Learning theories

There are a number of theories that have been developed that describe how learning occurs, such as behaviourism, constructivism, social constructivism. What is consistent in all the theories is the fact that learning requires active cognitive engagement on the part of the learner. For learning to occur, learners must construct their own meaning and this typically requires a conscious effort. The amount of conscious effort and strength of the construction is related to the depth of the learning that occurs.

Learning theories tell us that the best conditions for learning are those where learners are actively engaged in the process of learning. Such settings are those where learners:

  • have an interest and motivation for the learning
  • have some sense of ownership and agency in their learning
  • are cognitively stimulated and engaged
  • have ample opportunity to practise what is being learned
  • are scaffolded and supported
  • are reflective, actively monitored and self-regulate their own learning.

Not all these features are necessarily able to be planned into a learning setting, but all can be encouraged and supported through the way a learning experience is delivered to learners. Those that can be planned into a learning setting are done through the learning experience that the learning design supports.

Another very important aspect of learning relates to learner differences. Different learners in the same learning setting can learn very different things. When a learner engages in a learning experience, what they learn depends very much on what they bring to the setting. For example: preferred learning styles, prior knowledge, awareness and motivation. It is impossible to tell by looking at a learning setting what each learner will learn individually. And since learning is an individual outcome, it is important when designing a learning setting to recognise and cater for the needs of a diverse cohort.