Free technical help for digital creators - music, video, art, photography, graphic & web design

Learning theory by Mark Constable


The aim of teaching is simple: it is to make student learning possible
(Laurilliard, p13, 1993)


1. How would you define the learning process? What activities do you perform, when learning?

Mathemagenic Activities(Rothkopf,1970)
Expresses the idea that there are activities the learner can carry out that will result in their learning.

Apprehending structure. The acquisition of information through lectures and reading. Is it successful?

Integrating Parts. The interpretation of symbol systems - linguistic, symbolic or pictorial. It is like trying to understand a foreign language with only a limited knowledge. Key concepts and phrases can be missed.

Acting on the World.
Learning through practice or imitation of practice (RBC quite realistic).

Using feedback.
Intrinsic feedback is that which is a natural consequence of an action e.g. hit the right button and a sound is heard. Extrinsic feedback is usually a comment on an action. A simple right or wrong does not detail which part of the action was incorrect or, how to rectify in the future.

Reflecting on goals/feedback.
Understanding and analysing the achievement of the goal and feedback.

2. Identify all the varieties of learning activities you have encountered both formal and informal.
Reading, lectures, essays, tests, workshops, individual work, group work, av, visits, placements…

3. Which methods do you feel are most successful/least successful in acquiring knowledge?

4. How or when do you recognise you have learnt. What indicators do you rely on?

  • Increase of knowledge

  • Memorizing

  • The acquisition of facts, procedures for use in practice

  • The abstraction of meaning

  • An interpretive process for understanding reality

There are a number of challenges for educators in facilitating and encouraging student learning. Of particular relevance to CAI are ...

  • To develop the active engagement of the learner rather than the passive reception of given knowledge.

  • To overcome the problem of two worlds, the everday knowledge and experience and that of academic learning.

  • Everday knowledge is located in our experience of the world. Academic knowledge is located in our experience of our experience of the world and therefore often relies on simulation and analogy. Thus,

Academic learning must be situated in the domain of the objective, the activities must match that domain. Academic teaching must address both the direct experience of the world, and the reflection of that experience.


According to Laurilliard, the basic design of such a program is to:

  • specify a learning objective

  • offer a brief introduction to the topic

  • set a task according to the strategy for achieving that objective

  • interpret the students performance on the task

  • use this to select the appropriate feedback

  • use the students performance so far to select the next task



First of all; why examine learning theories?
Learning theories have had a profound influenced on the use of IT in education.

What is learning & how does it occur?
The question; "what is learning?" seems simple enough. However, philosophically it is a very hard question to "answer", and this is why it has been a challenging topic for philosophers for centuries. The schools of thought on the nature of learning have been many and varied, but at the most basic level they differ on only a limited number of fundamental questions. These are questions like; "How does learning occur?", "What are the properties of knowledge? (absolute, relativistic..)" etc. I will not provide a comprehensive overview of all the views of learning and knowledge that can be found (e.g Socrates to Kant), but will concentrate on the dominant ideas and views of our century: Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Constructivism.

If we speak in very broad terms about the trends in our century, we can identify three fundamentally different ideas about the nature of learning and what the properties/ nature of knowledge are. In other words the approaches not only include a view of how learning occurs, but also a view of what knowledge actually is (i.e is knowledge given and absolute or constructed and relativistic? etc.). These psychological theories lie at the heart of much of the change that can be observed in the use of technology in education: It is important to note that there is a lot more to these theories than what we present here.


This view was very dominant in the 1950s & 60s and remains influential today although "new" theories have gained much ground . Many of the early behavioristic experiments were done with animals focusing on reflexive behavior of an organism exposed to certain stimuli. In short, the behavorists tried to explain learning without referring to mental processes. The focus was on observable behavior and how an organism adapts to the environment. The famous "Dog-Salivation-Experiment" by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov where he makes dogs salivate at the sound of a bell and later experiments by Burrhus Frederic Skinner with pigeons in the so called "Skinner Box", are very famous examples of behavioristic learning experiments. Despite these very "low-level" learning experiments focusing largely on reflexes, the behavioristic theories have been generalized to many higher level functions as well.

For our purpose the important aspect of behavioristic theories is that the learner is viewed as adapting to the environment and learning is seen largely as a passive process in that there is no explicit treatment of/ interest in mental processes. The learner merely responds to the "demands" of the environment. Knowledge is viewed as given and absolute (objective knowledge)..


From the passive view of learning adopted by the behaviorist school sprung a quite different view. Many psychologists felt that the strict focus on observable behavior demanded by the behaviorist school restricted the usefulness of its theories. While the behaviorist view concentrated on investigating the observable behavior of organisms (humans, animals) resulting from exposure to different stimuli (reinforcement, punishment, conditioning etc), the cognitivist school explored an area that were explicitly taboo for behavioristic experiments.

