Reflection on Learning Theories and Instruction

Do instructional designers need to know about learning theory to guide them in developing effective instruction? This is a question I hoped to answer by taking a graduate course in learning theories and instruction. Now that I am in the final week of the course, I will attempt to answer it as I reflect on what I have learned.

First, I learned that eight weeks was not long enough to totally grasp learning theories and their implications for instructional design. Scientifically supported principles derived from learning theories give direction to instructional development. These principles guide instructional designers in their selection of instructional strategies and give order and consistency that facilitates replication of instructional strategies in new contexts (Morrison, Ross, & Kemp, 2007). During the course, we explored six theories – behaviorism, cognitivism, social learning theory, constructivism, connectivism, and adult learning theory. Each of these theories has something to offer, but there are many we did not cover. However, now that I have a foundation based on these prominent theories it will be easier to understand the tenets of others. I did find it striking how controversial the use of learning theory can be in the instructional design community. It appears that instructional designers may align with one particular theory, avoid any theoretical influence, or use an ‘eclectic design’ approach that considers the potential influences of a variety of learning theories (Honebein & Sink, 2012). In the latter case, theories provide a frame of reference for making decisions. Instructional designers pick and choose among them based on the unique circumstances of the individual design task (Yanchar, South, Williams, Allen, & Wilson, 2010).

This course helped me recognize the strengths and weaknesses of my own learning process and gave me ideas for improving it. One I plan to pursue is based on our study of metacognition. Metacognitive strategies are “techniques that help people become more successful learners” (Malamed, n.d., para. 2). Learners use cognitive strategies to build knowledge and metacognitive strategies to guide, regulate and evaluate their learning. Examples of metacognitive strategies include developing a plan for how to approach a learning task, monitoring comprehension while reading, and evaluating learning progress (TEAL Center Staff, n.d.). In addition, the tenets of connectivism have been useful in helping me understand how I learn through the use of online social and information technologies. Developing a mindmap of my personal learning network was especially helpful. This visual perspective made it easier for me to recognize how I learn through using these technologies and will help me explore how I can take better advantage of them.

As instructional designers, we can design effective instruction using educational technology by incorporating appropriate instructional strategies based on principles from learning theory and learning styles. However, this may not be enough if a student is not motivated to learn. Motivation to learn involves a combination of the learner’s internal characteristics, the learning environment, and the external tactics used to encourage and sustain their desire to learn. Instructional designers cannot be responsible for the learner’s internal characteristics which motivate them to learn, but they can incorporate motivational tactics into learning environments that motivate someone to learn (Keller, 2007). In this course, we studied the ARCS model for motivational design that adds analysis of audience motivation to the instructional design process. This model gives instructional designers a systematic process to guide them in the selection and application of motivational tactics in four categories: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction (Keller, 2010). Using this model, instructional designers can develop courses that “capture students’ attention, enhance content relevance with their prior knowledge and experiences, build students’ confidence, and enhance their satisfaction with instruction and content material” (Miltiadou & Savenye, 2003).

As I stated previously, this course was too short to grasp everything. What it has done though is give me a better foundation that will have a positive influence on the quality of my instructional design efforts. Also, it has motivated me to grow professionally. I plan to continue my learning about theories by exploring areas the course did not cover and becoming more active in the instructional design community.

Ruth Colvin Clark (2008) states that “everyone who has gone to school considers him- or herself a learning expert” (p. xv). As a result, this has led to the development of instruction based on intuition and fads. As professionals, instructional designers should not only know what to do but why they should do it. This requires knowing the evidence behind the methods they choose (Clark, 2008). Although there is still a need for intuition and creativity, theory should guide instructional decisions and be used to anticipate and resolve instructional difficulties that may arise (Morrison, Kemp & Ross, 2007). Taking this course has answered my question. I am convinced that to give their efforts credibility, instructional designers must be knowledgeable about the principles of learning theory and instruction. This course has given me a better sense of my own credibility and competence as an instructional designer.


Clark, R. C. (2008). Building expertise: cognitive methods for training and performance improvement (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Honebein, Peter C. & Sink, Darryl L. (2012) The practice of eclectic instructional design. Performance Improvement, 51(10), 26-31. DOI: 10.1002/pfi

Keller, J. M. (2010). Motivational design for learning and performance the ARCS model approach. New York: Springer.

Keller, J.M. (2007). Motivation and performance. In Reiser, R. A., & Dempsey, J. V. Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Malamed, C. (n.d.). Metacognition and learning: strategies for instructional design. The eLearning Coach. Retrieved April 11, 2014, from

Miltiadou, M., Savenye, W. C. (2003) Applying social cognitive constructs of motivation To enhance student success in online distance education. Educational Technology Review, 11(1)

Morrison, G. R., Kemp, J. E., & Ross, S. M. (2011). Designing effective instruction (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons.

