Learning theories in online learning

Behaviorist Learning Theory is focused on learning that can be observed and therefore changed.  When we design instruction by creating student learning objectives, we can think of them as behaviorist objectives; what stimuli will the instructor use to make students behave in a changed way.  I thought it was interesting that this theory seeks to find a predictable change in students.  If we want students to do A, then we will figure out which stimulus from B-G will produce the desired change we want students to exhibit.  This theory views learning as an acquisition of new information and skills through the use of rewards and punishments to reinforce learning behavior.  In general, I think behaviorist principles apply to how we design learning experiences more than they can adequately explain how students learn.  In distance learning, the structure or course design often contain some behaviorist qualities.  Courses have student learning objectives that are “observed” although from a distance and sometimes asynchronously.  The instructor can use rewards and punishments (negative or positive) to direct students to complete their assignments, submit assignments in the correct manner and format, attend scheduled events or meetings, and participate in meaningful dialogue with other learners and the instructor.  These behaviorist strategies serve more to guide the student through the course or ensure that they keep up with the coursework, but don’t necessarily demonstrate how or how well the student will learn through the course.  I think distance learning is not intended to teach a student HOW to learn at distance but uses behaviorist strategies and technologies to ENABLE a student to learn specific content knowledge and skills at a distance.

Cognitivist Learning Theory was very interesting for me to read about because I tend to map out information and concepts when I am learning them for the first time or attempting to explain them to someone else.  This theory is about graphing how our brains organize and process knowledge and how that translates into learning.  In Cognitive Information Processing, we use our minds to process information and have an infrastructure for dealing with information.  You have an information storage facility that processes what you know – stores it for you, retrieves it when you want it, makes changes when needed, and applies it to a task or situation at hand.  In a Schema theory, our minds continually absorb, build, and connect networks of our knowledge, skills, and experiences.

Gagne’s Theory of Instruction applies well to distance learning.  In this theory, learning is when you acquire knowledge or skills.  Learning outcomes are classified into levels that each require specific types of instruction.  The Nine Events of Instruction outlines a sequence of course design that guides students to achieve their learning objectives.  In distance learning courses, this can be evident in how a course is laid out or its structure, combined with Moore’s three-part model of interaction between students and other students, the instructor and/or the course content.  In some ways, these nine steps are more effective in distance learning because a student is more or less a captive audience who intentionally goes through the course in whatever sequence the instructor designs.  Much like behaviorist learning theories, cognitivism is still very much focused on the instructor’s role in student learning and while the instruction is focused on the specific learning objectives of the student, there is a defined course design that dictates how the student interacts with the content.  Using this theory and these nine events of instruction in distance learning can be effective when the course teaches very specific information that should be learned in a defined way and when the student is motivated to learn the content and can adapt to the course design.

The Constructivist Learning Theory was also interesting to me because I immediately recognized strategies that I use in my work.  This theory regards learning as a process of building or constructing knowledge and understanding by experiencing and reflecting on those experiences.  My approach to teaching is that I am a learning guide for my students, and while I might share my lived experiences and personal reflections when appropriate, my role is to assist students in learning to do that for themselves.  In distance learning, the constructivist approach can be very effective to bridge the “distance” in the dialogue between learner and content and learner and other learners.  Scaffolding in K-12 distance learning can help ensure meaningful learning, while active learning, learning by doing, and collaborative learning could be used at any age or grade level for a wide range of content.  Last week, I wrote about gaming and distance learning design, and how content, design, and dialogue could also be adjusted to meet student learning objectives.  In a constructivist distance learning course, students play an active role in determining how and what they learn, when they learn best, and how they impact the learning of others.

As I am reflecting on what I practice versus what I believe, I recognize that I pull from each of the three learning theories at various times.  Most of the time, in my planning stages I lean a bit more towards behaviorist and cognitivist theories, but in actual practice after I get to know my students, I tend to practice more social constructivist strategies.  As a learner, I think that I am more of a cognitivist learner; I’m not sure if that’s because of how I learned (or was taught) as I grew up or if that is my strength as a learner.  I have been described by past co-workers as a forward-thinking, creative, logical, problem-solving, big-picture, and flexible individual.  In classes, trainings, and now graduate courses, when I see the big picture or sequence of events, I focus on my learning tasks and “trust” that the instructor has designed the course to support my learning.  Thinking about my philosophy of distance learning has prompted me to examine how I learn in this format.  I am still learning what my strengths and areas of growth are as a distance learner but the constructivist in my believes that each learner has their own way of experiencing this, and other distance learning programs, based on what we seek to gain, our motivation, and our learning styles.


Anderson, T. and Dron, J.  (March – 2011).  Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy.  Special Issue – Connectivism: Design and Delivery of Social Networked Learning, Vol 12, No 3.  The International Review of Research In Open and Distributed Learning.  Athabasca University: Canada.   Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/890/1663

Harasim, L.  (2012).  Learning Theory and Online Technology.  Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group:  New York.

Huang, H.  (2002).  Toward constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments.  British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 33 No 1 2002 2 7-3 7.  The H.W. Wilson Company.  Retrieved from http://www.umsl.edu/~wilmarthp/modla-links-2011/Toward-a-constructivism-for-adult-learners–in-online-learning-environments.pdf

Tam, M.  (2000).  Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning.  Educational Technology & Society 3(2) 2000.  ISSN 1436-4522.  Retrieved from http://www.ifets.info/journals/3_2/tam.html

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction (http://niu.edu/facdev/resources/guide/learning/gagnes_nine_events_instruction.pdf) and (http://check-n-click.com/pin-up-resource-gagnes-nine-events/)

Conditions of Learning (http://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/conditions-learning.html)

3 thoughts on “Learning theories in online learning

  1. I agree that laying out of course can help with Gagne’s Theory of Instruction. The lay out of a course and the format is so important and many times overlooked. I agree with this statement of yours, “Scaffolding in K-12 distance learning can help ensure meaningful learning, while active learning, learning by doing, and collaborative learning could be used at any age or grade level for a wide range of content.” Good teaching practices do not go away or even change much in distance learning. The delivery might change, but good practices still work.


  2. You wrote: “I recognize that I pull from each of the three learning theories at various times.”
    I feel the same way. Depending on the dynamics on my class, the goal of learning, the activity we are doing, helps determine which learning theory I may need to pull from. You also write about Gagne’s 9 events of learning, in those 9 events I see alot of what I do in my classroom and what I experience in the EDET courses. Like Matthew stated in his comment, good teaching practices do not just go away because it’s distance learning (or at least it shouldn’t).

    Liked by 1 person

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