How People Learn

Educators have been trying to understand the way people learn for a long time. Although we rely on our own observations and experiences in teaching, we can benefit from considering some of the current research and recommendations published by respected publishers, institutions or researchers/instructors.

To help you make sense of the vast array of perspectives on learning that underly educational research, you may find the following four categorizations, based on different beliefs about reality and the nature of knowledge and learning. If you prefer a more detailed visual exploration of learning theories, see the two resources presented in the following section, Visual learning theories.

Behaviourism includes theories that are based on changes in behaviour that can be directly observed and measured. Cognitivism includes theories that focus on the way the human brain take in information and stores it for recall and application. Constructivism includes a range of theories that begin from a subjective perception of reality and may include a belief that learning occurs through social interactions. A final theory (still argued by many) is Connectivism. This theory was developed to address the way learning has changed due to the exponential increase in information due to advances in digital technologies and connectivity. A central belief is that learning occurs primarily (most effectively?) through networked learning.

Learning Theories

Some of the important questions you may ask about each are included in the table, followed by the names of some of the leading theorists.
How does learning occur?stimulus -> response; observable behaviour main focus, chaining eventsinput -> process -> output (learning) structured, computationalmeaning created by each learner (personal);focus on social learningDistributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns
What factors influence learning?nature of stimulus (reward; punish), timing of eventsexisting schema, previous experiencesEngagement, participation, social, culturalDiversity of network
What is the role of the memoryRepeated experiences are remembered - timing & type of reward / punishment are most influentialEncoding to long term memory, retrievalPrior knowledge remixed to current contextAdaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks
How does transfer occur?Stimulus, responseDuplicating knowledge constructs of "knower"SocializationConnecting to (adding nodes)

What types of learning are best explained by this theory?

Task-based learningReasoning, clear objectives, problem solvingSocial, vague ("ill defined") problem solvingComplex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources

Names of some theorists

I. Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, J. WatsonD. Ausubel, J. Bruner, R. GagneJ. Dewey, L. Vygotsky, E. von GlaserfeldS. Downes & G. Siemens