TEAL Center Staff. (n.d.). Factsheet: metacognitive processes. Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL). Retrieved April 25, 2014, from

Yanchar, S. C., South, J. B., Williams, D. D., Allen, S., Wilson, B. G. (2010). Struggling with theory? A qualitative investigation of conceptual tool use in instructional design. Education Tech Research Dev, 58, 39-60.

Fitting the Pieces Together

For the past several weeks I have been taking a graduate course on learning theories at Walden University. Although in this short time it hasn’t made me an expert on learning theory, it has given me a better understanding of how people learn. In the first week of the course, I was asked to describe how I thought I learned. I responded by relating my learning to the constructivist theory. Now, although I do recognize some aspects of that theory in my learning, I feel that no one theory explains how I, or others, learn.

Learning theories have contrasting ideas about how or why learning occurs. One may view the learning process as a change in behavior (behaviorist) while another views it as interactions and observations in social contexts (social learning theory) (Smith, 2003). Relating how I learn with a particular learning theory depends on my goals. For example, last year one of my horses manifested symptoms of insulin resistance. Not knowing much about the condition at the time, I searched the Internet for information about it and talked with veterinarians and other horse owners who had experience with the condition. This was a process of knowledge acquisition to understand the cause of the condition and how to manage it. I relate this type of learning to the cognitivist theory. In other situations, more than one theory can be used to explain learning. As do many people my age, I would like to lose some of the unwanted weight I have gained over the past decade or so. Viewing weight loss as an observable change in behavior relates it to the behaviorist theory. I eat less and exercise more and am rewarded with a loss of weight. It can also be related to social learning theory. I notice others who have lost weight, observe how they do it, model their behavior to lose weight, and feel pleasure when I do.

Adult learning theory can be used to explain my personal learning preferences. Several key assumptions about adult learners were published by Eduard Lindeman. These were: adults are motivated to learn when it supports the needs of their experiences and interests; learning is situated in life experiences; experience is a rich resource for learning; adults need to be self-directing; and differences among individuals with respect to how they learn increases with age (Holton, Knowles, & Swanson, 2005). I do find that my ability to learn can be explained by these assumptions. The reason I am taking a course in learning theories is an example of that. I have worked as an instructional designer for several years and find that my experience contributes significantly to my motivation to learn and interest in the subject. Being able to apply what I’m learning in my actual work context also helps me understand the topic more easily.

In my previous post about personal learning networks, I described how I use technology in my learning and related it to connectivism. I’m still grappling with some of the concepts of connectivism but I do value its emphasis on explaining how we learn through personal learning networks. In the weeks ahead, I hope to reflect on what I’ve learned about learning theories and use that knowledge to expand my PLN to better enable how I learn.

Holton, E. F., Knowles, M. S., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). Adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Burlington, MA: Routledge.

Smith, M. K. (2003) Learning theory: models, product and process. infedorg. Retrieved April 13, 2014, from

My PLN and Connectivism

Many years ago, one of my teachers stressed the importance of knowing how to find and use information to support us in our work. That meant a trip to the library, a look at a printed manual, or maybe a conversation with a colleague. In those days, my access to these resources was pretty minimal. Now, with the advent of worldwide computer networks and the Internet with its social networking tools, search engines, and volumes of information resources it is expansive and often overwhelming. If I want to find information about something, I simply need to go to my favorite web search engine and perform a query on my selected key words. No more trips to the library; I can easily find books and articles by accessing the online library catalog at the university where I work. If the material isn’t available in electronic form, I can choose to have it delivered to my physical work mailbox. As for personal communication, I can send an email to my colleague in the office next door or across the ocean with each one getting the message almost instantaneously. By using social networking tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yahoo Groups, I can communicate with people I would most likely never have met. Using Yahoo Groups to discuss my passion, horses, moved me from being an isolated horse lover to an active member of a worldwide horse community. I made connections that led to my participation in face-to-face events such as trail rides and clinics, sometimes heated debate, and lasting friendships with people I have never met face-to-face.

Although I often long for the simpler days, I know I don’t really want to give up the information support and sense of community the digital age provides me. Connectivism, a proposed learning theory for the digital age, refers to the people and digital tools I have come to depend on as a ‘Personal Learning Network’ or PLN. This term was coined prior to its use in connectivism but the emphasis then was on connections among people (Lalonde, 2009)(Tobin, n.d.) and did not include digital technologies. Much like my teacher, connectivism places an emphasis on navigating and connecting to information (Siemens, 2005). In connectivism, learning occurs through the process of connecting to and feeding information into a learning community. In addition, courses are not the primary method of learning. Other methods include email, communities, conversations, web search, email lists, reading blogs, and so on (Connectivism, n.d.). A core skill required for learning is “the ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts” (Siemens, 2005, para. 10). My own PLN supports these and other tenets of connectivism. However, I haven’t experienced any support in my PLN for one particular tenet of connectivism – “Learning may reside in non-human appliances” (Siemens, 2012, para. 10). I find great value in storing information in ‘non-human appliances’ that I can retrieve and use later. However, I haven’t experienced any sense of my ‘learning’ residing or occurring in them. It may be that I have documented something I learned in a format that I stored outside of myself. For example, when I give a presentation or write a paper. Nonetheless, it is nothing more than stored information that I can find and use when I need it.

