Domain-Specific Theories of Learning

The title of this dissertation needs some explanation. Specifically, it remains to be clarified what domain-specific theories of learning are, and how they are related to the principles-of-learning framework that has been described. To begin, Van Oers (1998) described a transition of learning theory in past decades from “being an oversimplified general theory…[to] a complex theory with several parameters that need to be specified for different real-world conditions” (p. 473):

The idea that all kinds of learning processes in any situation can be accounted for by one limited general set of laws or mechanisms, has been replaced by a view on learning that  acknowledges the importance of the content of learning, as well as the nature of the learning situation. Domain specificity and situatedness are now generally recognized as major parameters of any theory of learning. Context has become a hot issue in modern educational science. (Van Oers, 1998, p. 473)

According to Mayer (2002), this transition of focus from grand theories of learning to domain-specific theories of learning began as early as the mid-20th century:

Throughout the first half of the 20th century researchers sought to build grand theories of learning that could account for all forms of learning, but by mid-century it became clear that such efforts had failed (Mayer, 2001). Instead, today scholars focus on domain-specific theories of learning, such as trying to understand how people learn how something works or how to carry out a given procedure. Gone are the days when grand theories of learning dominated psychology and education, replaced today with more focused and modest theories of learning. (pp. 101-102)

Mayer attributed this transition of focus as a response to the challenge from the field of education to psychology “to build theories of learning that account for academic performance” (Veronikas & Shaughnessy, 2005, p. 185):

The result has been the emergence of psychologies of subject matter in which the goal is no longer to create general theories of learning and development but rather to focus on how students develop and learn in specific subject areas. For example, we now have research-based theories of how students learn to read words, to comprehend passages, to write essays, to solve math problems, or to think scientifically. Domain-specific theories of learning and development have been far more successful than classic general theories, producing an advance to psychological theory and educational practice. (p. 185)

These statements might give one the impression that there is a flurry of activity toward the mass creation of domain-specific theories. However, in my own experience, that does not seem to be the case. Though there certainly appears to be a general abandonment of the in-tact use of grand theories of learning, but I was hard pressed to find many formal definitions of domain-specific theory or evidence of methodological and disciplined creation of such theories. In fact, I am aware of only two significant efforts, and will briefly summarize each.

Cobb, Confrey, diSessa, Lehrer, and Schauble (2003) described design experiments[1] in educational research as a method for developing domain-specific theories of learning, or in their words, “crucibles for the generation and testing of theory” (p. 9). In their article,  they referred to domain-specific theories of learning as “humble” (p. 9), “not merely in the sense that they are concerned with domain-specific learning processes, but also because they are accountable to the activity of design” (p. 10). They explained that in comparison with general philosophical orientations—e.g., behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, humanism, and socialism—which “often fail to provide detailed guidance in organizing instruction” (p. 10), and in comparison with ” ‘high’ theory [which tends] to pass over what may be important details in an effort to paint phenomena in uniform terms” (p. 13), these theories “must do real work” (p. 10). Their claim is that theories developed by method of the design experiment, because of its practical nature, are sure to be both relevant and specific, meaning they “do real work in practical educational contexts” (p. 13).

Unfortunately, with their focus on the process of conducting a design experiment, Cobb et al., only hinted at a definition of domain-specific theories of learning by noting the importance of “conjectured starting points, elements of a trajectory, and prospective endpoints” (p. 11), accompanied by “conjectures about both significant shifts in student reasoning and the specific means of supporting those shifts” (p. 11). Thus, a domain-specific theory by this definition accounts for (a) the learner’s starting point, (b) their prospective endpoint, (c) the trajectory between the start and end points, (d) progressive shifts toward the endpoint, and (e) an instructional theory of how to support those shifts. An example of the type of design experiment described in Cobb et al. (2003) can be found in Cobb, McClain, and Gravemeijer (2003) in which the expected initial trajectory, process of validation, and modified trajectory are described.

In comparison, Bunderson (2003; 2011) has provided a much more detailed and complete articulation of domain-specific theories of learning, with an emphasis on measurement and construct validity. His description begins with the introduction of the term domain theory, by Messick:

The boundaries and structure of the construct domain can be addressed by means of job analysis, task analysis, curriculum analysis, and especially domain theory, in other words, scientific inquiry into the nature of the domain processes and the ways in which they combine to produce effects or outcomes. A major goal of domain theory is to understand the construct-relevant sources of task difficulty, which then serves as a guide to the rational development and scoring of performance tasks and other assessment formats. At whatever stage of its development, then, domain theory is a primary basis for specifying the boundaries and structure of the construct to be assessed. (as quoted in Bunderson, 2011, p. 3)

Out of respect for Sam Messick, Bunderson has frequently used the term domain theory in his writing, but to avoid confusion with other definitions of the term, such as those used in computer science and chemistry (2011, p. 4), he has also introduced the more descriptive label learning theory of progressive attainments, occasionally appending to it in X domain, in order to “identify the local learning domain where the theory has context” (p. 4). The occasion reference to local learning theory is also used.

