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Theories of Learning. Claire O’Malley School of Psychology. Outline. Three perspectives on learning: Associationist skill acquisition Constructivist representational change Sociocultural apprenticeship to communities of practice Implications for teaching.

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theories of learning

Theories of Learning

Claire O’Malley

School of Psychology

  • Three perspectives on learning:
    • Associationist
      • skill acquisition
    • Constructivist
      • representational change
    • Sociocultural
      • apprenticeship to communities of practice
  • Implications for teaching
1 learning as skill acquisition
1. Learning as skill acquisition
  • Re-representing declarative (explicit) knowledge as condition-action rules (procedures / implicit)
  • Progressive automatisation of procedures

John Anderson

Fred Skinner



skinner s learning theory
Skinner’s Learning Theory
  • Conditioning stimulus-response (S-R) associations through reinforcement
  • Shaping behaviour through selectivereinforcement

Operant conditioning

anderson s act theory
Anderson’s ACT theory


(knowing that)


(knowing how)

  • Remember better
  • Use different problem solving strategies to novices
  • Have better & more elaborated problem representations
  • Superior performance is based on knowledge not some basic capacity
  • Become expert through extensive practice
stages of skill acquisition
Stages of skill acquisition
  • Declarative representation
  • Proceduralisation
    • Condition-action rules

IF same weight on each side

THEN the beam is balanced

IF any side has more weight

THEN that side of the beam goes down

  • Automaticity
  • Identify goal structure of problem space
  • Provide instruction in the problem solving context
  • Immediate response to learner errors
  • Provide reminders of the learning goal
  • Support successive approximations to competent performance
implications for design
Implications for design
  • Learning by doing (active engagement)
  • Learning taxonomies (e.g., concept classification vs rule following) guide selection of learning objectives and instructional strategies
  • Conditions can be identified that lead to effective learning (I.e., to achieve x objective, arrange for y conditions)
  • Explicit formulation of behavioural (observable) objectives
  • Focus on learning outcomes
  • Consistency between objectives, instructional strategies & assessment
implications for design11
Implications for design
  • Decomposition of tasks
  • Parts-to-whole instructional strategy (I.e., learn sub-tasks first)
  • Small successes
  • Response-sensitive feedback
  • The closer the training to job performance, the more effective (I.e., just-in-time learning)
  • Direct instruction, practice & transfer
  • Individualised instruction (I.e., adapted to individual needs)
2 representational change
2. Representational change
  • Restructuring prior knowledge to accommodate new information
  • Process of explicitation of implicit knowledge


Jean Piaget


Jerome Bruner


jean piaget
Jean Piaget
  • Worked with Binet on developing intelligence tests
  • Clinical interviews and observational methods
  • Interested in the relation between biological and psychological development
  • Goal was to develop a scientific method for understanding how knowledge is acquired
genetic epistemology
Genetic epistemology
  • Knowledge develops by becoming increasingly organised and adaptive to the environment
  • Intellectual development takes place through the active constructionof knowledge by the individual acting in the world
  • Knowledge construction is driven by the need to resolve conflictsbetween prior knowledge and new information as it is encountered
evidence for piaget s theory
Evidence for Piaget’s theory
  • Children in different cultures pass through the same stages and sub-stages predicted by Piaget’s theory (up to & including concrete operations)
  • Rates of development vary across cultures (décalages)
  • Schooling & literacy affect rates of development
  • BUT formal operational thinking is not universal
two major problems
Two major problems
  • The progressive construction of logic passes through a series of universal stages
    • The same (i.e., isomorphic) problems framed in different ways could be solved by very young children or could present problems for adults
  • Logic as the appropriate framework for thinking about the development of mind
    • but logic is only one (specialised) form of reasoning
    • other forms (e.g., pragmatic reasoning schemas) are just as rational
j s bruner 1915
J.S. Bruner (1915- )
  • Emphasis on processes of coming to know rather than structure of knowledge
  • Domain dependent individual differences rather than universal stages
  • But shared Piaget’s emphasis on the importance of action and problem solving
modes of representation
Modes of representation
  • Enactive – similar to Piaget’s notion of practical intelligence
      • E.g., child can sort objects according to shape
  • Iconic – representations bearing one-to-one correspondence with represented object
      • E.g., picture of object
  • Symbolic – representations that do not have one-to-one correspondences
      • E.g., ‘+’, ‘x’
  • Instruction should concern the experiences and contexts that make students willing and able to learn (readiness)
  • Curriculum should be structured so that it can be easily grasped (spiral organisation)
  • Instruction should be designed to enable extrapolation (going beyond the information given)
    • NB: scaffolding (and relation to Vygotsky…)
development and learning
Development and learning
  • Piaget
    • Development as active construction of knowledge; learning as passive formation of associations (therefore not of interest!)
  • More recent developmental theory reconciles the distinction between learning and development
    • E.g., Constraints theory (Case; Karmiloff-Smith; Gelman)
    • NB: see Siegler (2000)
implications for design22
Implications for design
  • Stages of information processing
  • Cognitive task analysis can be used to identify errors and target instruction
  • Attentional demands
  • Prior knowledge
  • Working memory load
  • Distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge
    • But see Rittle-Johnson et al., 2001
implications for design23
Implications for design
  • Skill compilation
  • Meaningful encoding (chunking; elaboration)
  • Forms of representation
  • Metacognition, self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Experts versus novices
  • Developmental constraints on learning
  • Conceptual change (schemas, mental models)
3 apprenticeship
3. Apprenticeship
  • Learning as legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice
  • Learning as situated in practical action
  • Learning as meaning-making
sociocultural theory

