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Types of Learning Theories for Online Education Report (Assessment)

Behaviorist learning theory

The behaviorist learning theory focuses on visible behaviors that can be measured using specific scientific parameters. This theory is founded on the assumption that a learner is unreceptive and can only gain knowledge through interacting with the environment. This theory maintains that behavior results from the interactions between individuals and their environments. Conditioning is an important branch of the behaviorist theory which argues that behaviors are formed through the negative and positive reinforcement of certain patterns.

This happens because reinforcement determines whether a behavior is eliminated in the long term or reinforced and, therefore, likely to be repeated. Positive reinforcement involves the application of a stimulus, while negative reinforcement involves the elimination of an incentive that is associated with a certain behavior. There are two types of learning that apply the concepts of behaviorism, namely learning classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning
  • Developed by Ivan Pavlov
  • Experiment was conducted with dogs
  • There are conditioned and unconditioned stimuli that result in conditioned and unconditioned responses respectively
  • Prior to conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus results in an unconditioned response
  • During learning, a natural stimulus becomes associated with a certain response that occurs every time the stimulus is applied
  • A conditioned stimulus results in a conditioned response after a period of conditioning/learning
  • After conditioning, both conditioned and unconditioned stimuli are integrated to evoke a conditioned response
Operant conditioning
  • Developed by B. F. Skinner
  • Focuses on the causes of behavior and associated consequences
  • Rewards are used to strengthen behaviors that have positive outcomes
  • Behaviors that lack reinforcement weaken over time and disintegrate
  • Rewards are given after the desired outcome is observed or attained
  • Reinforcers are both negative and positive
  • Shaping is a concept used to teach a new behavior. It involves the introduction of reinforcement immediately after the desired outcome is observed.

Cognitivist learning theory

This theory deals with the role that cognitive information processing plays in the learning process. The three stages of memory are very important in learning. These stages include sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Memory stage Role in learning
Sensory memory
  • Stores information collected from the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
  • The faculty of attention filters and determines which information proceeds to short-term memory for further processing
Short-term memory
  • Processes information for storage in long-term memory
  • Critical in cognitive roles such as learning, understanding, and reasoning
  • Prepares information for the purpose of creating responses to specific stimuli
Long-term memory
  • Stores information for short or long periods
  • Retains information that is retrieved during learning

Schema refers to a unit of knowledge that comprises past experiences stored in an individual’s memory and whose composition is determined by the perception of the individual. These units also contain information regarding the various ways in which the knowledge can be used. Schema helps in the interpretation of events and situations, as well as the assignment of meaning. The instructional objectives of this theory include providing organized information, improving the abilities of learners to encode and store information, improving learners’ abilities to control the activity of processing information, and arranging practice in a way that makes the learning process effective.

Solving problems is an example of a schema-based process. In that regard, schema helps learners structure knowledge in ways that facilitate problem-solving through the use of cognitive functions such as reasoning and reflection. The process involves associating certain aspects of a current problem to related information of past similar experiences stored in a schema. Schema signals such as words and concepts are critical during learning because they retrieve the appropriate unit of knowledge that is related to a problem the learner is trying to solve.

Constructivist learning theory

The theory states that people control their own learning and gain knowledge through their experiences and consequent interpretation of those experiences. It involves the active participation of learners and the minimal participation of instructors.

Constructivist theory
  • It is learner-centered
  • Learners create their own meanings from individual experiences
  • Knowledge is gained during the process of attaching meaning to different situations and experiences
  • Assignment of meaning is subjective and usually controlled by biological traits as well as natural limitations
  • Learners test their observations and interpretations of experiences
  • Learners set and pursue individual goals
  • Learners play key roles while instructors play minimal roles

Collaborative learning is an important aspect of constructivist learning theory. It is important for learners to work together, share information and knowledge, and evaluate their conclusions against those of their colleagues. Collaboration allows learners to find solutions to problems through sharing their individual understanding regarding various matters.

Collaborative learning
  • Helps learners understand other people’s points of view
  • Encourages the sharing of insights and solutions to problems
  • Can transform individuals by prompting them to change their perspectives and beliefs
  • Improves decision making
Weaknesses of the theory
  • The teacher plays a minimal role in the learning process
  • Expert knowledge is not highly valued
  • Encourages the formation of biased conclusions and skewed interpretations

According to Vygotsky, it is important to study the social and cultural contexts of learning in order to understand the individual development of mental faculties. He maintained that culture/language is important in the development of intelligence. Therefore, the advancement of human mental functions is associated with the cultural context of learners. Vygotsky also developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This concept refers to the disparity that exists between assisted learning and individual learning. Cognitive development is primarily influenced by whether an individual learns without assistance or through the help of an instructor. Learners who get assistance acquire more skills than those who learn individually without any kind of assistance.

Developmental learning theories

Piaget was an opponent of the idea that knowledge is attained by experience and experimentation through the five senses. Her theory is different from other theories because its main focus is on the development of children. In addition, it explores the aspect of cognitive development. According to Piaget, children undergo several stages of development that have unique characteristics. Piaget’s theory of development explains how children develop the cognitive functions that enable them to grow into adults who can use their brains to think and reason. He outlined four main stages of development. Each stage represents a specific change in the child’s cognition. The child’s schemes and operations collaborate at each development stage to facilitate the performance of certain functions.

