The Nature of Learning

The posting below is a nice summary of three main categories of learning theory: behaviorism, cognitivism, and the social construction of knowledge. It is from Chapter 5, The Organization of Teaching with Technology in, EFFECTIVE TEACHING WITH TECHNOLOGY IN HIGHER EDUCATION by A.W. (Tony) Bates and Gary Poole.  Copyright © 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 []. Reprinted with permission.


Gerry O'Connor

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                          THE NATURE OF LEARNING

Again, this is a huge topic.  There is a great deal of research into how students learn at the postsecondary level.  We particularly recommend the report of the National Research Council, as commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI).  This research is documented in How People Learn (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 1999).  One of the assumptions behind this work is that there is a significant gap between what is known about learning processes and how we teach; in other words, between research and practice.  The authors attempt, in a very practical way, to highlight just what is going on when people learn well.  We share their view that an understanding of learning processes should inform how we teach, including how we use technology for teaching.

We will just very briefly introduce some key concepts that need to be explained in order to show the link between different understandings of how students learn and the design of technology-based teaching.

There are many different theories of learning.  We will look first at three main categories of learning theory: behaviorism, cognitivism, and the social construction of knowledge.  We also discuss some issues arising from these theories, such as cognitive development, student differences, and motivation and engagement in learning.  These themes of how students learn and what influences their learning will, as with epistemology, recur throughout the book as we examine the role of media and technology in teaching and learning, and the planning, design, and delivery of technology-based courses.


Behaviorist psychology arose in the 1920s and 1930s from an attempt to model the study of human behavior on the methods of the physical sciences.  Therefore it concentrates attention on aspects of behavior that are capable of direct observation and measurement.  At the heart of behaviorism is the idea that certain behavioral responses become associated in a mechanistic and invariant way with specific stimuli. Hence a certain stimulus will evoke a particular response.  At its simplest, the response may be a purely physiological reflex action, like the contraction of an iris in the eye when stimulated by bright light.


However, most behavior is more complex.  Nevertheless, according to behaviorists, it is possible to reinforce through reward or punishment the association between any particular stimulus or event and a particular response.  The bond formed between a stimulus and a response will depend on the existence of an appropriate means of reinforcement at the time of association between stimulus and response.  Behavior therefore can be modified or controlled by appropriately reinforcing random behavior (trial and error) as it occurs.


This is essentially the concept of operant conditioning, a principle most clearly developed by Skinner (1969).  He showed that pigeons could be trained in quite complex behavior by rewarding particular, desired response, randomly occurring, with appropriate stimuli, such as the provision of food pellets.  He also found that intervening stimuli to be present, thus linking an initially remote stimulus with a complex behavior.  Furthermore, inappropriate or previously learned behavior could be extinguished by withdrawing reinforcement.  Skinner also claimed that rewarding behavior was more effective than punishment.


Underlying this approach is the belief that learning is governed by invariant principles, and these principles are independent of conscious control on the part of the learner.  Behaviorists attempt to maintain a high degree of objectivity in how they view human activity, and they generally reject reference to unobservable states, such as feelings, attitudes, and consciousness.  Human behavior is above all seen as predictable and controllable.  Behaviorism stems from a strongly objectivist epistemological position.


Skinner's theory led to the development of teaching machines, measurable learning objectives, computer-assisted instruction, and multiple choice tests.  There was also a tendency until recently to see technology, particularly computers, as being closely associated with behaviorist approaches to learning.  Today there has been a strong movement away from behaviorist approaches to teaching in higher education, although its influence is still strong in corporate and military training and in some areas of science, engineering, and medical training.




Behaviorism denies or ignores mental activity as the basis for learning. Learning for behaviorists is determined by external environmental structures that lead to reinforcement of behavior, rather than to mental processing or conscious thought on the part of the learner.  Cognitivists, though, insist that there are mental processes "internal and conscious representations of the world" that are essential for human learning. Fontana (1981) summarizes the cognitive approach as follows:

       "The cognitive approach holds that if we are to understand learning we cannot confine ourselves to observable behavior, but must also concern ourselves with the learner's ability mentally to reorganize his psychological field (i.e., his inner world of concepts, memories, etc.) in response to experience.  This latter approach therefore lays stress not only on the environment, but upon the way in which the individual interprets and tries to make sense of the environment.  It sees the individual not as the somewhat mechanical product of his environment, but as an active agent in the learning process, deliberately trying to process and categorize the stream of information fed into him by the external world." (p. 148)

Thus the search for rules, principles, or relationships in processing new information, and the search for meaning and consistency in reconciling new information with previous knowledge, are key concepts in cognitive psychology.  Cognitive psychology is concerned with identifying and describing mental processes.  In some ways, basic mental processes are often considered genetic or hard-wired but can be programmed or modified by external factors, such as experience.


Cognitive approaches to learning cover a very wide range.  On the one hand, attempts have been made through areas such as artificial intelligence to provide mechanical, electronic, and physical representations of mental processes, reflecting very much as objectivist epistemological position.  On the other hand, teachers who place a strong emphasis on learnersÕ developing personal meaning through reflection, analysis, and construction of knowledge through conscious mental processing would indicate much more of a constructivist epistemological position.  Cognitive approaches to learning "with their focus on abstraction, generalization, and creative thinking" seem to fit much better in higher education.


                     The Social Construction of Knowledge


We have pulled together different theories of learning here under the common theme of the social construction of knowledge.  Both behaviorist and some elements of cognitive theories of learning are deterministic, in the sense that behavior and learning are believed to be rule-based and operate under predictable and constant conditions over which the individual learner has no or little control.


However, the trend these days is to recognize the importance of consciousness, free will, and social influences on learning.  Although constructivism has become the "flavor of the month" in higher education in recent years, the belief that humans are essentially active and free and strive for meaning in personal terms has been around for a long time. Carl Rogers (1969) stated that "every individual exists in a continually changing world of experience in which he is the center." The external world is interpreted within the context of that private world.


Individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state.  It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, resolve incongruities, and reconcile external realities with prior experience. The means by which this is done are complex and multifaceted, from engaging in personal reflection to seeking new information to testing ideas through social contact with others.  Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses.  Reality is always tentative and dynamic.


For many educators, the social context of learning is critical. Ideals are tested not just on the teacher but also with fellow students, friends, and colleagues.  Furthermore, knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed: schools, universities.  What is taken to be ÒvaluedÓ knowledge is also socially constructed.  Knowledge is thus not just about content but also about values.


One set of values comprises those around the concept of a liberal education.  According to this notion, one of the principal aims of education is to develop a critical awareness of the values and ideologies that shape the form of received knowledge.  This aim suggests a constant probing and criticism of received knowledge.


One consequence of theories of social construction of knowledge is that each individual is considered unique, because the interaction of each person's different experiences and the search for personal meaning result in each person being different from anyone else.  Behavior is thus not predictable or deterministic, at least not at the individual level (although pollsters will argue that patterns of group behavior is predictable).


The key point here is that learning is seen as essentially a social process, requiring communication among learner, teacher, and others.  This social process cannot effectively be replaced by technology, although technology may facilitate it.



Donovan, M., Bransford, J., & Pellegrino, J. (Eds.) (1999). How people

learn: Bridging research and practice.  Washington, DC: National Research

Council, U.S. Department of EducationÕs Office of Educational Research and


Fontana, D. (1981). Psychology for teachers. London: Macmillan/British

Psychological Society.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Skinner, B. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-