The purpose of the present study has been to review theories of learning in the behavioral, cognitive, constructive, human, and social traditions to identify principles of learning local to those theories which might represent specific instances of more universal principles fundamentally requisite to the facilitation of learning in general. The basic premise underlying this goal is that throughout human history, and most prolifically in the last 125 years or so, many different views of learning have been elaborated. Though to one degree or another each view is different from the others, it has been assumed that each presents a valid view of learning—valid in the sense that each is based on a sincere conviction regarding the nature of learning and how it is facilitated.
Many of the ideas reviewed have resulted from, or been supported by, direct empirical evidence. Others have been suggested based on observational or practical experience of the theorist. The ideas come from different points in time, are described from a variety of perspectives, and emphasize different aspects and types of learning; yet there are a number of common themes shared among them regarding the means by which learning occurs. It is hypothesized that such themes represent universal and fundamental principles of learning. These principles are the objective of the present study. They have been sought through careful review and analysis of both theoretical and empirical literature by methods of textual research (Clingan, 2008) and constant comparative analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), as has been described in chapter two. Ten such principles have been identified:
- Repetition – Learning is facilitated by repeated experience. This principle subsumes local principles of learning such as Thorndike’s law of exercise, multiple reinforced trials of behavioral learning, maintenance and elaborative rehearsal in cognitive learning theory, series of failed attempts followed by insight and success in Kohler’s experiments with apes, learning of a concept through successive encounters with examples and non-examples in Ausubel’s subsumption theory, Bruner’s spiral curriculum, and Engestrom’s cycles of learning.
- Time – Learning takes time. The amount of time required for learning is primarily a function of the total number repetitions required and their necessary distribution due to mental or physical fatigue. Time is not an active factor in learning, but its passing allows for active learning processes to take place.
- Step Size – Smaller increments of attainment are more easily and more quickly achieved than larger ones. Step size is defined not by the amount or complexity of content or the intricacy and difficulty of the act to be learned, but rather by the amount of effort necessary to learn it. Although amount and complexity are often positively correlated with effort, it is the latter by which step size is defined. Effort can only be determined by simultaneously taking into account both the nature of the task and the capacity of the individual.
- Sequence – Prior learning may facilitate or hinder ensuing attainment. This principle subsumes local principles of learning such as Thorndike’s associative shifting, Pavlov’s higher-order conditioning, Skinner’s shaping and vanishing, proactive and retroactive interference, the role of automaticity in facilitating new learning, the availability of anchoring items in the process of subsumption, tuning and restructuring of schema, endogenous constructivism, Piaget’s cognitive substructures formed through sensori-motor action that serve as the foundation of intelligence for all later learning, and the development of self-worth and self-efficacy.
- Contrast – That which is to be learned must be differentiated from and related to that which has already been learned, or from that which is similar, but critically different. Local principles of learning subsumed by the universal principle of contrast include things such as: stimulus identifiability; discrimination learning; pattern recognition; clustering; subordinate, superordinate, and combinatorial subsumption; the need for examples and non-examples as well as varied context; specialization and generalization; the challenging of student hypotheses in constructive learning; and sequences of increasing diversity in cognitive apprenticeship.
- Significance – That which is to be learned must be significant in some way to the learner. Significance is found in imagery, attention, the expenditure of effort, intensity, familiarity, emotion, mental vigor and receptivity, elaboration, depth of processing, relation to prior experience, anchoring ideas, schema activation, active participation, and novelty.
- Feedback – Feedback is the means by which learning is directed toward a specific target of attainment. This principle includes the direct, planned, instructional feedback which the term commonly refers to, but is used here in a much larger sense, encompassing also local principles of learning such as reward and punishment, results of trial and error learning, performance outcomes, the incongruence of schemata with functional demand, contradictions to hypotheses, observed outcomes of vicarious experiences, and self-evaluation or critique.
- Context – Learning is facilitated by a context of practice that is the same as, or accurately represents, the context of performance. Context is defined by the features of a situation including the total surroundings and properties of objects. Varied practice promotes generalization and independence of association or performance from only one specific context.
- Engagement – Learning is engaging when the learner is capable of doing so, and when motivation outweighs inhibition. This principle subsumes local principles of learning such as Thorndike’s concepts of set or attitude and original tendencies, biological drives, Skinner’s concept of reinforcement, Hull’s reaction potential, Este’s anticipation of reward, general states of emotional and health, the need for achievement and affiliation, the need for safety, curiosity, the need for exploration and manipulation, novelty, expectancy and confidence, and a person’s desire for prediction and control.
- Agency – Learners are not passive recipients of learning, but active agents with the ability to choose how they will apply their attention and effort, and to choose what learning activities they will engage in. Others may exercise their agency to promote or inhibit the agency of the learner, and may play a role in facilitating or impeding successful learning. This principle covers both the agency of the learner as well as the agency of others who may affect, in some way, that person’s learning. Although behavioral learning theory generally rejected the idea of will, examples are cited that demonstrate the active agency of the experimenter and the resulting influence of his actions on the learner.
The remainder of this section will present a brief summary of each of the principles identified and show how they are derived from, and connected to, the preceding research. Because of the volume of literature reviewed and the data collected, this presentation will contain only a few illustrative quotes and references to the most exemplary citations relevant to each theme. A more comprehensive list of citations, including several direct quotes which best represent the ties between the themes (principles) identified and the literature reviewed is available by request.