Approach to Training: An Introduction to Theories of Learning
A learning theory is a systematic statement of principles and generalizations that provide a coherent framework for understanding how and why people learn. It was through the work of psychologists and their understanding of human development during the first half of the twentieth century that learning theories emerged. The only thing that remains consistent about learning theories is their steady evolution, incorporating new observations, ideas and technologies as more information becomes available. More recently, learning theories have become specialized, taking into account the diversity of experiences and exposures which shape the human personality: andragogy (the method and practice of teaching adult learners) has expanded the field of pedagogy (the art and science of teaching); cultural influences which affect minorities; how learning disabilities challenge, but not handicap, those who are afflicted. What follows in this paper is a brief introduction to the main theories of learning. It would be impossible to adequately cover all the theories in existence in one paper and the reader is encouraged to continue exploring the topic. At the end I have provided some sources which I have found reliable. However, there is no shortage of internet blogs, webpages and social media which provide very useful, easily accessible information. It can be overwhelming and time consuming but a fuller understanding of all the exciting advances in the field of education in general, and higher education in particular, will only come through sincere devotion to the task.
For every individual at every age, from newborn to octogenarian, behaviorists describe natural laws that govern how simple actions and environmental responses shape complex competencies, such as reading a book or making a family dinner. Learning theorists believe that development occurs in small increments and that change is cumulative. The specific laws of learning apply to conditioning, the processes by which responses become linked to particular stimuli; it is sometimes called S-R (stimulus-response) conditioning and there are two types:
“Pleasant consequences are sometimes called ‘rewards’ and unpleasant consequences are sometimes called ‘punishments’. For example, parents punish their children by withholding dessert, by spanking them, by not letting them play, by speaking harshly to them, and so on. But it is possible that a particular child might, for instance, dislike the dessert so that being deprived of it is no punishment. Another child might not mind a spanking, especially if that is the only time the parents pays attention to the child. In this case, the intended punishment is actually a reward. Once a behavior has been conditioned (learned), animals (including humans) continue to perform it even if pleasurable consequences occur only occasionally or continue to avoid it even if punishment is rare.”2
“Of the numerous stimuli that influence how people will behave at any given moment, none is more ubiquitous or effective than the actions of others.” -Albert Bandura
That human beings are social creatures, craving and appreciating the warmth of touch, the affection of a hug, the pride of loved ones, should not surprise us. Social scientists have longed established the benefits of social interaction (relationships formed with family, community and work environments) on human health and well-being, with some evidence suggesting the effect is stronger in men.4,5 Social isolation has serious negative mental (depression and cognitive decline) and physical impacts (higher rates of morbidity and mortality).6
“Students should construct their own knowledge”
The constructivist theory of learning is very popular across all levels of education but is particularly favored by institutions of higher education. The learner is not a passive recipient of knowledge rather, an active participant in constructing the knowledge. Because of vast differences in the levels of knowledge (experience) which each student brings, the learning which occurs is highly individualized as the learner is building on his/her own pre-existing conceptual frameworks. Constructivists believe learning is driven by the learner’s attempts at finding a solution to a problem utilizing information they already know. Building on the learner’s prior knowledge is of significant importance in constructivism and the process must be interesting, appealing and engaging; it must be meaningful.
“Today’s average student is no longer the 18-year-old whose parents drive her up to “State U” in a minivan stuffed with boxes. Instead, the “new normal” student may be a 24-year-old returning veteran, a 36-year-old single mother, a part-time student juggling work and college, or the first-generation college student. The faces we picture as our college hopefuls can’t be limited by race, age, income, zip code, disability, or any other factor.” — Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education.8
It is tempting to use age as a qualifier for “adult”-ism. Adulthood can be defined biologically (the age at which an individual can reproduce), socially (when an individual begins to perform adult roles such as full-time worker, participating citizen, spouse, parent, etc.), psychologically (when an individual develops a self-concept of being responsible for their own life), spiritually and legally (the age that an individual can vote, drive, marry, etc.).
