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.