Learning Theories and Learning Styles

Understanding how people learn is the key to producing effective instruction, both traditionally and in the form of e-learning. Although many theories of learning have been proposed, with some leading candidates described below, it seems clear that different individuals learn in different ways. One of the strengths of e-learning is its ability to provide a unique learning experience for each participant rather than the one-size-fits-all approach dictated by the classroom. The most effective e-learning will be grounded in learning theory, and will also facilitate varying experience to suit varying styles of learning and instructional need.

1. Learning Theories

A number of (often competing) theories of learning have been proposed.

1.1 Andragogy
Knowles (1913-97) differentiates the needs of adult learners from those of juveniles and uses the term andragogy to describe the specific methods which should be employed in the education of adults. Smith [Smith Mark K.; Andragogy – The history and current use of the term plus an annotated bibliography; http://www.infed.org/lifelonglearning/b-andra.htm] summarizes Knowles’ andragogy thus:

  • The adult learner moves towards independence and is self-directing. The teacher encourages and nurtures this movement.
  • The learner’s experience is a rich resource for learning. Hence teaching methods include discussion, problem-solving etc.
  • People learn what they need to know, so that learning programmes are organized around life application.
  • Learning experiences should be based around experiences, since people are performance centred in their learning.

Andragogy requires that adult learners be involved in the identification of their learning needs and the planning of how those needs are satisfied. Learning should be an active rather than a passive process. Adult learning is most effective when concerned with solving problems that have relevance to the learner’s everyday experience.

1.2 Behaviorism
Skinner (1904-1990) is associated with the approach to learning known as behaviorism. Skinner conducted experiments in which pigeons and rats were taught to obtain food pellets by performing certain actions, e.g. pecking a lever a certain number of times. Skinner asserted learning occurs through operant conditioning. This is based upon the idea that organisms operate on their environment. If an action has positive consequences for the organism it is more likely to repeat that action, if the consequences are undesirable then the action is less likely to be repeated [PageWise, Inc; B. F. Skinner and behaviorism; http://nh.essortment.com/bfskinner_rgjj.htm].

Skinner’s approach has been used “to teach mentally retarded and autistic children, … in industry to reduce job accidents, and … in numerous applications in health-related fields.” [PageWise, Inc; B. F. Skinner and behaviorism; http://nh.essortment.com/bfskinner_rgjj.htm] However some kinds of learning are not easily explained by conditioning, e.g. “those cases where skills are used in a highly flexible way, as in the use of language; … where people do things that lead only to intangible rewards; … where people appear to learn passively by observing others’ actions” [Tennant Mark; Psychology & Adult Learning; Routledge 1997].

Skinner’s 1971 work “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” drew criticism because it appeared to deny the essential human attributes of free will and dignity and declared “man’s actions were nothing more than a set of behaviors that were shaped by his environment, over which he had no control.” [PageWise, Inc; B. F. Skinner and behaviorism; http://nh.essortment.com/bfskinner_rgjj.htm]

According to Tennant [Tennant Mark; Psychology & Adult Learning; Routledge 1997] the influence of behaviorism on adult education is “most apparent in the literature on behavioral objectives”. Behavioral objectives are formulated using language that refers to observable behavior only, e.g. describes, identifies, explains, predicts… Criticisms of such predefined objectives include:

  • they are inappropriate for certain types of learning, e.g. music, drama etc.;
  • they fragment learning into many narrow categories and in so doing fail to address the whole;
  • they are concerned only with the outcomes and not the process of learning;
  • they cannot describe the acquisition of general ides which are applicable in a variety of contexts;
  • they cannot account for subjective outcomes, e.g. the development of self-concept;
  • they ignore peripheral learning, i.e. that which lies beyond the formal syllabus but frequently occurs in any course of study;
  • they do not account for changing learner needs as learning takes place.

1.3 Chomsky and Language Acquisition
A particular challenge to behaviorism comes from Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition. Chomsky argues that human beings are endowed with an internal understanding of the fundamental rules of language that allow us to develop language skills far in excess of those which would result purely from environmental conditioning. Gross and McIlveen [Gross Richard, McIlveen Rob; Cognitive Psychology; Hodder & Stoughton 1997] give the following evidence supporting Chomsky’s view:

  • language acquisition appears to occur in a culturally universal and invariant sequence of stages;
  • native speakers use language creatively, i.e. they are able to produce sentences of a form they have not previously encountered;
  • children spontaneously use grammar rules they have never heard or been taught;
  • the meaning of a sentence is more than the meaning of its individual words and varies according to context;
  • babies as young as two days have been shown (by Eimas) to be able to discriminate between ‘ba’ and ‘pa’ sounds;
  • studies of twins (by Malmstrom and Silva) have shown the existence of private languages intelligible only to the twins, such languages share certain features with ordinary languages.

1.4 Constructivism
Constructivism asserts that people construct their own individual mental models of the world in order to make sense of their experiences. Learning is the process of adding to or refining this mental model.

On Purpose Associates [On Purpose Associates; Constructivism; http://www.funderstanding.com/constructivism.cfm] describe how constructivism impacts on learning:

  • There is no standardized curriculum. Curricula are customized to the students’ prior knowledge, and hands-on problem solving is emphasized.
  • Educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.
  • Assessment is part of the learning process and students play a larger role in judging their own progress. There are no grades or standardized testing.
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