Approaches to Learning


Constructivism as a paradigm or worldview posits that learning is an active, constructive process. The learner is an information constructor. People actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective.


Originators and important contributors: Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey, Vico, Rorty, Bruner


Keywords: Learning as experience, activity and dialogical process; Problem Based Learning (PBL); Anchored instruction; Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); cognitive apprenticeship (scaffolding); inquiry and discovery learning.


A reaction to didactic approaches such as behaviourism and programmed instruction, constructivism states that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. Knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses of the environment. Learners continuously test these hypotheses through social negotiation. Each person has a different interpretation and construction of knowledge process. The learner is not a blank slate (tabula rasa) but brings past experiences and cultural factors to a situation.


NOTE: A common misunderstanding regarding constructivism is that instructors should never tell students anything directly but instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves. This is actually confusing a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowing. Constructivism assumes that all knowledge is constructed from the learner's previous knowledge, regardless of how one is taught. Thus, even listening to a lecture involves active attempts to construct new knowledge.


Vygotsky's social development theory is one of the foundations for constructivism.


Citation: Constructivism. (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:


Approaches rooted in constructivism:


Cognitive Apprenticeship is a theory that attempts to bring tacit processes out in the open. It assumes that people learn from one another, through observation, imitation and modelling.


Originator: Collins, Brown and Newman


Key Terms: Modelling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection Cognitive Apprenticeship


Around 1987, Collins, Brown, and Newman developed six teaching methods — modelling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection and exploration. These methods enable students to cognitive and metacognitive strategies for "using, managing, and discovering knowledge"




Experts (usually teachers or mentors) demonstrate a task explicitly. New students or novices build a conceptual model of the task at hand. For example, a math teacher might write out explicit steps and work through a problem aloud, demonstrating her heuristics and procedural knowledge.




During Coaching, the expert gives feedback and hints to the novice.




Scaffolding the process of supporting students in their learning. Support structures are put into place. In some instances, the expert may have to help with aspects of the task that the student cannot do yet.




McLellan describes articulation as (1) separating component knowledge and skills to learn them more effectively and, (2) more common verbalizing or demonstrating knowledge and thinking processes in order to expose and clarify them.


This process gets students to articulate their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving process in a domain" (p. 482). This may include inquiry teaching (Collins & Stevens, 1982), in which teachers ask students a series of questions that allows them to refine and restate their learned knowledge and to form explicit conceptual models. Thinking aloud requires students to articulate their thoughts while solving problems. Students assuming a critical role monitor others in cooperative activities and draw conclusions based on the problem-solving activities.




Reflection allows students to "compare their own problem-solving processes with those of an expert, another student and ultimately, an internal cognitive model of expertise" (p. 483). A technique for reflection could be to examine the past performances of both expert and novice and to highlight similarities and differences. The goal of reflection is for students to look back and analyse their performances with a desire for understanding and improvement towards the behaviour of an expert.




Exploration involves giving students room to problem solve on their own and teaching students exploration strategies.


The former requires the teacher to slowly withdraw the use of supports and scaffolds not only in problem solving methods, but problem setting methods as well. The latter requires the teacher to show students how to explore, research, and develop hypotheses. Exploration allows the student to frame interesting problems within the domain for themselves and then take the initiative to solve these problems.


For more information, see:


• Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1987). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics (Technical Report No. 403). BBN Laboratories, Cambridge, MA. Centre for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois. January, 1987.


Discovery Learning is a method of inquiry-based instruction, discovery learning believes that it is best for learners to discover facts and relationships for themselves. 


Originator: Jerome Bruner (1915-)


Keywords: Inquiry-based learning, constructivism


Discovery Learning (Bruner)


Discovery learning is an inquiry-based, constructivist learning theory that takes place in problem solving situations where the learner draws on his or her own past experience and existing knowledge to discover facts and relationships and new truths to be learned. Students interact with the world by exploring and manipulating objects, wrestling with questions and controversies, or performing experiments. As a result students may be more likely to remember concepts and knowledge discovered on their own (in contrast to a transmissionist model). Models that are based upon discovery learning model include: guided discovery, problem-based learning, simulation-based learning, case-based learning, incidental learning, among others.


Proponents of this theory believe that discovery learning has many advantages, including:


•         encourages active engagement


•         promotes motivation


•         promotes autonomy, responsibility, independence


•         the development of creativity and problem solving skills.


•         a tailored learning experience


Critics have sometimes cited disadvantages including:


•         creation of cognitive overload


•         potential misconceptions


•         teachers may fail to detect problems and misconceptions


The theory is closely related to work by Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert.


For more information, see:


•         Bruner, J.S. (1967). On knowing: Essays for the left hand. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


Citation: Discovery Learning (Bruner). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Social Development Theory argues that social interaction precedes development; consciousness and cognition are the end product of socialization and social behaviour.


