work of Jean Piaget can be used to trace constructivism. Piaget focused on how humans create meaning and develop in relation to the interactions between their experiences and their ideas.
To best incorporate constructivism theory in L&D programmes, you can relate what is being learnt to other bodies of learning (previously acquired or not) or to previous experiences. You can also use case studies, research projects, collaborative work, and simulations to establish a link to the experiences of others and to create new experiences.
Humanism Learning Theory
Humanism proposes that the individual pursues self-actualisation, which is what drives its growth. The point at which all of your needs are met and you feel content that you are the best possible version of yourself is self-actualisation.
Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and other humanists do not believe that most people actually reach self-actualisation. On the contrary, they believe that people are always in pursuit of it and that the closer they get the more they learn.
Using a humanistic approach when designing L&D programmes is a really powerful way to engage your learners. A flexible/personalised learning journey can achieve this.
You should also give them the opportunity to elevate themselves above the role of a simple learner via their contribution to the group’s learning experience and the (re-)sharing their knowledge and skills. For this purpose, you can use group discussions, forums, social streams, as well as scenarios and role-playing.
Connectivism Learning Theory
Connectivism learning theory is the newest learning theory. Stephen Downes describes connectivism as “… the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks”. This theory suggests that humans acquire and process information by forming connections.
Connectivism has evolved within the digital age. In fact, you could also say that connectivism does not only work for humans, but also in a database, across devices, or organisations. This further suggests that connecting information is how learning occurs.
Modern organisations already use some principles of connectivism in their L&D programmes. However, to fully utilise connectivism theory they need to drive a digital learning culture. This will necessitate the adoption of modern technologies such as learning management systems, YouTube, online discussion forums, and social media, helping them learn and share knowledge.
It is important to understand learning theories when designing learning programmes. Your learning programme should incorporate different types of learning objects and events fitting different learning theories. This allows learners to fine-tune their development according to their natural way of learning.
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