To define domain, Bunderson (2011) adopted McShane’s cognitive developmental definition:

The term “domain” … denotes a collection of tasks that share a common representation system and a common set of procedures for operating on these representations to perform tasks. Thus, for example, number is a domain of cognition, so is language…On this account, chess is a domain; music also… domains may overlap, either by having similar representations…or similar procedures. (McShane, 1991, as quoted in Bunderson, 2011, p. 4)

Bunderson (2011) also described the collection of tasks within a domain as being ordered, where “increasingly difficult tasks may be performed by persons who have progressed greater distances along important dimensions of the domain” (p. 4). He combined these ideas to produce the following definition of domain theory:

Domain theory (or learning theory of progressive attainments) is a descriptive theory of the contents, substantive processes, dimensional structure, and boundaries of a domain of human learning or growth that gives an account of construct-relevant sources of task difficulty, and conjointly, an account of the substantive processes operative in persons at different levels of learning or growth along the scale(s) that span the domain. A domain theory is associated with one or more measurement instruments, technological devices that can come in contact with learners at different levels of progress, and in so doing, can associate states of the learner with levels of attainment defined for each dimension in the domain.

It is important to note that theories of progressive attainments “give a conjoint account [italics added]of both person proficiency and task difficulty” (Bunderson, 2011, p. 13), with person proficiency ranging from the most novice within the domain (person alpha) to the most advanced (person omega), and with tasks ranging from easiest (task alpha) to the most difficult (task omega). An example of a design experiment which used Bunderson’s conception of domain theory to develop a theory of progressive attainments in the domain of fluent oral reading with expression is described in both Bunderson (pp. 15-20) and Bunderson, Wiley, and McBride (Bunderson, Wiley, & McBride, 2009, pp. 334-345).

Bunderson’s description of domain theory is the most complete description of domain-specific theories of learning that I am aware of. In compliment to what he has already described, I would like to add my own provisional definition in terms of the principles-of-learning framework of the present study. This definition mirrors some of the criteria already mentioned, but in different terms, and adds additional criteria which I believe are necessary components of the more complete picture.

According to the principles-of-learning framework, a domain-specific theory of learning must account for

  1. The various types of increase in capacity and changes in habit that are possible within the domain, from the most basic levels at which participation is possible (in terms of both person ability and task difficulty, and for all tasks in the domain), to the most advanced extent where all potential for capacity increase or change is fully realized.
  2. All possible targets of learning, both interim targets that enable subsequent progression in the domain and end-goal targets at which full potential is reached, as well as various learning progress pathways through the domain along which those targets lie.
  3. General expectations of range of variability of, and common values for, parameters of change, specifically (a) the expected number of repetitions, (b) the amount of time necessary to attain each target along a learning progress pathway, (c) the expected granularity of step size, (d) the sequence of targets and connected pathways of learning, (e) anticipated similarities and differences between what has already been learned and what is being learned simultaneously, (f) factors of significance, and (g) integrated methods of feedback that allow for informed, dynamic adjustment of the parameters of change to meet the needs of the individual learner.
  4. Various practice models and exercises that provide for graduated progression along a pathway of learning toward a specific target.
  5. Variations of context in which domain performance is expected to occur, including any limited context that might be used to control step size and sequence (i.e., providing scaffolding by holding certain context variables constant or by introducing performance aids of some kind).
  6. Current capacity, habits of engagement or aversion, and general factors of motivation and inhibition; as well as a model for dynamic, ongoing reappraisal of, and compensation for, the same.
  7. The roles and agency of the learner and others acting and interacting in the domain, both during practice and in authentic performance or participation.

In short, a domain-specific theory of learning should account for each component in the principles-of-learning framework. It should describe not only the learning pathways through the domain with the task models they represent and instruments for measuring and reporting progress, but it should also describe the means by which attainments are made (i.e., the seven principles of change and expected values), the context of practice, factors of engagement, and the roles of agents involved. Without detracting from the five practical uses to which the principles-of-learning framework might be applied that were described in the previous section (namely, communication, evaluation, diagnosis, development, and research), I submit that its role in the creation of domain-specific theories of learning might be its most valuable application of all.

[1] Cobb et al. (2003, p. 9), acknowledge the term design experiment to Brown (1992, p. 141) and Collins (1990), although they also note that pedagogical design has informed the development of theory for several decades.


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