Sociocultural theory

Lev Vygotsky

Michael Cole

vygotsky 1896 1934
Vygotsky (1896-1934)
  • Genetic (developmental) method
  • Higher mental processes in the individual have their origins in social processes
  • Higher mental processes can be understood by studying how they are mediated by tools, artefacts and signs
  • Zone of proximal development
the social origins of mind
The Social Origins of Mind

‘Genetic law of cultural development’

“development appears on two planes, first on the inter-psychological then on the intra-psychological”


the zone of proximal development
The Zone of Proximal Development

"the distance between a child's actualdevelopmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the higher level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers"


the individual social cultural


The child experiences concepts in practice & through negotiation of meaning

The child learns, through media, parents, teachers & peers, the frameworks for making sense



Co-ordinated interaction with peers and teachers filters the cultural framework. This interaction is itself defined by culture.

The Individual, Social & Cultural

Smith, Cowie & Blades (2003), p. 494

scaffolding contingent tutoring
Scaffolding & contingent tutoring

David Wood (based on Bruner’s theory)

  • Goals
    • The learner should not succeed too easily
    • Nor fail too often
  • Principles
    • When learners are in trouble, give more help than before (scaffolding)
    • When they succeed, give less help than before (fading)
levels of instruction
Levels of instruction

Level 1 General encouragment

“Carry on!”, “You’ve made a pair”

Level 2 Specific verbal information

“Get a bigger one”, “Turn them round”

Level 3 Selection

Pointing at or handing over material, as well as verbal cues

Level 4 Orientation

Lining up blocks

Level 5 Demonstration

Successful construction by tutor

situated learning

Situated Learning

Jean Lave

Barbara Rogoff

problems for cognitive psychology
Problems for cognitive psychology
  • Practical action is not always driven by plans
  • People aren’t very good at formal reasoning
  • Transfer of knowledge from context to context is hard to achieve
  • Ecological validity is problematic because we treat context as a ‘nuisance variable’
paradigms of person environment interaction
Paradigms of person-environment interaction
  • Behaviourism
    • individual as passive recipient of information from the environment
  • Constructivism
    • focus on individual activity; environment seen as a ‘trigger’
  • Contextual/Sociocultural
    • environment mediates individual activity
characteristics of a situated or contextual approach
Characteristics of a situated or contextual approach
  • Recognition of the relationship between psychological processes and their social, cultural and historical settings
  • Explanation of how different contexts create and reflect different forms of mental functioning
  • Explanation of how human action is mediated via context
school vs everyday life
School vs Everyday Life
  • Different types of social ‘niche’
  • Differences in who determines what is of interest and when
  • Tasks in everyday life are socially negotiated and reflexive
  • People don’t just act in task environments — they help to create and maintain those task environments
the culture of learning
The culture of learning




fixed meanings

immutable concepts


causal models

conceptual situations

negotiable meanings

socially constructed understanding

just plain folks

causal stories


negotiable meanings

socially constructed understanding

situated problem solving
Situated Problem Solving

"take three-quarters of two-thirds of a cup of cottage cheese"

3/4 x 2/3


situated learning41
Situated Learning

Learning as apprenticeship, or

‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in

‘communities of practice’

(Lave & Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, 1991)

implications for design42
Implications for design
  • Learning in context
  • Communities of practice construct and define appropriate discourse, practices
  • Learning as active participation
  • Knowledge in action
  • Mediation of artifacts
  • Tools and artifacts as cultural repositories
implications for design43
Implications for design
  • Cognitive tools embody cultural rules, norms and beliefs
  • Situations make sense within a historical context
  • Cognition as dynamic interplay between individual and social levels of activity
  • Interactionism: just as situations shape individual cognition, individual cognition shapes situations
  • Roles, identities and constructions of self (e.g., as worker, learner, etc.)
readings resources
Readings & resources
  • Alessi, S. & Trollip, S.R. (2000) Multimedia for Learning. Pearson Higher Education. Chapter 2.
  • Bransford, J. et al. (2000) How People Learn. National Academy Press. Chapters 2-4, 6-7.
  • Jonassen, D.H. & Land, S.M. (2000) (Eds.) Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Chapter 3.
  • Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology. Routledge. Chapters 1-4.
  • Rittle-Johnson, B., Siegler, R.S. & Alibali, M.W. (2001) Developing conceptual understanding and procedural skill in mathematics: An iterative process. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(2), 346-362.
readings resources45
Readings & resources
  • Siegler, R.S. (2000) The rebirth of children’s learning. Child Development, 71(1), 26-35.
  • Smith, P., Cowie, H. & Blades, M. (2003) Understanding Children’s Development. Blackwell (4th Ed.) Chapter 15.
  • Wood, D.J. & Wood, H. (1996) Vygotsky, tutoring and learning. Oxford Review of Education, 22, 5-15.