Learning theories

We structure our teaching based on how we believe people learn. Learning theories have changed and evolved through time. In the past half-century, however, three sorts of learning theories have guided our approaches to teaching. Mayes and de Freitas (2013) loosely grouped these into three perspectives:

Quotation

Pedagogy, as the art and science of helping other people learn, can be practised in a variety of ways, including through direct face-to-face teaching. Our work seeks to understand and inform pedagogy that is enacted more indirectly as design for learning – that is, where people committed to facilitating other people's learning carry out their work primarily through the design of worthwhile learning tasks and/or the design of appropriately supportive learning resources.

Goodyear and Carvalho (2013) p.49

  • The associative perspective models learning as a gradual process of building and strengthening connections, through sequences of activity and feedback. Well-known theories include behaviourism and connectivism.
  • The cognitive perspective models learning as the process of building an individual framework for understanding, through constructing and interpreting meaning. Well-known theories include constructivism and social constructivism.
  • The situative perspective models learning as the process of participating in successful practices within the social world. Well-known theories include vicarious learning and communities of practice.

Social constructivism as the foundation
for teaching and learning

The idea that we construct knowledge in our minds as we interact with the physical, social, and mental worlds we inhabit (i.e. constructivism) is currently very popular as the foundation for teaching and learning. 'Social constructivism' is a variant of constructivism, which maintains that knowledge construction is facilitated through social interaction (Vygotsky, 1978)

In constructivist learning theories, learning is understood as adjusting our mental structures to accommodate our ever growing, ever changing stores of knowledge (Piaget, 1957). Learning is understood as an active process and as being intimately tied to individual experience and the contexts of that experience, no matter how or where it takes place. These ideas have pedagogical implications.

Whether or not you are familiar with these learning theories, we all hold some beliefs about how people learn, and these influence the teaching strategies we adopt. Constructivism has shifted the pedagogical focus from knowledge transmission to knowledge construction: that is, from teaching to learning. This shift in thinking has important implications for the design of online courses.

In the following video, consider how the featured educators design their online courses to encourage their students' construction of knowledge and the development of collaborative communities.

In the following interview, consider how the featured educators design their online courses to encourage their students' construction of knowledge and the development of collaborative communities.

Click 'Play' to start the video.
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As you have seen, online educators are designing and teaching their courses to encourage collaboration and knowledge construction. Indeed, the online medium seems well suited to constructivist designs, and moving a course online might be a good opportunity to explore such approaches.

How constructivist is your teaching?


In the following activity, rate how often you use each of the learning and/or assessment activities listed in your teaching by clicking on the most appropriate option – 'Never', 'Infrequently', 'Frequently' or 'Almost always' – for each activity. Then, click the 'View feedback' button to view your score and determine what your results say about your approach to teaching.
Consider the following ten learning and/or assessment activities, and for each one indicate whether you use it 'never', 'infrequently', 'frequently' or 'almost always'. Once you have considered each activity, use the scoring system to work out whether your teaching is inclined towards objectivism or constructivism.

Key terms

Epistemology: Theory of knowledge; a branch of philosophy that is...

Foundations

Piaget: Jean Piaget is probably best known for his theory of cognitive...

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Mastering Online Pedagogy
UNIT | 1 : How people learn
PAGE TITLE | Constructivism

  • Activity 1 of 10: Lectures
  • Activity 2 of 10: Group discussion
  • Activity 3 of 10: Textbook readings
  • Activity 4 of 10: Inquiry-based activities
  • Activity 5 of 10: Quizzes
  • Activity 6 of 10: Projects
  • Activity 7 of 10: Videos
  • Activity 8 of 10: Simulations
  • Activity 9 of 10: Worksheets/problems
  • Activity 10 of 10: Essays

Work out your score

Use the following system to work out your score:

For all the odd numbered items, award yourself:

  • Minus 2 for each 'never'
  • Minus 1 for each 'infrequently'
  • Plus 1 for each 'frequently'
  • Plus 2 for each 'almost always or always'

For all the even numbered items, award yourself:

  • Plus 2 for each 'never'
  • Plus 1 for each 'infrequently'
  • Minus 1 for each 'frequently'
  • Minus 2 for each 'almost always'

Feedback

If your total is a positive number, your teaching is less constructivist; if it is a negative number, it is more constructivist. Your score can range between -20 and +20. The size of the number indicates the strength of your teaching tendencies.

What was your score in the activity? Does it reflect your beliefs about how people learn?

In the following activity, enter your thoughts in the space provided and then click the 'View feedback' button to see our thoughts.
Consider the following question, then continue on for some feedback.

Portfolio activity

Having considered the ideas expressed in the interviews, think about...

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Mastering Online Pedagogy
UNIT | 1 : How people learn
PAGE TITLE | Constructivism

Does your teaching reflect your beliefs about learning?


Feedback:

Constructivism maintains that learning is an active process tied to individual experience, no matter how or where it takes place. Constructivism shifts the pedagogical focus from teaching to learning. This shift, an ongoing theme in this course, will be discussed in greater depth in subsequent sections.

Constructivist ideas are certainly not new. Our notions of how people learn, however, change over time; epistemological approaches wax and wane. Since the 1980s, constructivism has been on the rise.

Useful links

Helen Beetham produced a summary of learning theories for a series of...

Additionally, advocates of constructivist approaches suggest that the pedagogical approaches consistent with this philosophy support the kinds of higher order learning we expect at university level. There is broad agreement that higher education across a range of disciplines has as its goals the support of high-level skills such as interpreting, analysing, and evaluating the quality of information. This may entail identifying information that is relevant to a problem, highlighting connected and conflicting information, finding flaws in logic and questionable assumptions, and explaining why information is credible, unreliable, or limited. It is difficult to nurture these abilities by simply telling students that they must do them. Students need supportive opportunities to exercise these and other higher order thinking skills.

In the screens which follow, we will explore one constructivist framework that might help you to think about appropriate designs for promoting university-level learning online, especially ways to make your online courses more constructivist.


Quotation

Pedagogy, as the art and science of helping other people learn, can be practised in a variety of ways, including through direct face-to-face teaching. Our work seeks to understand and inform pedagogy that is enacted more indirectly as design for learning – that is, where people committed to facilitating other people's learning carry out their work primarily through the design of worthwhile learning tasks and/or the design of appropriately supportive learning resources.

Goodyear and Carvalho (2013) p.49

Putting a course online is an excellent opportunity for rethinking its design. What questions do you have about your own courses – or about teaching and learning in general?

Key terms

Epistemology: Theory of knowledge; a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature and origins of knowledge and asks the question 'how do we learn?'

Constructivism: Learning theory that maintains knowledge is constructed in our minds.

Social constructivism: Further argues that knowledge construction is facilitated through social interaction.

Constructivist pedagogies: Pedagogies which emphasise facilitation of learning, learner-centredness, social interaction, and the development of learning environments (as opposed to teaching environments).

Connectivism: Uses the metaphor of a network to emphasise the role of others in experiential learning, particularly in online contexts.

Foundations

Portfolio

Duration: 30 minutes

Having considered the ideas expressed in the interviews, think about how you can design your own course. What can you do to encourage social interaction, collaboration and the social construction of knowledge?

Download the attached document to record your thoughts, or complete the relevant page of your Teaching Online portfolio, so that you can add to them as you progress through the course. This will help you build up a good collection of ideas for your own courses.

Useful links