We think of an adult as a person that is fully grown and developed but what does that really mean? What are the dangers of making generalizations about adult learners especially taking into consideration our own personal beliefs as educators? Whose conconcept of an adult learner will we use? Andragogy is the art and science of helping adults learn and it was studied and developed by Malcolm Knowles who noticed key differences in the characteristics of young and older learners. As people mature: 11, 12
- they become increasingly independent and self-directed (self-concept).
- they have accumulated experiences that provide a fertile resource for learning (experience).
- they are more interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives (readiness to learn, relevance).
- they become more problem-centered rather than subject-centered (orientation to learning).
- they become more motivated by various internal incentives, such as need for self-esteem, curiosity, desire to achieve, and satisfaction of accomplishment (motivation to learn).
Knowles postulated that learning was lifelong and completed at specific stages. Because adults manage other aspects of their lives, they are capable of directing or, at least, assisting in the planning and implementation of their own learning. “Non-traditional learner” is the more recent moniker attributed to those in this group. Key characteristics distinguishing them from other college students is the “high likelihood that they are juggling other life roles while attending school, including those of worker, spouse or partner, parent, caregiver, and community member.”12 From andragogy other methodologies (self-directed learning, experiential learning and transformational learning) emerged which capitalize on the strengths of adult learners.
Within the last decade, due in no small part to technological advances allowing for broader dissemination, institutions and programs geared toward serving adult students have proliferated. Programs that accommodate adult students’ preferences for “active learning strategies that support cognitive growth and transformational learning”10 and “their frequent desire for highly structured learning experiences that provide a clear roadmap of teacher expectations”13 are the most successful.
Only after many years of teaching to our diverse student population would a professor at Hostos be able to make any definitive claims regarding the effectiveness of any of these theories. But with
with the support of senior faculty, college administrators and the vast resources available through the Center for Teaching and Learning, Hostos faculty can make the journey through teaching and learning a great success.
1. Beckerman, N. Teaching the Teachers. https://www.aaup.org/article/teaching-teachers#.WKsu1jsrI2w.AAUP.
2. Berger, K. The developing person through childhood and adolescence, 7th Edition.
3. Merrienboer, J., Sweller, J. Cognitive load theory and complex learning: recent developments and future directions. Educational Psychology Review. 2005;17(2):147-177.
4. Uphoff, E., et al. A systematic review of the relationships between social capital and socioeconomic inequalities in health: a contribution to understanding the psychosocial pathway of health inequalities. International Journal for Equity in Health. 2013;12(1):54.
5. Umberson, D., et al. Social relationships and health behavior across the life course. Annual Review of Sociology. 2010;36:139–157.
6. Cornwell, E., Waite, L. Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2009;50(1):31-48.
7. Bandura A. Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychol Rev. 1977;84:191–215.doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.84.2.191.
8. Office of Educational Technology. Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education: A Supplement to the National Education Technology Plan. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education; 2017.
9. Davenport, J., & Davenport, J. A. A chronology and analysis of the andragogy debate. Adult Educational Quarterly. 1985;35(3):152-159.
10. The Condition of Education: Characteristics of Postsecondary Students. nces.ed.gov. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_csb.asp. Accessed January 5, 2018.
11. Knowles, M. The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston: Gulf.
12. Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education. New York: Cambridge–The Adult Education Company; 1980.
—————————About the Author————————-
Allied Health Sciences Department
Diana Macri is an Assistant Professor in the Dental Hygiene Unit of the Allied Health Department. Primarily trained as a dental hygienist, she earned a Master of Education degree from Baruch College in 2012 and now considers higher education her passion. An avid writer and reader, she teaches a Writing Intensive course titled “Ethics Jurisprudence and Practice Management” in addition to two other core dental hygiene courses. She believes strongly in advocacy for Hisp`anic and Latino populations, both in the oral health professions and in education. Through her work as Trustee of the Hispanic Dental Association, Governing Council member of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene and member of the Minority Affairs Advisory Committee of the American Dental Education Association, she is able to use her voice to advance these priorities. She is deeply committed to utilizing evidence based technologies and teaching methodologies which promote student success and is invigorated by working alongside the many faculty and staff at Hostos who are equally dedicated.