Aligning Learning Theory with Instructional Design

As you will know if you read yesterday’s post, the proliferation of learning theories over the last century or so has led to a broad range of philosophies and ideas for learning professionals to choose from when undertaking the development of a learning program, as you can see from Figure 1, which is a simplified timeline of the philosophies and disciplines that influenced learning theories.  


Figure 1 Influences on Learning Theories (after Stahl, G. 2003)

The heterogeneous nature of learning theories, with sometimes subtle and occasionally significant divergences in their character usually serves only to confuse an already complex domain: even gathering an understanding of the key terms associated with the subject (see Figure 2) can be an overwhelming task for those new to the discipline of instructional design.


Figure 2 Tag Cloud of Learning Theory Terms

So how do you choose a learning theory for your instructional design?

In their 1993 article Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features, Ertmer and Newby use Dale H. Schunk’s definitive questions as well as two more of their own to enable those engaged in instructional design to distinguish between learning theories at the highest level. Schunk (1991) defines five questions to distinguish learning theories:

  1. How does learning occur?
  2. Which factors influence learning?
  3. What is the role of memory?
  4. How does transfer occur?
  5. What types of learning are best explained by the theory?

Ertmer and Newby include two more questions for instructional designers:

  1. What basic assumptions / principles are relevant to instructional design?
  2. How should instruction be structured to facilitate learning?

Based upon these criteria, we can say that instructional design can be characterized as being effective in the contexts described as below:

Learning Program

Learning Theory / Instructional Design Approach

Introductory learning A behaviorist/cognitivist approach works best.
Instruction is predetermined, sequential and criterion-referenced
Advanced learning A cognitivist/constructivist approach works best.
Tasks require an increased level of processing (schematic organization, analogical reasoning etc)
Expertise development A constructivist approach works best.
Tasks associated with subject matter expertise demand high levels of analysis and problem-solving (i.e. situated learning, cognitive apprenticeships, and social negotiation)




Ertmer, P. A., Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6 (4), 50-70.

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Learning theories: An educational perspective. New York: Macmillan.

Stahl, G. (2003). Building Collaborative Knowing: Elements Of A Social Theory Of CSCL, IN J.W. Strijbos, P.Kirschner & R. Martins (ed.), What we know about CSCL in higher education, Amsterdam: Kluwer.

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