The cognitivistic school "went inside the head of the learner" so to speak in that they made mental processes the primary object of study and tried to discover and model the mental processes on the part of the learner during the learning-process. In Cognitive theories, knowledge is viewed as symbolic, mental constructions in the minds of individuals, and learning becomes the process of committing these symbolic representations to memory where they may be processed. The development of computers with a strict "input - processing - output architechture" from the 1960s and up till today certainly have inspired these "information-processing" views of learning.

In sum the cognitive approach & cognitive theories emerged as a new perspective employing "information-processing ideas" rather than the behavioristic assumptions that the learner is determined by his environments and so passively adapts to the circumstances. This cognitivistic view emphasized the active mental processing on the part of the learner. However knowledge was still viewed as given and absolute just like in the behavioristic school.


The constructivist theories take on a variety of forms just like the behavioristic and cognitivistic. The basic distinction, however, is that while the behaviorists viewed knowledge as nothing more than passive, largely automatic responses to external factors in the environment and the cognitivists viewed knowledge as abstract symbolic representations in the head of individuals, the constructivistic school views knowledge as a constructed entity made by each and every learner through a learning process. Knowledge can thus not be transmitted from one person to the other, it will have to be (re)constructed by each person. This means that the view of knowledge differs from the "knowledge as given and absolute" views of behaviorism and cognitivism.

In constructivism, knowlege is seen as relativistic (nothing is absolute, but varies according to time and space) and fallibilist (nothing can be taken for granted). There is an important distinction within the constructivist school of learning. Basically we have "Cognitive oriented constructivist theories" and "Socially oriented constructivist theories".

Cognitive oriented constructivist theories emphasize the exploration and discovery on the part of each learner as explaining the learning process. In this view, knowledge is still very much a symbolic, mental representation in the mind of the individual. However, the socially oriented constructivist theories stress the collaboratory efforts of groups of learners as sources of learning.

Summary of important differences


Based on behavioral changes. Focuses on a new behavioral pattern being repeated until it becomes automatic.
Based on the thought process behind the behavior. Changes in behavior are observed, but only as an indicator to what is going on in the learner's head.
Based on the premise that we all construct our own perspective of the world, based on individual experiences and schema. Focuses on preparing the learner to problem solve in ambiguous situations.


How should we teach learners to learn? Do current theories help us towards our key educational goals of the retention, understanding and application of knowledge?

According to Underwood (C.B.L - p3 - 94) three models of learning, each of which is good in a specific area;

  • the constructionist model for formal conceptual learning

  • the appreticeship model for skills development

  • the behaviourist model for passing on large bodies of structured material

Piaget's Theory

Piaget ( - p52) argues for a dual process of Assimilation i.e. addition of non-conflicting knowledge into previously developed schemas, and Accomodation, new knowledge reshapes existing schemas. This is essentially a conflict-based mechanism of learning in which the learner takes elements of the environment and incorporates. Piaget identified three areas of concern:

Constructivist perspective

  • the nature of intelligence or knowledge

  • the role of experience in the formation of ideas

  • the mechanism of social or linguistic communication

the principal aim of education is to develop the intelligence itself, and above all
to teach how to develop it 'for as long as it is capable of further progress' (6)

Vygotsky (L to T, p 47)
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) assisted learning. Good teaching will awaken the functions of learning of a person and will occur within the ZPD. Assistance should be offered in those interactional contexts most likely to generate joint performance (scaffolding).

Stage 1
Learner has a limited understanding of the task, situation or goal. The teacher in fact will select the material to be examined. Through time and interaction the role of the teacher will subordinate.

Stage 2
Performance is assisted by the self

Stage 3
Performance is developed and fossilized. Assisstance would now be disruptive.

Stage 4
De-automatization of performance leads to recursion. Life long learning. Enhancement and maintenance of performance will involve self assisstance and other-asisstance.

Responsive Assisstance
Will vary according to the needs and development of the learner.

Together with Vygotsky, Schank (Barnard and Sandberg, 1992 ) identifies concept of 'failure driven
learning' are also related to learning at the point of conflict although here the learner develops through guided intervention. It is at the point of failure that teacher (or machine) intervention is most effective. Contingent or responsive teaching responds to needs.

Situated learning or Apprenticeship

Knowledge is found in the environment - must be active in the community shared values and mores (tape op) etc.

Behaviourist Model
Here the teacher or the world has he knowledge - standard form of learning large bodies of information - taxonomies- therefore little reconstruction of the data. Repetition of ideas until the learner is confident.

According to Underwood, the computer has to provide co-operative learning environments in which small groups of students work together to achieve a common goal; develop interpersonal skills increasing motivation, self esteem and academic learning. - conflict resolution, cognitive scaffolding, reciprocal peer tutoring and execution of cognitive process and modelling. The computer can present and re-present learners with a body of knowledge to acquire and finally it can act as a problem setter presenting the learner with cognitive conflicts (Underewood, C.BL - p7)