Learning Theories - Introduction

An instructional designer enables a learner to do something which he/she was not able to do. Instructional design becomes a success when the learner learns and demonstrates a new skill. Thus, if you know how your target learner learns, you can develop instructions accordingly. However, it is not as easy as it sounds. Not every individual learns the same way. Therefore, it is impossible to create instructional materials that are perfectly tailored for every learner.

This is where learning theories come in to the picture. Learning theories explain the factors that affect learning and how these affect learning. They give factual explanations of how learning happens. The knowledge of learning theories helps you focus on the factors that affect learning and design instructions that are suitable for the situation.

There is a multitude of learning theories in use. Nobody has yet been able to propose a single theory as ideal for instructional design. Sometimes, instructional designers use a combination of learning theories. In addition to the learning theories that exist, educational experts continue to develop new theories. This makes instructional design more challenging and exciting.

You can categorise learning theories into three schools of thought:

    Behaviourism
    Cognitivism
    Constructivism

Behaviourism

The behavioural school of thought is the most simple and the oldest of the learning theory groups. Behaviourists consider the learner's mind as a "black box." They do not worry about what is going on inside the "black box." Behaviourists explain learning with stimuli-response relationships. They debate that learning happens as result of conditioning the learner for a particular response with favourable stimuli. All the learnings are observable, and a person is said to have learned something when there is an observable change in his/her behaviour. The main contributors to behaviourist theories are Thorndike, Pavlov, and Skinner.

Cognitivism

The cognitive school of thought argues that learning does not always happen with conditioning a learner with repetitive, favourable stimuli. An individual learns something by processing the information, and the factors like memory, thinking, motivation, and reflection affect learning. They state that instruction is effective when the instructor is able to design instructions in such a way that it is retained in the memory of the learner. In addition, cognitivists also argue that all the learnings are not observable. The noted contributors to cognitive school of thought are Merrill, Gagne, and Bruner.

Constructivism

Constructivists go one step ahead of cognitivists and state that learners not only process the information but also interpret the information according to their views. According to constructivists, learners construct knowledge based on their experience and pre-existing knowledge. This theory is more suitable for online learning as in this type of learning, the learner is the centre of instruction and is able to contextualise the knowledge. Some of the renowned constructivists are Kolb, Baud, and Schön.

In a high-level overview, the three strategies can be used to teach the following types of instructions:

    Behaviourist: What?
    Cognitivist: Why?
    Constructivist: How?

In the following articles, I will try to explain how each of these strategies can be used while developing online learning materials. Keep an eye for my coming articles.

The Life of an Overseas English Teacher

Student centered teaching is one of the often-preferred methods of running a TEFL classroom, especially in Asian countries such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. This is different from the standard teacher centered lecture style classes that many people are familiar with. In a student centered class the teacher demonstrates the new material but thereafter they establish work or activities that feature the English learner using and practicing English instead of listening to the teacher. Some student centered work can be done individually, but most is done either in dyads (pair work) or small groups of 3 to 7 students. This allows the students to learn the language by using it instead of only learning by listening. One key feature of this type of classroom is that is both teaches and builds confidence, something that is lacking from only lecture-based teaching.

Activities are commonplace and the core of most student centered classrooms. Role playing activities make students use new vocabulary and break free from the rote conversations that many textbooks impose. They force students to practice both listening and speaking, which is much more practical than sitting in a classroom while a teacher lectures. Group problem solving is another popular activity for more advanced TEFL learners. It lets the students put their own views into the activity but still offers plenty of speaking and listening practice. In the above scenarios, the English teacher takes more of a support role, assisting the students as they work in their groups. The teacher can softly correct spoken grammar or help with pronunciation without discouraging or pressuring students.

Other examples of activities include Readers' Theater, small plays, speaking and guessing games, common party games altered for the classroom, and modified card games. Younger learners may be urged to use English while working on art projects. Older students are lured more with the idea of learning about a new and often popular aspect of American and European culture. They are also encouraged to participate in western holiday traditions.

For prospective overseas English teachers, the idea of living in a new place is extremely exciting. They also usually imagine a traditional teacher-student classroom dynamic, not realizing that they will be more a facilitator of activities than a lecturer. Understanding what is expected of them before accepting employment will make for an easier transition in both living in a new culture and working in a new job.

Tips for Teaching in a Blended Learning Environment

Although many people are important for student success... teachers work with the kids every day. Teachers play such an important role in making the blended learning experience a successful one. Here are a few tips help teachers out.

Tip 1: Know the Course
It is so important for the teacher to know the courses they are responsible for teaching in a blended learning environment. I have found that the best method for me to learn the course was to go through it. I did not write out all the notes (since I did not need them for learning), but I read what the objectives were, watched the videos and took all of the chapter and unit assessments. There may be other ways to know the course, just find what is right for you.

Tip 2: Find Out Where Students Struggle
Not every student has issues with the same material, but if there is a lesson, chapter, or even unit that a majority of people has trouble with, have materials created to help ahead of time. This will save valuable time when students come up and ask for help. If students aren't coming up and asking for help, this will alert the teacher to pay close attention to that student's progress.

Tip 3: Know Your Students
Just because a student is sitting quietly in a classroom, looking at a computer screen, does not mean they are actively engaged. It is so important to know what type of student you have so you can motivate them in the way that will help them best. One of the best ways I have found to meet students is to talk to them and listen to their responses. This is not always easy in a busy classroom... but the payoff has been great.

Tip 4: Organize, Organize, And Organize
Working in a blended learning environment comes with large amounts of paperwork. You may be working with more students, covering more concepts, and communicating with more people so you must find a system of organization that works for you.

Tip 5: Find Time Saving Strategies
There are many excellent suggestions on how to improve teaching. However, so many of them are written by people who are not in the real world. Finding methods to help students in the classroom that do not take an excessive amount of time to develop is not easy. One of the best ways I have found is working with others. So often, teachers do not want to do this... but as the saying goes, it really does take a village to raise a child.