Originator: Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).


Key terms: Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), More Knowledgeable Other (MKO)


Vygotsky's Social Development Theory


Vygotsky's Social Development Theory is the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), who lived during Russian Revolution. Vygotsky's work was largely unknown to the West until it was published in 1962.


Vygotsky’s theory is one of the foundations of constructivism. It asserts three major themes:


Major themes:


1.    Social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development. In contrast to Jean Piaget's understanding of child development (in which development necessarily precedes learning), Vygotsky felt social learning precedes development. He states: "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)." (Vygotsky, 1978).


2.    The More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). The MKO refers to anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. The MKO is normally thought of as being a teacher, coach, or older adult, but the MKO could also be peers, a younger person, or even computers.


3.    The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is the distance between a student's ability to perform a task under adult guidance and/or with peer collaboration and the student's ability solving the problem independently. According to Vygotsky, learning occurred in this zone.


Vygotsky focused on the connections between people and the sociocultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences (Crawford, 1996). According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. Initially children develop these tools to serve solely as social functions, ways to communicate needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills.


Applications of the Vygotsky Social Development Theory


Many schools have traditionally held a transmissionist or instructionist model in which a teacher or lecturer ‘transmits* information to students. In contrast. Vygotsky’s theory promotes learning contexts in which students play an active role in learning. Roles of the teacher and student are therefore shifted, as a teacher should collaborate with his or her students in order to help facilitate meaning construction in students. Learning therefore becomes a reciprocal experience for the students and teacher.


For more information, see:


• Luis C. Moll's book: L.S. Vygotsky and Education (Routledge Key Ideas in Education). An accessible, introductory volume that provides a good summary of Vygtoskian core concepts, including the sociocultural genesis of human thinking, a developmental approach to studying human thinking, and the power of cultural mediation in understanding and transforming educational practices. Well written and worth a look.


Citation: Social Development Theory (Vygotsky). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Humanism is a paradigm/philosophy/pedagogical approach that believes learning is viewed as a personal act to fulfil one's potential.


Key proponents: Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Malcolm Knowles Key terms: self-actualization, teacher as facilitator, affect Humanism


Humanism, a paradigm that emerged in the 1960s, focuses on the human freedom, dignity, and potential. A central assumption of humanism, according to Huitt (2001), is that people act with intentionality and values. This is in contrast to the behaviourist notion of operant conditioning (which argues that all behaviour is the result of the application of consequences) and the cognitive psychologist belief that the discovering knowledge or constructing meaning is central to learning. Humanists also believe that it is necessary to study the person as a whole, especially as an individual grows and develops over the lifespan. It follows that the study of the self, motivation, and goals are areas of particular interest.


Key proponents of humanism include Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. A primary purpose of humanism could be described as the development of self-actualized, autonomous people. In humanism, learning is student centred and personalized, and the educator's role is that of a facilitator. Affective and cognitive needs are key, and the goal is to develop self-actualized people in a cooperative, supportive environment.


Related theories include: Experiential Learning (Kolb), Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and Facilitation Theory (Rogers).


For more information, see:


•          DeCarvalho, R. (1991). The humanistic paradigm in education. The Humanistic Psychologist, 79(1), 88-104.


•      Huitt, W. (2001). Humanism and open education. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved September 11.2007, from the URL:


•          Rogers, C., & Freiberg, H.J. (1994). Freedom to learn (3rd Ed.). New York: Macmillan.


Citation: Humanism. (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Examples of the Humanist approach:


According to John Keller's ARCS Model of Motivational Design Theories, there are four steps for promoting and sustaining motivation in the learning process: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction (ARCS).


Originator: John Keller


Key terms: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction (ARCS)


ARCS Model of Motivational Design (Keller)


1.       Attention


•      Keller attention can be gained in two ways: (1) Perceptual arousal - uses surprise or uncertainly to gain interest. Uses novel, surprising, incongruous, and uncertain events; or (2) Inquiry arousal - stimulates curiosity by posing challenging questions or problems to be solved.


•      Methods for grabbing the learners' attention include the use of:


•      Active participation -Adopt strategies such as games, roleplay or other hands-on methods to get learners involved with the material or subject matter.


•      Variability - To better reinforce materials and account for individual differences in learning styles, use a variety of methods in presenting material (e.g. use of videos, short lectures, mini-discussion groups).


•                     Humor -Maintain interest by use a small amount of humor (but not too much to be distracting)


•      Incongruity and Conflict - A devil's advocate approach in which statements are posed that go against a learner's past experiences.


•                     Specific examples - Use a visual stimuli, story, or biography.


•                     Inquiry - Pose questions or problems for the learners to solve, e.g. brainstorming activities.


