Learning Theories Mash-up Update

Learning Theory Mash UpAfter discussions with educators, instructors, and classmates, I’ve refined my Learning Theory Mash Up. I’m grateful for those conversations as they always help me refine my own thinking (via experiential learning). Please keep the feedback coming.

In my experiences as a learner and a teacher, I have found I learn primarily from cognitive and constructivist learning theories. As a teacher, I have found these theories are most effective in teaching mathematics. One theory may be more useful than the other depending on the type of activity and the stage of learning.

Cognitive learning theory says that we learn based on our own filters. We build and expand on those filters as we are exposed to more ideas. For example, a child may start by placing dogs, cows, and bears all in the same category because they all have 4 legs and they are usually brown. As a child’s experiences/exposures to these animals and other four-legged, brown animals broadens. more categories may be introduced such as pets, farm animals, and wild animals. The more we learn, the more the categories are refined. Newer research has shown that the more we can refine our thinking by making connections, the lower the cognitive load when learning new things. Under this theory, teachers can present ways to connect information helping students develop a more organized “filing system” in the brain and, thereby, reducing cognitive load.

In relation to math, they have found that when students reach the level of automaticity with basic math facts (students no longer have to solve 6 x 8 but instead know the result to be 48), the cognitive required to solve more complex problems lessens. Students who haven’t reached of level of automaticity with basic facts often get hung up solving 6 x 8 and lose track of the larger problem they are solving.

Constructivist learning theory is similar in that it says we learn from our experiences and build on our prior knowledge. The main difference is that learning is more personal or internal. A teacher can facilitate learning by asking questions, providing guidelines, and creating an environment in which a student can construct understanding.

There are times during the learning process that I feel students need to be given more structure, more specific direction in order to build new thinking. When enough prior knowledge exists, students can construct their own learning. This is the way I think cognitivism and constructivism work together pinging off of each other. This combination of theories works well with Kolb’s experiential learning theory. Students start with a concrete experience–either something they have experienced in their daily lives, or something orchestrated by an instructor. From this knowledge base, students can observe, reflect, and sift through their discoveries to develop abstract concepts. Pulling from the constructivist side, students test their own ideas and will likely refine them further, possibly by creating their own concrete experiences. And the cycle continues.

An additional learning theory, contextual learning theory, can be the cloak over which experiential learning occurs.

“Contextual teaching and learning is a conception of teaching and learning that helps teachers relate subject matter content to real world situations; and motivates students to make connections between knowledge and its applications to their lives as family members, citizens, and workers and engage in the hard work that learning requires.” (Berns, 2001)

In addition to its use in career and technical education,  the contextual learning theory has been found very effective when teaching mathematics. When students can see math in use within situations they find familiar, it reduces cognitive load. For example, suppose students are given a problem involving calculating the amount of hay a horse eats in a day. Students who have never seen a horse will have a portion of their brain trying to figure out what a horse is, how big it is, why it would eat hay, etc. That cognitive load will take away from their ability to solve the problem. If students have a concrete experience of a horse, they context of “horse” will not draw on their cognitive load.

English: A book cover for The Practice of Lear...

Using the basic cognitive and constructivist learning theories are often helpful when building new knowledge. A cognitive approach is best when no prior knowledge exists or the learning requires a complex connection to prior knowledge. Once students are ready to apply learning to build understanding, experiential and contextual learning theories come into play. This is when students are ready to start integrating and applying their knowledge.

The more I work in the field of education, the more I see that each learning theory has its benefits and draw backs. Sometimes the most beneficial learning approach depends on the topic, other times in depend on the student. I think it is important to be flexible as students’ capacities to learn constantly grow and change.

Learning theories are complex and often interwoven. I would love to receive feedback regarding my combination of these learning theories. Do you think they work well together, or are there contradictions? Are their other learning theories that blend well or would enhance what I have included here?

AECT Standards

1.1 Instructional Systems Design
It is important to keep these, and other, learning theories in mind when designing instruction. Depending on the audience, it may be necessary to use one or two learning theories as the guiding force for the instruction. Most computer games expect students to construct their own knowledge and understanding by exploring the game, testing and analyzing results. To keep a player from giving up in frustration, tutorials or helps with direct instruction may be necessary.


Update:  Based on the comments and conversations, I’ve attempted a new diagram for my learning theory mash-up. You can see the new diagram here.

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15 responses to “Learning Theories Mash-up Update

  1. I like the perspective that more than one theory can be invoked in different situations. I also like your idea of a kind of progression from cog to discovery to problem-based – that is a cool idea. I think that perhaps something like “problem-based learning” and “discovery” is more of a strategy for delivery of (an an opportunity for) a learning experience as you have presented here than it is a theory of how people learn; but its cool to have both theory and strategy in an over-arching way of seeing things. Perhaps both of those can also be presented as hand-in-glove with theories of learning (e.g. if we believe people learn by constructing from experience, then we should give them chances to experience things and help with constructing things from that experience). Blended learning in the literature is about online and face to face so I wonder if you mean blending your theories and methods, not the online and f-t-f.

