Learning theories try to explain how people learn. They are based on empirical research and assumptions. They include principles about how particular factors affect learning. Teaching and learning strategies are developed based on these principles. Ertmer and Newby (1993) emphasize the importance of learning theory as a source of verified strategies, as the foundation for strategy selection, and as the most reliable way for predicting learning outcomes. When I first began learning about learning theories I felt I had to choose one of them and design all learning exercises following the theory’s principles. I soon learned this was impossible as I teach varied things to varied learners in varied settings. Each major theory has its merits and limitations. Using different strategies based on the learning context is the most prudent strategy. Often strategies from multiple theories are used simultaneously.
Two resources have been instrumental in my understanding of learning theories: chapter four of Larson and Lockee’s Streamlined ID (2014) and a review by Ertmer and Newby (1993). I refer often to the assumptions and design strategies outlined in tables 4.3 through 4.6 in Streamlined ID when designing learning experiences (Larson and Lockee, 2014). The three main learning theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Some resources separate out sociocultural theory as its own theory while others view it as a subtheory of cognitivism. Similarly, some may consider connectivism as a separate theory while others view it as a subtheory of constructivism.
It is important to realize that when the main learning theories were developed computer-mediated communications (CMC) did not exist. CMC and emerging technologies have changed how we think about learning theories. Once you employ strategies of a traditional learning theory via an emerging technology or a more traditional e-learning technology it becomes a theory of educational technology. One must then make sure that the assumptions that applied to traditional learning environments still apply to e-learning environments. I think there is still much research to be done in this area.
I have begun to teach online over that past two years. My mentor in developing my first online course told me we were going to develop the course based on constructivist principles. So I became a constructivist. I developed video-based authentic clinical scenarios for each module of the course. During each module students resolve the clinical scenario using a clinical research article and along the way learn about research design and epidemiology. An assumption of constructivism is that transfer of knowledge is facilitated when learning experiences are authentic, meaningful, and appropriately contextualized (Larson and Lockee, 2014, p. 85). I think the clinical scenarios I developed meet those criteria but does video of an actual clinical encounter transmit that same authenticity as a real life clinical setting? Probably not, but what and how much effect does this difference have on learning? This is an example of needing to study underlying assumptions of learning theories to see if they are valid in e-learning environments.
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4): 50-72.
Larson, M. B., & Lockee, B. B. (2014). Streamlined ID: A practical guide to instructional design. New York: Routledge.