2. Relevance


• Establish relevance in order to increase a learner's motivation. To do this, use concrete language and examples with which the learners are familiar. Six major strategies described by Keller include:


•      Experience - Tell the learners how the new learning will use their existing skills. We best learn by building upon our preset knowledge or skills.


•                     Present Worth - What will the subject matter do for me today?


•                     Future Usefulness - What will the subject matter do for me tomorrow?


•                     Needs Matching - Take advantage of the dynamics of achievement, risk taking, power, and affiliation.


•      Modeling - First of all, "be what you want them to do!" Other strategies include guest speakers, videos, and having the learners who finish their work first to serve as tutors.


•      Choice - Allow the learners to use different methods to pursue their work or allowing s choice in how they organize it.


3.       Confidence


•      Help students understand their likelihood for success. If they feel they cannot meet the objectives or that the cost (time or effort) is too high, their motivation will decrease.


•      Provide objectives and prerequisites - Help students estimate the probability of success by presenting performance requirements and evaluation criteria. Ensure the learners are aware of performance requirements and evaluative criteria.


•          Allow for success that is meaningful.


•          Grow the Learners - Allow for small steps of growth during the learning process.


•          Feedback - Provide feedback and support internal attributions for success.


•      Learner Control - Learners should feel some degree of control over their learning and assessment. They should believe that their success is a direct result of the amount of effort they have put forth.


4.      Satisfaction


•      Learning must be rewarding or satisfying in some way, whether it is from a sense of achievement praise from a higher-up, or mere entertainment.


•      Make the learner feel as though the skill is useful or beneficial by providing opportunities to use newly acquired knowledge in a real setting.


•      Provide feedback and reinforcement. When learners appreciate the results, they will be motivated to learn. Satisfaction is based upon motivation, which can be intrinsic or extrinsic.


•          Do not patronize the learner by over-rewarding easy tasks.


For more information, we recommend:


John Keller's book: Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS Model Approach. Keller's book explains in detail the ARCS model. Separate chapters cover each component of the model and offer strategies for promoting each one in learners. Plenty of real-world examples and ready-to-use worksheets. The methods are applied to both traditional and alternative settings, including gifted classes, K12, self-directed learning, and corporate training.


Citation: ARCS Model of Motivational Design Theories (Keller). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is defined as the ability to identify, assess, and control one's own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups.


Originators: Many, including Howard Gardner (1983) and Daniel Goleman (1995), in a popular 1995 book entitled Emotional Intelligence and his recent book. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Several other models and definitions have also been proposed.


Key Terms: conceptual elaboration sequence, theoretical elaboration sequence, simplifying conditions sequence Emotional Intelligence (EQ)




In the 1900s, even though traditional definitions of intelligence emphasized cognitive aspects such as memory and problem-solving, several influential researchers in the intelligence field of study had begun to recognize the importance of going beyond traditional types of intelligence (IQ). As early as 1920, for instance. E.L. Thorndike described "social intelligence" as the skill of understanding and managing others. Howard Gardner in 1983 described the idea of multiple intelligences, in which interpersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people) and intrapersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one's feelings, fears and motivations) helped explain performance outcomes.


The first use of the term "emotional intelligence" is often attributed to A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence from 1985, by Wayne Payne. However, prior to this, the term "emotional intelligence" had appeared in Leuner (1966). Stanley Greenspan (1989) also put forward an El model, followed by Salovey and Mayer (1990), and Daniel Goleman (1995). A distinction between emotional intelligence as a trait and emotional intelligence as an ability was introduced in 2000.


Daniel Goleman's model (1998) focuses on El as a wide array of competencies and skills that drive leadership performance, and consists of five areas:


1.    Self-awareness - knowing one's emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals and recognize their impact on others while using gut feelings to guide decisions.


2.    Self-regulation - managing or redirecting one's disruptive emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances.


3.          Social skill - managing other's emotions to move people in the desired direction


4.         Empathy - recognizing, understanding, and considering other people's feelings especially when making decisions


5.         Motivation - motivating oneself and being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement.


To Golman, emotional competencies are not innate talents, but rather learned capabilities that must be worked on and can be developed to achieve outstanding performance. Goleman believes that individuals are born with a general emotional intelligence that determines their potential for learning emotional competencies.


Emotional Intelligence is not always widely accepted in the research community. Goleman's model of El, for instance, has been criticized in the research literature as being merely "pop psychology." However. El is still considered by many to be a useful framework especially for businesses.


For more information, we recommend the following books:


Goleman's book: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. A well-written book by a former writer for the New York Times. The book explains how the rational and emotional work together to shape intelligence, citing neuroscience and psychology of the brain. Goleman explains why IQ is not the sole predictor of success; furthermore, he demonstrates how emotional intelligence can impact important life outcomes. A fascinating read!