For a representation of my first attempt at documenting my PLN, see my previous post titled My Personal Learning Mindmap.

Connectivism. (n.d.). Description of Connectivism. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from

Lalonde, C. (2009, October 8). On historically defining Personal Learning Network. Retrieved April 6, 2014, from

Siemens, G. (2005, August 10). elearnspace. Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. elearnspace. Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from

Siemens, G. (2012, January 19). Connectivist Learning Theory – Siemens. P2P Foundation. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from

Tobin, D. R. (n.d.). Building Your Personal Learning Network. Corporate Learning Strategies. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from

Blogs on the Brain and Learning

While looking for blogs to discuss in this post, I discovered that it is Brain Awareness Week (March 10 -16, 2014).  Therefore, to celebrate I have selected two that focus on the brain and learning. The first one, the Brain-Based Learning blog, is one of many great blogs that can be found on Edutopia. This blog focuses on understanding how the brain works and ways to use that knowledge to improve the learning process.  The blog posts are contributed by a number of brain and learning experts. One example post is ‘Move your Body, Grow Your Brain’ about studies indicating that students are more focused on learning when exercise and movement is incorporated into the school day. Another post ‘Five-Minute Film Festival: Learning and the Brain’ includes a set of videos that are not only informative but also very entertaining. Topics range from seven common myths about the brain to a teenage explanation of his metacognitive strategies. This blog is a valuable resource for teachers who want to improve their teaching methods using practical strategies based on brain research. Although the posts have an education focus, there is also great information for training professionals as well.

The second blog/website is BrainBased Learning hosted by Eric Jensen, teacher, author and current PhD student in Human Development from Fielding Graduate University. The blog covers topics in brain-based learning and teaching. It would take some time to read through all of the useful posts on this blog. One that caught my eye immediately is titled “The Best Learning Motivator Ever!”  It describes research indicating that feedback is one of the best motivators to student achievement.  Practical applications for using feedback in teaching are also given.  This site should be very useful for anyone interested in practical teaching strategies that have a solid research foundation.

Blogs on Brain-Based Learning. (n.d.).Edutopia. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from

Brain-based Learning  (n.d.). Jensen Learning. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from

Recommended Instructional Design Blogs

For an assignment in my learning theory course, I was asked to recommend at least three blogs I feel will be relevant to my work as an instructional design professional. This wasn’t necessarily an easy task as blogging is quite popular among members of the instructional design community. In fact, there are so many blogs on the subject it could take weeks to do a thorough job sorting through them all.  It’s not really the large number that makes it difficult, but rather the large amount of useful information they contain.  I found myself spending a lot of time reading and finally had to pick some and leave the others for another time. The following three blogs are the ones I selected:

  1. Lessons on Learning Blog. This blog is hosted by the learning design company Bottom-Line Performance (BLP). BLP has been creating custom learning solutions since 1995 for corporate, government, non-profit, and industry customers. Initially, I didn’t want to select a blog from a commercial entity but was impressed by BLPs mission statement – ‘We don’t train people. We create solutions that engage people and motivate them to learn.’ I also liked their philosophy of giving back to their local and global community. In line with that philosophy, they share their knowledge with the learning community via their blog. The blog posts are high quality and backed up by their experiences and research in the learning field.
  2. Experiencing Elearning. I chose this blog because it is written by a freelance Instructional Design Practitioner, Christy Tucker. Since someday I might want to venture out into freelance work, I think it will be useful to read posts from someone with that perspective. I also like Christy’s interest in using storytelling to make learning more engaging. Her posts are well-written and fairly regular, ranging from one to four posts per month.
  3. Will at Work Learning Blog. The blog author, Will Thalheimer is described on his Typepad profile as “a learning expert, researcher, instructional designer, business strategist, speaker, and writer. Dr. Thalheimer has worked in the learning-and-performance field since 1985. Will holds a BA from the Pennsylvania State University, an MBA from Drexel University, and a PhD in Educational Psychology: Human Learning and Cognition from Columbia University.” I think this description says it all. I look forward to learning from Will Thalheimer’s breadth of expertise in the field of instructional design.

I’m also including two runner-ups on my inaugural list – eLearning Learning and  the Social Learning Blog. The first one, eLearning Learning is a blog from Training Magazine Network that compiles posts from blogs within the elearning industry.  I have subscribed to its feeds for a few years and just wish I had more time to read all of the interesting articles on it. The Social Learning Blog  covers subjects such as social learning, technical writing, and change management. Contributors include experienced instructional designers and trainers as well as company leadership. This blog is also hosted by a commercial company but I found their focus on organizational change management interesting so decided to follow it for a while to find out if I found their posts useful or not.