Chapter 1: Introduction

Theories of Learning

While the process of learning is generally complex it is not entirely unpredictable. Throughout recorded history, learning has played an important role in cultures around the world and has been the subject of formal study—especially since the European Renaissance of the 14th – 17th centuries (Aspinwall, 1912; Compayre & Payne, 1899; Cubberley, 1904, 1920, 1922; Curoe, 1921; Graves, 1909, 1910, 1913; Monroe, 1905; Norton, 1909; Painter, 1917; Parker, 1912; Quick, 1890; Seeley, 1899; Shoup, 1891).

Over the past 125 years or so the study of learning has been approached from a variety of perspectives, some of the most prominent being (a) behavioral (observable performance), (b) cognitive (operational constructs, memory structures, and mental processes), (c) constructive (construction of mental representations by the learner rather than the teacher), (d) human (the learner as a whole person), and (e) social (the learner as a member of society). From these various approaches to the study of learning have emerged theories of learning, theories of instruction, theories of instructional design, and methods of teaching (see for example: Bower & Hilgard, 1981; Driscoll, 2000; Gredler, 2009; Mowrer & Klein, 2001; Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009; C. M. Reigeluth, 1983, 1999; C. M. Reigeluth, 1999; and Saettler, 1990).

The Impact of Learning Theory on Instructional Design

Each of these approaches and their ensuing theories has made an important contribution toward a better understanding of what it means to learn and the process by which learning takes place. Each theory is based on different assumptions, but each has offered a unique and valuable perspective. With all that has been done thus far, one might reasonably question the need for any additional work toward an improved conception of learning. Such a question, however, overlooks the apparent gap between theory and practice (Christensen & Osguthorpe, 2004; South, 2008; Yanchar, South, Williams, & Allen, 2008; Yanchar & South, in press). Theories of learning seem to have relatively limited impact on the design of instruction. Perhaps a new way of thinking about learning theory itself might help to close this gap.

According to a survey conducted by Christensen and Osguthorpe (2004) only fifty percent of instructional designers regularly use theories when making instructional-strategy decisions. For those that do, the common practice seems to be one of eclectically drawing on methods and strategies from multiple theories of learning (Christensen & Osguthorpe, 2004; C. M. Reigeluth, 1999; Visscher-Voerman & Gustafson, 2004; B. G. Wilson, 1995, 1999; Yanchar et al., 2008; Yanchar & South, in press). One problem with this instructional design practice of “informed eclecticism” is that in the act of repurposing and combining fragments of multiple theories, instructional designers may be haphazardly generating new theories on the fly in a rather undisciplined manner. This is not to say that all ad hoc theories produced by eclectic assembly are necessarily flawed, but that may be true in some cases since “the combination of two instructional techniques from contradictory theories could lead to the dilution of the efficacy of both, if neither one were given the emphasis and structure needed for it to create its intended effect” (Yanchar & South, in press, p. 13).

Of even greater concern than the assumptive and structural integrity of the various theories taken in piecemeal amalgamation is the efficacy of the instruction that is produced on such a foundation.[1] In my own experience, I have found that many instructional products, and many classroom methods and activities, are generally not effective per se—meaning that without a significant independent effort made by the student, the learning objectives are not met. The student who succeeds does so, in large part, because of the amount of time he or she spends outside of class or by referencing instructional materials other than those provided. This observation is consistent with the field experience of David Merrill, one of the most prominent and influential scholars in the field of instructional design today, who said, “A week does not go by that I don’t have the opportunity to review products that DO NOT TEACH” (Merrill, 1997, p. 1). So, while eclectic reference to learning theory appears to be a dominant trend in instructional design, it does not seem to be the most effective approach. Perhaps there is a better alternative.

A Shift toward Principles

When contemplating the issues in one’s own field, it is often useful to consider how similar issues have been addressed in other fields. This apparent trend of eclectic borrowing, copying, or assembly—in the maturation of a new discipline and the evolution of theoretical models and methods—has also been an issue in two fields closely associated with the field of instructional design: clinical psychology and language teaching. Suggestions from respected scholars in each of these disciplines provide insight on how both researchers and practitioners might advance the field of instructional design to close the gap between theory and practice and to increase the effectiveness of instructional products produced by instructional designers.

In commenting on the practice of copying and borrowing of theories in American psychology in the mid 1900s, Kelly (1963) suggested that “instead of poking about in the neighbor’s backyards for methodological windfalls” we should “start abstracting the scientific principles that are beginning to emerge from our experiences” (p. 23). He further advised that we should “examine a variety of scientific theories, not to find one that can be copied concretely, but to discover common principles that can be applied to the building of brand new theories” (p. 23)—theories that are especially designed to fit the realm of events we wish to account for. To understand the direction of the present study, please note that Kelly’s suggestion is not a push toward the practice of eclecticism, but rather toward the establishment of principles that might be applied in a very disciplined way.

In the field of language teaching, Kumaravadivelu (1994, 2003) described a “shift away from the conventional concept of method toward a ‘postmethod condition’ that motivates a search for an open-ended, coherent framework based on current theoretical, empirical, and pedagogical insights that will enable teachers to theorize from practice and practice what they theorize” (p. 27). He suggested a framework of macro strategies “derived from theoretical, empirical, and pedagogical knowledge related to L2 [second language] learning/teaching” (p. 32). His call is a move toward principled pragmatism.