Bradberry, Greaves and Lencioni's book: Emotional Intelligence 2.0. A book that actually gives strategies for how to increase your emotional intelligence (not just explaining what emotional intelligence is). Helps readers increase four emotional intelligence skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Gives access to an online test that informs which strategies will increase your EQ the most.


You are welcome to share or cite this summary article. Citation: Emotional Intelligence (Goleman). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (often represented as a pyramid with five levels of needs) is a motivational theory in psychology that argues that while people aim to meet basic needs, they seek to meet successively higher needs in the form of a pyramid.


Originator: Abraham Maslow in 1943.


Key terms: deficiency needs, growth needs, physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem, self-actualization Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


Abraham H. Maslow felt as though conditioning theories did not adequately capture the complexity of human behaviour. In a 1943 paper called A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow presented the idea that human actions are directed toward goal attainment. Any given behaviour could satisfy several functions at the same time; for instance, going to a bar could satisfy one's needs for self-esteem and for social interaction.


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has often been represented in a hierarchical pyramid with five levels. The four levels (lower- order needs) are considered physiological needs, while the top level of the pyramid is considered growth needs. The lower level needs must be satisfied before higher-order needs can influence behaviour. The levels are as follows (see pyramid in Figure 1 below).


•         Self-actualization - includes morality, creativity, problem solving, etc.


•         Esteem - includes confidence, self-esteem, achievement, respect, etc.


•         Belongingness - includes love, friendship, intimacy, family, etc.


•         Safety - includes security of environment, employment, resources, health, property, etc.


•         Physiological - includes air, food, water, sex, sleep, other factors towards homeostasis, etc.


Deprivation Needs


The first four levels are considered deficiency or deprivation needs ("D-needs") in that their lack of satisfaction causes a deficiency that motivates people to meet these needs. Physiological needs, the lowest level on the hierarchy, include necessities such as air, food, and water. These tend to be satisfied for most people, but they become predominant when unmet. During emergencies, safety needs such as health and security rise to the forefront. Once these two levels are met, belongingness needs, such as obtaining love and intimate relationships or close friendships, become important. The next level, esteem needs, include the need for recognition from others, confidence, achievement, and self-esteem.


Growth Needs


The highest level is self-actualization, or the self-fulfilment. Behaviour in this case is not driven or motivated by deficiencies but rather one's desire for personal growth and the need to become all the things that a person is capable of becoming (Maslow, 1970).




While a useful guide for generally understanding why students behave the way that they do and in determining how learning may be affected by physiological or safety deficiencies, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has its share of criticisms. Some critics have noted vagueness in what is considered a "deficiency"; what is a deficiency for one is not necessarily a deficiency for another. Secondly, there seem to be various exceptions that frequently occur. For example, some people often risk their own safety to rescue others from danger.


For more information about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, see:


• Maslow's book: Hierarchy of Needs: A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow's classic publication — perhaps essential reading for psychology students, educators and professionals.


Maslow's book: Toward a Psychology of Being. Human flourishing — a useful book that helps you understand reaching self-actualization (sometimes called "flow" or "positive psychology." One of Maslow's best.


Citation: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Self-Determination Theory is a theory of motivation and personality that addresses three universal, innate and psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness.


Originators: Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, psychologists at the University of Rochester.


Key Terms: motivation, competence, autonomy, relatedness


Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan)


Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is an important theory of motivation that addresses issues of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. People have innate psychological needs:


•          Competence


•          Relatedness


•          Autonomy


If these universal needs are met the theory argues that people will function and grow optimally. To actualize their inherent potential, the social environment needs to nurture these needs.




Seek to control the outcome and experience mastery.




Is the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others.




Is the universal urge to be causal agents of one's own life and act in harmony with one's integrated self; however, Deci and Vansteenkiste note this does not mean to be independent of others


Motivation has often been grouped into two main types: extrinsic and intrinsic. With extrinsic motivation, a person tends to do a task or activity mainly because doing so will yield some kind of reward or benefit upon completion. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is characterized by doing something purely because of enjoyment or fun.


Deci, Lens and Vansteenkiste (2006) conducted a study that demonstrated intrinsic goal framing (compared to extrinsic goal framing and no-goal framing) produced deeper engagement in learning activities, better conceptual learning, and higher persistence at learning activities.


For more information, we recommend the following additional reading:


Edward Deci's Book: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Extremely interesting book, with a strong basis in empirical research. Even so, the book is very easy to read, with several case studies that a layman can easily understand. Highly recommended.


The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory (Oxford Library of Psychology). This handbook brings together self-determination theory experts and organizational psychology experts to talk about past and future applications of the theory to the field of organizational psychology. Topics include: how to bring about commitment engagement and passion in the workplace; managing stress, health, emotions and violence at work; etc.