  2. I like your visual in the sense that both cognitive and constructivist can be entangled which allows an individual to learn through discovery or problem solving. From my understanding of how people learn is through meta-cognition which is our own knowledge of our self. So maybe that is one way you can look at changing the center. We view our self learning through discovery or problem solving and that is done through our own experience of cognitive and constructive learning

  3. As I look at this mash up I like the way you arranged the cognitive and constructivist learning theories as being at the same level and interacting with each other. Also the connection you make to contextual learning provides the process for the learner to digest the information and form their understanding. However, I can’t help but feel that experiential learning is working together with cognitive and constructivist learning theories, and it’s not a result of the two learning theories. The University Of Colorado Denver Experiential Learning Center, http://www.ucdenver.edu/life/services/ExperientialLearning/about/Pages/WhatisExperientialLearning.aspx, defines experiential learning as “a process through which students develop knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.” It is this definition that makes me want to move experiential learning closer to cognitive and constructivist learning theories with all three converging into contextual learning.

    • I need to change this diagram in some way to show that experiential learning works with cognitive or constructivist learning. I don’t mean it as a result. I do see it as a convergence. I am trying to show that they can be used together. I’ll have to think about how I can show this better.

  4. I am glad to see you added Experiential learning. This is a great way to learn and assess students that our “traditional” schools fall way short in. I saw a great CNN story on a guy they called “the maker.” I don’t recall his name, but he was going around the country creating a model of school where students are basically “makers.” That is to say that he designs a learning experience that includes the possibility for students to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes while making things. This is basically one of the tenants of Experiential learning. I hope to see much more of this in education.

    • Thanks, Caleb. I think I saw a similar story about a van going around with carpentry tools giving students the opportunity to plan and create something. I’m concerned that the rush to technology will inadvertently cause a lack of hands-on opportunities. The virtual world is great for some things, but experiences with the real deal can never be completely replaced.

  5. I had studied Kolb’s experiential learning ideas some time ago, but had forgotten about this piece. Thanks for including the link to his work. I think that it fits well with gaming learning strategies. I like the circular pattern to the experiential learning theories.
    I agree with your statement that cognitive and constructive theories ping off of each other. I questioned why you had the contextual theory down below. Your diagram made me think that it was a “fall out” of the two learning theories, but wasn’t quite sure if that was your intention. I keep thinking that there’s a way of adding a circular pattern, like Kolb’s experiential drawing, to your drawing, but didn’t see an easy way to do it….
    I appreciated your great narrative and external links. Thanks!

    • Rather than “fall out” I am thinking more about a blend. You start with either a cognitive or contructivist approach (or a combination of the two) and you put on the “coat” of contextual learning theory. Within that “coat” you may want to open up the pocket flaps to experiential learning. 😉 If I could draw, maybe a coat would make a good visual.

      Thanks for your comments. You’re making me think about other ways to work this. Maybe there is a circular process.

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  7. Sharon-
    I like your mash up graphic… I too lean heavily toward Constructivist and Cognitive theories. I do however give credence to the Behaviorists for some of our earliest learning seems as a result of reinforcement, conditioning, etc. (I somewhat grudgingly included them my graphic- kudos to you for staying true to your philosophy!) I liked how you stated that the two theories closely align at times. I’m of the mindset that when it comes to higher level learning, we as learners may have a personal predisposition toward one style or the other. As Bransford states, students bring their own world view to the learning situation at that the activities we structure need to engage with them or else they’ll struggle to be able to organize their thoughts for later recall. But I do like how they both converge towards experiential learning. I think both styles of teaching and learning depend on the personalized nature of the experience, be it cognitive or constructivist.
    Well, done!
    Kevin McManamon (pdxTimber)

  8. My first question after viewing the graphic is how do these three theories lead to learning? Where does learning occur? In addition to simply listing the names of the learning theories, would it be possible to illustrate the action and interplay and sequence that occurs with these three theories?

    In trying to follow the lines I see the equal weight given to cognitive and constructivist theories. They then appear to funnel through contextual and into the experiential learning theory cistern. Is that where learning occurs?

    For the purposes of clarifying my own thinking, I was looking for an entry point into your visual, and, ultimately, an end result. Where does the learner enter the equation, and where is knowledge acquired?

    Thanks for including the visual of Kolb’s theory. I’ve heard of experiential learning, but I don’t recall learning about Kolb specifically.

    Good stuff!

    • Thanks for your questions! You are making me fine tune my thinking.

      For me, learning is an unending process. In creating a game for students, I have to think about where students already exist in their learning process. They come in with some knowledge and skills they have attained in many different ways (via a variety of learning theories).

      When students come into my game, they will learn some skills via Cognitive and Constructivist learning theories, and sometimes a combination of the two. Whenever possible, one or both of those learning theories will be combined with Experiential and possibly Contextual learning theories.

      My diagram is about how these learning theories can be used in combination, rather than where the student enters or exits.

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  10. Sharon, I agree with your comment that the cognitive and constructivist learning theories are commonly used in my teaching as well, particularly for the beginning levels in my foreign language classes. Your post heavily focuses on how the learner uses prior knowledge and the ability to make connections to acquire knowledge. It’s great that you mentioned that an educator needs to consider which learning theory would work best for the topic and student. You also took advanced the theory mash-up by incorporating the contextual learning theory. Providing opportunity for the learners to use the material in real world situations can motivate, interest, and offer more retention.

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