The shift toward frameworks and principles in language teaching has also been pursued by others in the field. For example, Rod Ellis (2005) reviewed results from a variety of second language acquisition studies in order to identify general principles for language pedagogy. This effort resulted in the identification of ten specific principles to serve as the basis for instructed language learning. Another scholar, H. D. Brown (2001, 2007) summarized a history that has—in a very simplified view—been a search for the one ‘correct’ or ‘best’ method of teaching. This search has been described as “changing winds and shifting sands” (Marckwardt, 1972), a rally to “banners and bandwagons” (Close, 1977), “a pendulum swinging back and forth” (Mitchell & Vidal, 2001, p. 26), and a “major river, constantly flowing, fed by many sources of water” (p.27). H.D. Brown (2001) noted that by the 1980s the profession of language teaching had “learned to be cautiously eclectic in making enlightened choices of teaching practices that were solidly grounded” (p. 39), but suggests that this enlightened practice should be guided by “overarching principles of second language learning” (p. 54) upon which language teaching should be based.

Inspired in part by the shift toward principles in the fields of psychology and language teaching, I believe that the identification of common principles found in existing theories of learning, as well as those that emerge from experience, may be an important step toward closing the divide between practice and theory. A framework of common principles of learning would be of great benefit to both instructional designers and educational practitioners. Instead of repurposing and combining popular theories for uses they were not specifically designed for, effective instruction could be developed based on principles that embody the meaningful substrate underlying the theories. Empowered with such a foundation, instructional designers would be free to focus their time and effort on creating good instruction.

The Purpose of this Study

The purpose of this study was to identify fundamental and universal principles of learning that are either explicitly stated or implicitly assumed in the theoretical foundations of learning that most commonly influence instructional design today: behavioral, cognitive, constructive, human, and social.

The identification of principles to guide instructional design practice has already begun with Merrill’s work to identify “first principles of instruction” (2002a; 2007; 2009). Going beyond a mere statement of the theory, he has provided excellent, concrete examples that show how those principles can be applied in practice (2002b; 2002c; 2006; 2008a; 2008b; 2008c; 2009). Merrill characterizes his principles as relating “to creating learning environments and products rather than describing how learners acquire knowledge and skill from these environments or products” (Merrill, 2002a, p. 1). In contrast with Merrill’s principles of instruction, the principles to be identified in the present study are principles of learning. Principles of learning do not compete with principles of instruction, but are complementary to them, and may help explain the reasoning behind some of Merrill’s principles, providing further insight into why they are effective.

Note that use of the two adjectives fundamental and universal is specific and is intended to establish a very clear objective for this study. Fundamental principles are those that have a critical influence on learning—that is basic, vital principles upon which successful learning depends. Universal principles are those that might reasonably be construed to apply broadly to many different types of learning, including: changes in behavior, the acquisition of factual and conceptual knowledge, the mastery of complex motor skills, the development of intellectual capacity, and even changes in attitudes, desires, or beliefs.

Although a rational argument will be made to support claims of fundamentality and universality for the principles identified, I recognize that no such argument can ever be complete, and that the resulting ideas from this study will be, at best, tentative. Accepting this limitation, these two attributes together will serve as the criteria by which principles of learning will be identified from the theories reviewed. The justification for adopting these two particular attributes is that principles that meet, or at least have the clear potential of meeting, both criteria will provide the greatest utility in understanding the nature of learning in a variety of situations. The resulting principles will be analogous to the “basic methods” Reigeluth (1999) described when he distinguished them from “variable methods” (p. 20). When Merrill (2002a) compared his own principles of instruction to Reigeluth’s basic methods, he clarified the difference between basic and variable methods as follows:

A principle (basic method) is a relationship that is always true under appropriate conditions regardless of program or practice (variable methods). A practice is a specific instructional activity. A program is an approach consisting of a set of prescribed practices. Practices always implement or fail to implement underlying principles whether these principles are specified or not. A given instructional approach may only emphasize the implementation of one or more of these instructional principles. (p. 1)

The same relation of Merrill’s principles to Reigeluth’s basic methods also applies to the present study. Principles of learning that are fundamental and universal, by definition, should hold true regardless of the method, practice, approach or program within in which they are applied. Principles that do not appear to be absolutely essential to learning, or principles that apply only to a localized learning situation or only to a specific type of learning, are not the end goal of this study. The expected result of the present study is a list of descriptive principles of learning[2] that will assist instructional designers and educational practitioners with understanding or analyzing learning in, and preparing instruction for, many different contexts.

Overview of Chapters

This chapter has described a gap between existing theories of learning and their use in applied instructional design. Following the lead of efforts that have been made in the fields of clinical psychology and language teaching to address similar problems, an alternative principle-based approach to learning theory has been suggested as a possible solution to close this gap. The purpose for the present study has been defined as a search for universal and fundamental principles of learning that apply to all types of learning. Chapter two describes the method used to pursue this goal. In chapter three, 35 theories of learning that were selected for review and analysis are summarized. Chapter four reports on the themes identified. These themes are then organized into a coherent conceptual framework of learning in chapter five. In chapter six, concluding remarks are made, including: a review of what has been accomplished in the present study, limitations of the study, and directions for future application and research, building on the contribution of knowledge made by this study.

[1] Or, even worse, instruction that is produced in the absence of any sound theoretical basis at all.

[2] i.e., describing learning rather than prescribing how to facilitate it (C. M. Reigeluth, 1983)



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