Daniel Pink's book: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. An extremely popular book that describes three elements to intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Also includes a Toolkit section with strategies for individuals, companies, tips on compensation, suggestions for education, etc.


Citation: Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:



The cognitivist paradigm essentially argues that the "black box" of the mind should be opened and understood. The learner is viewed as an information processor (like a computer).


Originators and important contributors: Merrill - Component Display Theory (CDT), Reigeluth (Elaboration Theory), Gagne, Briggs, Wager, Bruner (moving toward cognitive constructivism), Schank (scripts), Scandura (structural learning)


Keywords: Schema, schemata, information processing, symbol manipulation, information mapping, mental models


The cognitivist revolution replaced behaviourism in 1960s as the dominant paradigm. Cognitivism focuses on the inner mental activities - opening the "black box" of the human mind is valuable and necessary for understanding how people learn. Mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving need to be explored. Knowledge can be seen as schema or symbolic mental constructions. Learning is defined as change in a learner's schemata.


A response to behaviourism, people are not "programmed animals" that merely respond to environmental stimuli; people are rational beings that require active participation in order to learn, and whose actions are a consequence of thinking. Changes in behaviour are observed, but only as an indication of what is occurring in the learner's head. Cognitivism uses the metaphor of the mind as computer: information comes in, is being processed, and leads to certain outcomes.


Citation: Cognitivism. (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Examples of Cognitivist Approaches:


Cognitive Load Theory:


Summary: A theory that focuses the load on working memory during instruction.


Originators and proponents: John Sweller


Keywords: cognitive load theory, working memory, multimedia learning Cognitive Load Theory of Multimedia Learning (Sweller)


John Swelter's paper, "Implications of Cognitive Load Theory for Multimedia Learning" describes the human cognitive architecture, and the need to apply sound instructional design principles based on our knowledge of the brain and memory. Sweller first describes the different types of memory, and how both are interrelated, because schemas held in long-term memory, acting as a "central executive", directly affect the manner in which information is synthesized in working memory. Sweller then explains that in the absence of schemas, instructional guidance must provide a substitute for learners to develop either own schemas.


Sweller discusses, in his view, three types of cognitive load:


·         extraneous cognitive load


·         intrinsic cognitive load


·         germane cognitive load


Intrinsic cognitive load


First described by Chandler and Sweller, intrinsic cognitive load is the idea that all instruction has an inherent difficulty associated with it (for instance, calculating 5+5). This inherent difficulty may not be altered by an instructor. However, many schemas may be broken into individual "subschemas" and taught in isolation, to be later brought back together and described as a combined whole.


Extraneous cognitive load


Extraneous cognitive load, by contrast, is under the control of instructional designers. This form of cognitive load is generated by the manner in which information is presented to learners (i.e., the design). To illustrate an example of extraneous cognitive load, assume there are at least two possible ways to describe a geometric shape like a triangle. An instructor could describe a triangle in a verbally, but to show a diagram of a triangle is much better because the learner does not have to deal with extraneous, unnecessary information.


Germane cognitive load


Germane load is a third kind of cognitive load which is encouraged to be promoted. Germane load is the load dedicated to the processing, construction and automation of schemas. While intrinsic load is generally thought to be immutable, instructional designers can manipulate extraneous and germane load. It is suggested that they limit extraneous load and promote germane load.


Extraneous cognitive load and intrinsic cognitive load are not ideal; they result from inappropriate instructional designs and complexity of information. Germane cognitive load is coined as "effective' cognitive load, caused by successful schema construction. Each of the cognitive loads are additive, and instructional design's goal should be to reduce extraneous cognitive load to free up working memory. Throughout the article, Sweller also draws interesting comparisons between human cognition and evolutionary theory.


For more information, see:


John Swelter's book: Cognitive Load Theory (Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems and Performance Technologies). A bit expensive, but a useful book for academics, researchers, instructional designers, cognitive and educational psychologists, and those interested in cognition and or education technology.


Ruth Clark’s book: Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. One of the first books to contribute a full-length practical design guide to the application of CLT.


Citation: Cognitive Load Theory of Multimedia Learning (Sweller). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from: sweller.html




The term "Gestalt," comes from a German word that roughly means pattern or form. The main tenet of the Gestalt theory is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; learning is more than just invoking mechanical responses from learners.


As with other learning theories, the Gestalt theory has laws of organization by which it must function. These organizational laws already exist in the make-up of the human mind and how perceptions are structured. Gestalt theorists propose that the experiences and perceptions of learners have a significant impact on the way that they learn.


