How People Learn – Using learning theory to inform instruction.

head2“Learning styles” seem to be very popular these days in education.  However, the notion that each person learns differently is likely a myth (Olson, 2006). It is not a different learning style students enter instruction with, but different prior knowledge and experiences. In fact, when students receive instruction within their “style” of choice, they often perform more poorly on assessments (Salomon, 1984).  The explanation for this discrepancy is that students exert less mental effort on tasks they prefer due to perception of ease. Therefore, the students are not as actively mentally engaged in the learning activities. Additionally, we must consider the biological nature of learning.  Human beings, in a physiological sense, are not very different and learning is a chemical/physiological process occurring in the brain.  Why should we think one person’s brain works fundamentally differently than another?  We do not think this about other organs.

Perhaps, instead of focusing on students’ “learning styles” we should focus on what representation best suits the content being learned.  Instead of thinking some students are “hands-on” learners while others are not, we must realize that all students will benefit from concrete representations of concepts.  If I want to teach students about changing the oil in a car, having some read about it and others do it and still others act it out is, I’m sorry to say, ridiculous.  All of the students will benefit from holding a wrench and checking the final levels.  This does not mean we should only teach in the concrete realm, we must consistently go back and forth between concrete and abstract.  By starting with concrete examples, teachers can have students continually link abstract ideas to their concrete experiences. Below, I expand on what is known about learning and how learning theories can inform our practice.

Learning is not the rote memorization that is forced upon students by many teachers. The process of learning is how the learner makes meaning of new ideas and experiences by comparison to their current ideas or schemas. Experience is one of the major influences for creating meaning on the part of the learner that will be revisited.

Theories on learning can be separated into two different camps: Cognition and Behavior. Behaviorism is based on stimulus-response pairs, and the reinforcement or discouragement of a certain behavior. Behaviorism is an attractive theory because of its simplicity, ability to explain phenomena, and its basis in controlled research (Collins, 2002). A limitation of behaviorism is its focus on observable stimulus, conditions and behaviors. This narrow focus made it difficult for behaviorists to study understanding, reasoning, and thinking; ideas paramount to education (NRC, 2000).

The cognitive tradition varies from behaviorism in that it defines learning in terms of changes in the mental structures that contain information and in the procedures for operating on that information: how we learn as opposed to the observable result of what we learn (Champagne and Hornig).

One of the major theories behind cognition is the constructivist learning theory (CLT). CLT states that learners are actively building systems of meaning through their experiences, and assimilate and accommodate new information into these systems, or schemas (Slavin, 2003). The implications of this are great when considering new material in the classroom. If a student is given a reading assignment, they will make meaning of the new material based on their previous understanding. If the learner’s schema is greatly different from the new information, less of the information will be remembered, or it will be inaccurately assimilated into a previous schema (Champagne and Hornig).

Students enter a classroom with schemas that they have been building their entire life based on their experience. Because students have spent their entire life building their current schema, they are very resistant to change. Therefore, telling or narrating new information is not enough to induce a change in schema (Rowe and Holland, 1990; Saunders, 1992).

A common misconception about CLT is that a teacher should never give information. This misconception confuses a learning theory with a pedagogical theory. No matter how a student acquires new information, they will struggle to place it into a previous schema, or create a new schema for the information; this is constructive learning theory. Encouraging students to “discover” this information for themselves versus telling students the information is a pedagogical decision, either way the student must incorporate the new information (NRC, 2000).  Constructivist learning theory is powerful for explaining student struggles, “discovery learning” wrongly removes the teacher’s important role during instruction.

If any method of teaching is to be effective, teachers must realize that students make meaning based on their own previous understanding; therefore, two things must happen. First, the previous knowledge or schema needs to be identified and second, the learner needs to be actively engage in the learning in order to replace old ideas with new. In order for a learner to be actively engaged they need to recognize when they understand and when they do not yet understand. Learners need to be able to identify what kinds of evidence would be needed to convince them of new ideas, and learners should be able to devise ways to test their own schemas for accurate understanding (NRC, 2000). Notice, the traits of an active learner has similarities to the traits of a scientifically literate person according to the National Research Council!

