Understanding the ways in which students learn will help you develop more effective teaching strategies. While there are no simple answers to how students learn, learning theories help provide fundamental insight into the complex process of learning. There are three commonly referenced learning theory frameworks:

1) Behaviorism: learners behavior is formed through reinforcement

2) Cognitivism: new knowledge is built upon existing knowledge

3) Constructivism: learner’s construct knowledge through experiential, self-directed learning

While these are the most common, they vary in application and popularity. There are also emerging theories that help address specific populations of students, such as Connectivism for online learners, and Andragogy for adult learners. The theories you adopt will depend on several factors, including the course type, assessment types, course goals, student learning objectives, types of learners, and learning environment.

Best Practices

Guide Student Learning through Reinforcement

While the theory of behaviorism is no longer commonly used outside of the psychomotor domain, it emphasizes guiding learners’ behaviors through reinforcement. You can help achieve this by creating clean, consistent course design and including formative assessments that provide regular feedback.

To help create a clean, consistent course design that promotes accessibility and usability, follow these best practices:

  • Map your content into instructional units (e.g., Weeks, Modules, Topics).
  • Include measurable student learning objectives at the beginning of each instructional unit.
  • Create consistent pages so that students become accustomed to where information is located. This will allow them to spend less time on trying to navigate the course, and more time on immersing themselves in the learning process.
  • Work with an instructional designer.

In addition to course design, formative assessments are low-stake activities that guide students through the learning process. Formative assessments also give more opportunities to provide feedback for learning.

Make Learning Meaningful and Relevant

The theory of cognitivism focuses on making learning meaningful by using learners’ background knowledge and experiences. Creating authentic assessments that require learners to reflect on and apply what they know will foster a meaningful connection to the material. You can also make learning meaningful through the following practices:

  • Ask meaningful questions that focus on the deeper meaning instead of the minor details.
  • Give students opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other.
  • Create meaningful activities that give students the opportunity to apply new knowledge.
  • Create multiple ways of interacting with students, and be available to guide and assist as students work through the coursework.

Cognitivists also stress that learners grasp more information at the beginning and end of content; when you build instructional materials, include “must-know” concepts at the beginning and the end.

Andragogy, the art and science of helping adults learn, also emphasizes making learning relevant, meaningful, and practical. Because of outside commitments, adults tend to be more goal-oriented and motivated by practical application. Consider the following as you outline the instructional materials and assessments to help meet intrinsic motivators for adult learners:

  • Give students opportunities to highlight their prior experiences in new learning situations (e.g., case studies).
  • Focus on goals, practicality, and relevancy (e.g., learning objectives, authentic assessments).
  • Include elements in your course design and assessments that display respect for adults’ previous experiences and responsibilities (e.g., self-directed learning).

Foster Self-Directed Learning

Both constructivism and andragogy emphasize the importance of self-directed learning, in which learners construct knowledge based on experience. Despite what its name suggests, self-directed learning does not have to be practiced on an individual basis. You can also encourage self-directed learning in group settings that promote learning through experience and diverse perspectives. To foster self-directed learning:

  • Incorporate learners’ prior knowledge and interests.
  • Provide tools for learners to succeed, but encourage independent responsibility.
  • Promote experiential learning by including reflections.
  • Create clear course goals, learning objectives, and assessment instructions to guide students through the learning process.
  • Assume the role of “facilitator” instead of “sage on stage.”

References and Additional Resources

Further Exploration

CITT Instructional Development

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For personal assistance in developing and implementing course content, you may request assistance from the Center for Instructional Technology and Training.