Thursday, October 13, 2011

Applying theories of learning...

Last night I wrote about adding media to a blog, a fairly simple task. Tonight, I'm going to try to apply learning theory to an "Application Question" from Chapter 4 in Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (Reiser and Dempsey, 2002, 2007, 2012), not so simple. I'm definitely still learning when it comes to learning theories.

Application Question 1
"Assume that you are trying to teach learners how to calculate and compare the unit costs (e.g., price per ounce) of various sizes and/or brands of the same product. Select three of the theories of learning discussed in this chapter. For each of the three, describe the nature of the instructional activities that you would design if you were adhering to that theory as you were planning the instruction." (Reiser and Dempsey, 2002, 2007 2012).

Review of the Learning Theories' Concepts/Ideas
The chapter discussed several different learning theories, such as Behavioral Learning Theory,
Cognitive Information Processing Theory, Schema Theory and Cognitive Load, Situated Learning Theory,  Gagne's Theory of Instruction, and Constructivism. Most all of the theories had some valid points and, as usual, many of the newer concepts build on the foundation of previous theories. I'm not so sure any of them are the "perfect theory" and I expect that a variety of applications of theory would be useful in most learning situations. But, having said that, I realize that some are more effective than others, depending upon the situation.

The theoretical ideas that really stood out to me while reading the discussion were the role of prior knowledge in learning new knowledge and skills as brought out in the reading of Cognitive Information Processing Theory. I know from personal experience what a difference prior knowledge has on the ability to learn new material. I have a strong natural ability with technology and a love of business, therefore, I obtained an undergraduate degree in Management. Three years ago, I ended up in a position which introduced me to the instructional design field. I found that I really enjoyed the combination of technology and education, therefore, I began working on a Masters in Educational Technology. Although I am trying to learn as much as I can about learning theories, pedagogy, etc., I find that I have a slight handicap in learning some of the material in the upper level educational technology classes due to the lack of a foundational knowledge in education. If I had it to do over again, I would have gotten an undergraduate degree in education, which would have provided such knowledge.

Another concept or learning theory that makes sense to me as a learner is Cognitive Load. I have felt cognitive load at times, as most people have. The idea of reducing "extraneous cognitive load in instructional materials" makes sense. We want the learner to be focused on learning the concepts or tasks they are trying to learn and when we design instruction that doesn't focus on the concept or task, but is laid out or set up in such a way that the learner has to "connect all of the dots" not just the "dots" we want them to learn, than they are more likely to experience cognitive load and learn less and not as well, as they would if we had reduced the "split-attention effects."

Gagne's "Nine events of instruction," Gaining attention, informing the learner of the objective, stimulating recall of prior learning, presenting the stimulus providing learning guidance, eliciting performance, providing feedback, assessing performance, and enhancing retention and transfer makes sense in that incorporating these events should produce a more effective learning experience for the learner. Unfortunately, according to the authors, Reiser and Dempsey, "application of Gagne's theory in instructional design is often a highly analytical affair, and it is therefore, possible to lose sight of the overall context for learning while dealing with all the details of instruction." (Reiser and Dempsey, 2002, 2007, 2012).

And finally, constructivism's idea that as learners we "construct" our knowledge from the inside out, which is "in direct contrast" to the ideas portrayed by the information processing theory, which is learning and knowledge is built from the outside in. I think both are the extremes and in reality, most of us learn from a combination of these two approaches. The learning environment suggested by constructivism includes "engaging learners in activities authentic to the discipline in which they are learning, provide for collaboration and the opportunity to engage multiple perspectives on what is being learned, support learners in setting their own goals and regulating their own learning, and encourage learners to reflect on what and how they are learning." (Reiser and Dempsey, 2002, 2007, 2012). There's no doubt that creating this type of learning environment is conducive to learning, therefore, it makes sense to implement this type of learning experience whenever possible.

Reflective Response
For the above situation, where I would be trying to teach learners how to calculate and compare the units costs (e.g., price per ounce) of various sizes and/or brands of the same product, I believe I would want to apply the Cognitive Information Processing theory, the Cognitive Load theory, and Constructivism in the following ways:

Cognitive Information Processing Theory: It would be important to have knowledge of where the learners are in their knowledge and skills at calculating and comparing units of cost. Oftentimes, a pretest will be given to assess knowledge of learners and although I would probably not give a formal pretest, I would probably ask some relevant questions, such as, "Have you ever done any size/cost comparisons of various products?" "If you have, what steps did you take to calculate and compare?" And possibly other type questions. If it's an online course, I might would do a survey to gain an awareness of their knowledge and experience base. This would allow me to design the instruction more appropriately for each learner, such as providing more foundational and basic information for those that need it and providing more advanced material for those who want/need more of a challenge.

Cognitive Load Theory: There are a couple of things to consider when designing to reduce cognitive load. One of the things that can help is to "chunk-out" information into smaller pieces. Learners are better able to take in and retain information that is provided in smaller chunks. Along with the idea of "chunking" information into smaller, more easily "digested" amounts, it's important to design in such a way that information related to each other is grouped close together. Other such rules, such as, "People learn better when both words and graphics are included, as long as the graph is not self-explanatory," and "People learn better when you place print words near corresponding graphics," need to be followed. (Cooper, 1998). For the application note above, I would start out with a couple of samples and work through or demonstrate how to calculate and compare. Then I would add some additional variables.

In applying constructivism to the question, there would be several things I could do, such as having the students calculate and compare items at a store, whether "brick-and-mortar" or an online store. Make it relevant to the field they are studying in, provide opportunities for collaboration through study groups, chats, or discussions, and have learners reflect on their learning in a blog, such as I'm doing in the class I'm currently in.
As a teacher or an instructional designer, it is important to understand and know how to apply the various learning theories. I think that oftentimes it requires a combination of learning theories applied to produce an effective learning experience for the learner.


Cooper, G. (1998). Research into Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design at UNSW. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales (UNSW). Retrieved October 13, 2011, at:

Cooper, G. (1998). Research into Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design at UNSW. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales (UNSW). Retrieved October 13, 2011, via

Reiser, R. A. and Dempsey, J. V. (2002, 2007, 2012). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

No comments:

Post a Comment