One aspect of Gestalt is phenomenology, which is the study of how people organize learning by looking at their lived experiences and consciousness. Learning happens best when the instruction is related to their real life experiences. The human brain has the ability to make a map of the stimuli caused by these life experiences. This process of mapping is called "isomorphism."


The Gestalt theory of learning originated in Germany, being put forth by three German theorists who were inspired by the works and ideas of the man who gave the learning theory its name.


Graf Christian von Ehrenfels was a learning theorist who took the holistic approach to learning by putting forth the idea that learning takes place as students were able to comprehend a concept in its entirety, rather than broken up into parts.


Key Terms: holistic, mechanical response, phenomenology. Isomorphism, factor of closure, factor of proximity, trace factor, factor of similarity, figure ground effect


Theorists: Graf Christian von Ehrenfels, Wertheimer, Kohler, Koffka, insight learning Gestalt


Whenever the brain sees only part of a picture, the brain automatically attempts to create a complete picture. This is the first organizational law, called the "factor of closure," and it does not only apply to images, but it also applies to thoughts, feelings and sounds.


Based upon Gestalt theory, the human brain maps elements of learning that are presented close to each other as a whole, instead of separate parts. This organizational law is called the "factor of proximity," and is usually seen in learning areas such as reading and music, where letters and words or musical notes make no sense when standing alone, but become a whole story or song when mapped together by the human brain.


The next organizational law of the Gestalt theory is the "factor of similarity," which states that learning is facilitated when groups that are alike are linked together and contrasted with groups that present differing ideas. This form of Gestalt learning enables learners to develop and improve critical thinking skills.


When observing things around us, it is normal for the eye to ignore space or holes and to see. instead, whole objects. This organizational law is called the "figure-ground effect."


As new thoughts and ideas are learned the brain tends to make connections, or "traces," that are representative of the links that occur between conceptions and ideas, as well as images. This organizational law is called the "trace theory."


The Gestalt theory placed its main emphasis on cognitive processes of a higher order, causing the learner to use higher problem solving skills. They must look at the concepts presented to them and search for the underlying similarities that link them together into a cohesive whole. In this way, learners are able to determine specific relationships amongst the ideas and perceptions presented.


The Gestalt theory of learning purports the importance of presenting information or images that contain gaps and elements that don't exactly fit into the picture. This type of learning requires the learner to use critical thinking and problem solving skills. Rather than putting out answers by rote memory, the learner must examine and deliberate in order to find the answers they are seeking.


When educators are presenting information to the students using the Gestalt theory of learning, they must ensure that their instructional strategies make use of the organizational laws presented earlier in this article.


The Gestalt theory of learning came into the forefront of learning theories as a response to the Behaviorist theory. Other theories have evolved out of the original Gestalt learning theory, with different forms of the Gestalt theory taking shape. The field of Gestalt theories have come to be acknowledged as a cognitive-interactionist family of theories.


The Gestalt theory purports that an individual is a whole person and the instructional strategies used to teach them will help to discover if there is anything that is mentally blocking them from learning certain new information. Teaching strategies are used to present problems as a whole and to attempt to remove any mental block from the learner so that new information can be stored.


Citation: Gestalt Theory (von Ehrenfels). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Situated cognition is the theory that people's knowledge is embedded in the activity, context, and culture in which it was learned. It is also referred to as "situated learning."


Originators & proponents: John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, Paul Duguid


Keywords: activity, authentic domain activity, authentic learning, cognitive apprenticeship, content-specific learning, context culture, everyday learning, knowledge, legitimate peripheral participation, socio-cultural learning, social construction of knowledge, social interaction, teaching methods


Situated cognition (Brown, Collins, & Duguid)


Situated cognition is a theory which emphasizes that people's knowledge is constructed within and linked to the activity, context and culture in which it was learned.


Learning is social and not isolated, as people learn while interacting with each other through shared activities and through language, as they discuss, share knowledge, and problem-solve during these tasks.


For example, while language learners can study a dictionary to increase their vocabulary, this often solitary work only teaches basic parts of learning a language; when language learners talk with someone who is a native speaker of the language, they will learn important aspects of how these words are used in the native speaker's home culture and how the words are used in everyday social interactions.


Cognitive apprenticeship is an important aspect of situated cognition. During this social interaction between a novice learner and an expert, important skills, interactions, and experiences are shared. The novice learns from the expert as an apprentice, and the expert often passes down methods and traditions which the apprentice can learn only from the expert and which are authentic learning. This is a form of socio-cultural learning. The expert is a practitioner of the skill and tradition, meaning that they use and practice them regularly in the everyday life. The expert scaffolds the novice's learning.


This theory has helped researchers understand more widely about how people learn because it has focused on what people learn in their everyday lives, which are authentic contexts for a variety of skills. In addition, it helps educators understand how to capitalize on knowledge and skills that their students may already possess in order to help them learn new content and skills.