When confronting students’ prior knowledge or misconceptions, it is important to consider the learners developmental stage. The reasoning demands of the learning environment need to be properly matched to learners’ level of mental development (Champagne and Hornig). Secondary students are typically in between the levels of concrete and formal thought; meaning they are beginning to understand abstract ideas that can explain things they can see (Karplus, 1977). This position in development of thought implies that teachers need to start with concrete experiences and ideas so that students have a foot hold on new ideas. Once the concept has been learned concretely, applications of the concepts in a more abstract way can be explored using formal thought. If the concrete idea is never introduced, many if not most, students will not be able to make meaning of the abstractions. Consideration of the learners’ zone of proximal development also needs to be considered when introducing new material or tasks (Dixon-Krauss, 1996). Tasks should not be too easy or too difficult. Tasks that are too easy can be seen as boring, and those that are too difficult can cause unnecessary frustrations.

Lastly, social learning theory states that learning occurs as a result of social interactions that take place in both formal and informal settings. Both settings will contribute to the student’s prior experiences and attitudes toward content will be shaped in both settings (Champagne and Hornig). The implications of student ideas from other social interactions are that these informal interactions may work for or against what a teacher is trying to accomplish in the classroom. Therefore, a teacher needs to find out what preconceptions about science students may have based on previous informal and formal social interactions.

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9 Responses to How People Learn – Using learning theory to inform instruction.

  1. Angela says:

    That’s powerful–thanks for sharing. Enjoyed your tweets on this topic, as well. I think your point about ALL students being hands-on learners is critical.


  2. Interesting points! Each of us has a context in which we see new information, and that context is different in every individual. I know if I’m going to learn how to do something mechanical, I need to do it physically myself many times until it’s as much a part of me as driving is.

    When I taught English back in the 1960’s I always had a student run the projector on the rare occasions it was used. I had had one opportunity to do this in an education course, and it was on a different brand of projector. I really had no opportunities to learn on the machine I actually would use, let alone repeated opportunities. Thus, I didn’t know how, and needed help from those who did know how.

    It is very hard for me to learn something new by just hearing it. I need to be able to read and think about new ideas — especially if they are in areas which are difficult for me such as economics, math, or science. Discussion helps. So does seeing illustrations of unfamiliar vocabulary (if this vocabulary can be illustrated. )If there is a process to learn, I must be able to do that process repeatedly before I “own” or “know” it.


    • jerridkruse says:

      I think the key to all of the things Barbara said she needs to do to learn something is that she needs to get her mind ACTIVELY engaged when trying to learn something. i would argue it is even less about the way material is presented (but of course that as an important role, read above), and more about whether we get kids to genuinely think about the material and wrestle with how the new ideas fit with their old ideas.


  3. ResearchChat (twitter) says:

    The reference to poorer achievement when learning styles is accommodated is rather old (1984). Are you familiar with any studies that have demonstrated this more recently?


    • jerridkruse says:

      yes, there are, I am aware of a 2005 reference as well as a 2003 I believe. I will post them later as i cannot remember them off the top of my head. The 1984 work was seminal, so thought it ought to be noted.


    • jerridkruse says:

      While I understand that 1984 was a while ago, some of the best education ideas are 100+ years old (Dewey, Rousseau). Some more recent work on ineffectiveness of learning styles includes: Feldon, 2005 – Dispelling a few myths about learning; Mayer and Massa, 2003 – Three facets of visual and verbal learners: Cognitive ability, cognitive style and learning preference; Willingham, 2005 – Do visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction?

      Each of these references point to no improvement or decreased learning when students “learning style” is identified and instruction is matched.


  4. Travisha says:

    Throughout my teacher training I have always been told that students have different learning style and they grasp content easily if they were provided different approaches. I have always asked these questions when I used to teach. While factors such as teacher, content of the subject, task remain the same how do students if approached differently could comprehend better. How do some students go through the drill of oral presentation and do better while some cannot. From my years of observation schemata play a dominant role in mastery. Experience or exposure to the content prior to learning make students better learner. Interesting presentation of the content make the difference. When learning is fun, that’s when students learn the most.


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