Stage of development Characteristics
Sensorimotor period
  • Between birth and 24 months
  • Behavior is triggered by specific stimuli
  • Action schemas: selective interpretation of certain stimuli
  • Action schemas provide knowledge about the world and people
  • This knowledge facilitates the comprehension of associations that exist between people and objects
Preoperational period
  • Between 24 months and 7 years
  • Thought processes begin to develop
  • Vocabulary expands
  • Children embrace and value their interpretations and perceptions of the world and people
  • Children gradually begin to embrace other people’s perspectives
Concrete operational period
  • Between ages 6 and 12
  • Logical thinking develops
  • The disappearance of egocentrism is observed
  • Learn to delve into the meanings of objects that go beyond physical appearances
Formal operational period
  • Between ages 11 and adulthood
  • Structures of development attain full maturity
  • Use their thinking faculties to solve problems
  • Abstract thought and logical thinking develop
  • High-order reasoning abilities emerge
  • Sophisticated reasoning capabilities develop

Online collaborative learning theory

Online collaborative learning (OCL) theory deals with the idea of shifting the education paradigm from knowledge building to knowledge transmission and from passive learning to active learning. One of the most important aspects of OCL is the formation of communities of practice that enhance information sharing, discourse, and dissemination of knowledge and ideas. This type of learning has impacted both formal and informal learning. Examples of tools used include file-sharing software, discussion boards and platforms, emails, and social media.

Online collaborative learning
  • Involves group learning
  • Place independent
  • Computer-mediated
  • Text-based
  • Instructor-led learning
  • Technology plays an important role

Online collaborative learning is impossible without the application of technology. It helps learners collaborate in various educational endeavors that facilitate the development of knowledge through discussions and dissemination of insights and information. Moreover, it encourages equal participation and divergent thinking that promote the generation of ideas and consensus regarding critical issues.


Motivation is the process of initiating certain behaviors/actions and sustaining them until desired outcomes are attained. Lack of motivation is characterized by failure to complete tasks and poor performance of duties. Motivation is an important part of learning because it facilitates self-regulation among learners. Examples of common sources of motivation include self-efficacy belief, curiosity, and goals. Motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic.

Concept Summary
Intrinsic motivation
  • Originates within the learner
  • Evoked by the pleasure of performing a specific duty, task, or activity
  • Does not involve the use of rewards
Extrinsic motivation
  • Originates from external factors such as rewards and praise
  • External reinforcement is necessary
  • Can cause a decrease in motivation
  • Should be used with caution
Attribution theory
  • Explains what people attribute behaviors to
  • Associates certain causes of specific events
  • External or internal
  • Stable or unstable
  • Controllable or uncontrollable
Locus of control
  • The degree to which people believe they can control their situations and circumstances
  • Either internal or external
  • Internal control: the belief that it is possible to control one’s life
  • External control: the belief that one’s life is controlled by external factors that cannot be influenced in any way

Motivation is an important aspect that influences the completion of tasks. Factors that affect motivation include the ability of an individual to complete a task, the consequences associated with the completion, and the need to undertake the duty. Locus of control is a concept that refers to the degree to which people believe that they can control the situations and circumstances that happen in their lives. Locus control is either internal or external. People who exhibit strong internal locus hold the belief that their circumstances originate from their actions while people with weak internal locus believe that they are victims of circumstances.

On the other hand, people with strong external locus attribute their circumstances and situations to external factors that they cannot control. Learned helplessness is associated with having a strong external locus control. Helplessness also originates from a lack of confidence and ability to perform a certain task effectively. The main character trait of people who are helpless is the avoidance of certain tasks. Learned helplessness results from a propensity to embrace certain events and considering them to be beyond one’s control. Self-regulated learning involves the setting of goals and achieving them by monitoring and regulating different aspects of the learning process. Learners control their motivation levels to ensure that they achieve the set goals. Individuals control aspects of motivation such as self-efficacy, attribution, and strategies for regulating learning and monitoring progress.

Self-regulation learning is controlled by metacognition, which refers to the ability to evaluate the demands of a task accurately and chose the most appropriate strategies to complete it. Metacognition involves activities such as reflection, thinking, analysis, and application of learning strategies. Achievement motivation affects learning because it influences the locus of control. If an individual believes that they possess the skills necessary to complete a certain task, they will have high achievement motivation and vice versa. On the other hand, the type of goals determines the level of achievement motivation. Performance goals are associated with specific outcomes, while mastery goals are associated with attaining the skills needed to perform a definite task. Mastery goals invoke stronger achievement motivation than performance goals.

Principles of instructional design

Instructional design refers to the process of creating models that facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills form the instructor to learners. Examples of principles used in the instructional design include the ADDIE model and Gagne instructional model.

ADDIE model

  • Determination of performance gaps and the various needs that learners exhibit
  • Establishment of learning objectives, training procedures, and evaluation protocols
  • Creation of course material for delivery to learners
  • Teaching the model and applying in learning
  • Measurement of the efficacy of a specific instruction model

Gagne instructional model

This model has nine events of instruction that play individual roles in the learning process. Gagne proposed five groups of outcomes that should be achieved in any learning process. The five groups comprise psychomotor, affective, and cognitive domains.

Category Summary
Verbal information
  • Involves giving responses by retrieving information from memory
Intellectual skills
  • The ability to perform a certain task. Divided into subcategories that include discriminations, concrete concepts, rules, high order rules, and defined concepts.
Cognitive strategies
  • Involve choosing an intellectual process to apply in finding a solution or executing a task.
  • Involve the application of individual understanding in performing tasks
Motor skills
  • Involve the performance of a task

Constructivist approaches

Approach Characteristics
  • Involves active participation of learners in the completion of tasks
Problem-based learning
  • Guided by questions or problems that students work together to solve and share their experiences.
  • Teachers only facilitate the learning process
Collaborative learning
  • Learners work together in groups to exchange ideas, information, insights, and knowledge
Guided learning
  • Teachers use cues and models to stimulate reflection and thinking among learners.
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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Types of Learning Theories for Online Education'. 19 May.

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