For more information, see:


•      Aydede, M., & Robbins, P. (Eds.). (2009). The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


•      Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational researcher, 78(1), 32-42.


You are welcome to share or cite this summary article. Citation: Situated Cognition (Brown, Collins, & Duguid). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Piaget's Stage Theory of Cognitive Development is a description of cognitive development as four distinct stages in children: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal.


Originator: Jean Piaget (1896-1980)


Key Terms: Sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, formal, accommodation, assimilation.


Piaget's Stage Theory of Cognitive Development


Swiss biologist and psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) observed his children (and their process of making sense of the world around them) and eventually developed a four-stage model of how the mind processes new information encountered. He posited that children progress through 4 stages and that they all do so in the same order. These four stages are:


•      Sensorimotor stage (Birth to 2 years old). The infant builds an understanding of himself or herself and reality (and how things work) through interactions with the environment. It is able to differentiate between itself and other objects. Learning takes place via assimilation (the organization of information and absorbing it into existing schema) and accommodation (when an object cannot be assimilated and the schemata have to be modified to include the object.


•      Preoperational stage (ages 2 to 4). The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations. Objects are classified in simple ways, especially by important features.


•      Concrete operations (ages 7 to 11). As physical experience accumulates, accomodation is increased. The child begins to think abstractly and conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain his or her physical experiences.


•      Formal operations (beginning at ages 11 to 15). Cognition reaches its final form. By this stage, the person no longer requires concrete objects to make rational judgements. He or she is capable of deductive and hypothetical reasoning. His or her ability for abstract thinking is very similar to an adult.


Mooney's book: Theories of Childhood, Second Edition: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky. Clear, straightforward introductions to foundational theories including Piaget Dewey and Vygotsky. Includes discussion questions and insights on how the theory impacts teaching young children today.


Citation: Stage Theory of Cognitive Development (Piaget). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Theory of Mind, Empathy, Mindblindness


Theory of mind refers to the ability to perceive the unique perspective of others and its influence on their behaviour - that is, other people have unique thoughts, plans, and points of view that are different than yours.


Originators and key contributors:


•      Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist described the inability of young children to perceive others' points of view due to 'egocentrism.'


•      David Premack and Guy Woodruff developed the term Theory of Mind (1978) as applied to their studies on chimpanzees.


• Josef Perner and Heinz Wimmer (1983) extended Theory of Mind to the study of child development Keywords: Social cognition, child development, false-belief. Autism spectrum disorders, mindblindness Theory of Mind


Theory of mind (ToM) is defined as an implicit understanding of the individual mental states of others, and their influence upon behaviour. It is the understanding that others thoughts and feelings are unique and often different to one's own personal thoughts and feelings, and that both may differ from actual reality. The ability to gasp ToM implicates various aspects of social interaction such as cooperation, lying, following directions, and feeling empathy. Lacking adequate ToM will cause difficulty in understanding and predicting the behavior of others.


The False- Belief task


False-Belief tasks are the classic strategy used to test the presence of ToM. False- belief refers to the recognition of the fact that people often make mistakes. Gaining an understanding that one may hold of an incorrect belief is a crucial step in ToM development. One variation of this task utilizes a puppet that places a piece of chocolate in a cupboard before leaving. The experimenter then hides the piece of chocolate elsewhere. At this point the child is asked where the puppet will look first for the chocolate when he returns. A child who has not yet grasped ToM (usually children younger than four years of age) will not be able to separate between his knowledge and the puppet's knowledge, and therefore will falsely conclude that the puppet will look in its new location. An older child with developed ToM will correctly assume that the puppet will search for the object in its original position.


ToM Development


Infancy and early childhood are characterized by an inability to consider another's point of view, a feature which Piaget termed egocentrism. For example, when asked what to buy their mother for her birthday, young children will enthusiastically respond with their own favourite toy. They are unable to fathom that she might desire something different from that which they desire. This can also be seen in aggressive behaviour towards others, as they falsely assume that what is fun for them is also fun for the object of their aggression.


That being said, during infancy and early childhood various behavior are learned, which form the basis on which future ToM will develop. Behaviors that begin to take into account others' point of view include mimicking, joint attention (6-12 months), and pointing (12-18 months). Toddlers become aware of other's emotions and are able to name those emotions even if they do not feel them. In addition, they begin to comprehend the unique likes and dislikes of others, and separate to some degree between imagination and reality, as seen in pretend play which appears at this point. The toddler additionally understands the emotional consequences of actions, (i.e. if I throw my spoon, mother will be angry) and discern between intentional behaviour and accidents. Although these skills exist by the age of three, the child is still ambivalent regarding the exact nature of the other's perception. According to Piaget this is due to the fact that at this point, thought processes are predominated by'egocentrism'.


The emergence of true ToM occurs at around 4-5 years, as executive functioning improves. At this point more complex perception of the unique desires of others is expected (e.g. although I want the car, she may want something else) alongside the possibility of hidden feelings. Children successfully complete false-belief tasks, while grasping the existence of several truths regarding a single idea. They are more adept at relating their own experiences to others, by taking into account that more information should be given if the person was not there. ToM continues to develop, with elementary school age children beginning to ponder what others think about themselves, and utilizing ToM based language, such as deceit, sarcasm, and metaphors.


ToM Impairment


ToM impairment refers to the state in which ToM does not develop as expected. This state may result from a neurological, cognitive, or emotional deficit. This impairment exists most prominently in Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and serves as one of the primary characteristics. Individuals with ASD who present high cognitive abilities and verbal knowledge, still display difficulties in passing ToM tasks.


This impairment of ToM in ASD is also termed "mindblindness." They are often unable to perceive social cues and thus have difficulty ascertaining others' motives and intentions. People often mistakenly assume that these individuals do not care or empathize with others, when in reality there is a true lack of understanding. Therefore, they often experience social difficulties. These difficulties cover a vast expanse of social functioning, such as relaying a story to others, pretend play, explaining their behaviour to others, comprehending emotions, engaging in conversations, predicting the behaviour and feelings of others, understanding others’ points of view, and generally joining in on social conventions. Thus, children presenting ToM impairment will need directed interventions in order to be more at ease during social interactions.


For further information, please see:


• Theory of Mind: How Children Understand Others' Thoughts and Feelings (International Texts in Developmental Psychology)


Citation: Theory of Mind, Empathy, Mindblindness (Premack, Woodruff, Perner, Wimmer). (2016, March 05). Retrieved from: empathy-mindblindness-premack-woodruff-perner-wimmer.html




Behaviourism is a worldview that operates on a principle of "stimulus-response." All behaviour caused by external stimuli (operant conditioning). All behaviour can be explained without the need to consider internal mental states or consciousness.


Originators and important contributors: John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, E. L. Thorndike (connectionism), Bandura, Tolman (moving toward cognitivism)


Keywords: Classical conditioning (Pavlov), Operant conditioning (Skinner), Stimulus-response (S-R)


Behaviourism is a worldview that assumes a learner is essentially passive, responding to environmental stimuli. The learner starts off as a clean slate (i.e. tabula rasa) and behaviour is shaped through positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement increase the probability that the antecedent behaviour will happen again. In contrast, punishment (both positive and negative) decreases the likelihood that the antecedent behaviour will happen again. Positive indicates the application of a stimulus; Negative indicates the withholding of a stimulus. Learning is therefore defined as a change in behaviour in the learner. Lots of (early) behaviourist work was done with animals (e.g. Pavlov's dogs) and generalized to humans.


Behaviourism precedes the cognitivist worldview. It rejects structuralism and is an extension of Logical Positivism.


Radical behaviourism


Developed by BF Skinner, Radical Behaviourism describes a particular school that emerged during the reign of behaviourism. It is distinct from other schools of behaviourism, with major differences in the acceptance of mediating structures, the role of emotions, etc.


Citation: Behaviorism. (2016, March 05). Retrieved from:




Overview of Learning Theories


Although there are many different approaches to learning, there are three basic types of learning theory: behaviourist, cognitive constructivist, and social constructivist. This section provides a brief introduction to each type of learning theory. The theories are treated in four parts: a short historical introduction, a discussion of the view of knowledge presupposed by the theory, an account of how the theory treats learning and student motivation, and finally, an overview of some of the instructional methods promoted by the theory is presented.




Cognitive Constructivism

Social Constructivism

View of knowledge

Knowledge is a repertoire of behavioural responses to environmental stimuli.

Knowledge systems of cognitive structures are actively constructed by learners based on pre-existing cognitive structures.

Knowledge is constructed within social contexts through interactions with a knowledge community.

View of learning

Passive absorption of a predefined body of knowledge by the learner. Promoted by repetition and positive reinforcement.

Active assimilation and accommodation of new information to existing cognitive structures. Discovery by learners.

Integration of students into a knowledge community. Collaborative assimilation and accommodation of new information.

View of motivation

Extrinsic, involving positive and negative reinforcement.

Intrinsic; learners set their own goals and motivate themselves to learn.

Intrinsic and extrinsic. Learning goals and motives are determined both by learners and extrinsic rewards provided by the knowledge community.

Implications for Teaching

Correct behavioural responses are transmitted by the teacher and absorbed by the students.

The teacher facilitates learning by providing an environment that promotes discovery and assimilation/accommodation.

Collaborative learning is facilitated and guided by the teacher. Group work.