Educational Learning Theories

Adult Learning Theory (CAL–Characteristics of Adult Learners Model)

Cross (1981)

Informs: Adult Education Programs

Basic Premise: Education for Adults should be tailored to fit their needs at two specific levels: personal (e.g. aging-based limitations, cognitive maturity) and situational (e.g., working professional, compulsory vs. willing/voluntary student).

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Knowles (1984)

Informs: Adult Learning (universal)


1) Adults prefer to learn through experiences
2) Adults need to understand why something is being taught
3) For adults, learning = problem-solving
4) Adults prefer learning that addresses real-time issues

Basic Premise: Adult learning must be the following to be effective–

1.) interactive (adults should be involved in evaluation and planning)
2.) experiential
3.) problem-centered
4.) immediately applicable to real-world issues and contexts

Experiential Learning

Rogers (unknown)

Informs: Adult Learning (influences Knowles & Cross)


1.) Learning = personal change/growth
2.) Everyone can learn, regardless of age; teacher quality makes the difference
3.) Effective education for adults involves:
a) setting a positive climate
b) clarification of purpose
c) arranging and offering adequate learning resources
d) balancing intellectual (cognitive) and emotional (affective) learning components
e) sharing thoughts & feelings w/ students without dominating

Basic Premise:

1.) Learning is most effective when it is considered relevant to the learner
2.) Learning uncomfortable topics is easier and occurs faster w/o external threat
3.) Lessons learned are more sustainable and pervasive when self-initiated.

Information Processing Theory

Miller (1956)

Informs: General Learning


1. The human brain can hold no more than 5-9 items in its short-term memory at a time (“chunking”)

2. Problem-solving is the act of testing out a theorized answer to a situation, and adjusting to results until either a solution is acquired, or the efforts is abandoned. (TOTE)

Basic Premise: Most information is processed as follows–

1. Short term memory (or attention span) is limited to seven chunks of information.

2. Planning (in the form of TOTE units) is a fundamental cognitive process.

3. Behavior is hierarchically organized (e.g., chunks, TOTE units).

Multiple Intelligences

Gardner (1983)

Informs: General Learning, with initial child focus

Assumptions: There are multiple types of learning styles, up to as many as 7 (linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal); effective learning, as such, should be mindful of these different intelligences and proceed accordingly.

Basic Premise:

1. Individuals should be encouraged to use their preferred intelligences in learning.

2. Instructional activities should appeal to different forms of intelligence.

3. Assessment of learning should measure multiple forms of intelligence.

Script Theory

Schank & Abelson (1977)

Informs: General Learning related to language process and higher-thinking skills

Assumption: All concepts can be boiled down to a set of basic acts performed by one person or object for others. From these acts, memory is created, which provides a certain script for expected behavior/response when confronted in the future.

Basic Premise:

1. Conceptualization is defined as an act or doing something to an object in a direction.

2. All conceptualizations can be analyzed in terms of a small number of primative acts.

3. All memory is episodic and organized in terms of scripts.

4. Scripts allow individuals to make inferences and hence understand verbal/written discourse.

5. Higher level expectations are created by goals and plans.

Situated Learning

Lave & Wenger (1991)

Informs: General Learning (knowledge acquisition)

Basic Premise: Learning is a function of activity, culture, and context. Learners learn through social interaction, beginning at the periphery of the social circle, but moving in-ward as he/she gains experience and knowledge of communal behavioral standards, at which time he/she gains prominence & reponsibility as more centralized leader. While these lessons do occur, they are not formal (“legitimate peripheral participation.”).

Basic Premise:

1. Knowledge needs to be presented in an authentic context, i.e., settings and applications that would normally involve that knowledge.

2. Learning requires social interaction and collaboration.

Social Learning

Bandura (1977)

Informs: General Social Learning, mostly adolescents


People learn how to behave in the world through scripts presented to them by significant others in their surroundings. Through the processes of attention, retention and motivation, learners develop a capacity to successfully carry out perceived meaningful behaviors in their interactions with self and others.

Basic Premise:

1. The highest level of observational learning is achieved by first organizing and rehearsing the modeled behavior symbolically and then enacting it overtly. Coding modeled behavior into words, labels or images results in better retention than simply observing.

2. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in outcomes they value.

3. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if the model is similar to the observer and has admired status and the behavior has functional value.

Attribution Theory

Weiner (1974)

Informs: General Learning in the law, clinical psychology & mental health

Assumptions: People seek to understand motivations behind their own and others behaviors.

Basic Premise:

1. Attribution is a three stage process: (1) behavior is observed, (2) behavior is determined to be deliberate, and (3) behavior is attributed to internal or external causes.

2. Achievement can be attributed to (1) effort, (2) ability, (3) level of task difficulty, or (4) luck.

3. Causal dimensions of behavior are (1) locus of control, (2) stability, and (3) controllability.

Cognitive Dissonance

Festinger (1957)

Informs: General Thinking involving attitude formation & change (i.e., decision-making)

Assumptions: People tend to behave in ways that correspond to the level of mental comfort they have about a thing (i.e., bodies follow minds).

Basic Premise:

1. Dissonance results when an individual must choose between attitudes and behaviors that are contradictory.

2. Dissonance can be eliminated by reducing the importance of the conflicting beliefs, acquiring new beliefs that change the balance, or removing the conflicting attitude or behavior.

Constructivist Theory

Bruner (1966)

Informs: Cognition (cognitive theory)

Assumptions: Learners learn new things by taking in information received and incorporating it into what they already know; the brain’s cognitive structure is responsible to informing how information is selected, processed and interpreted for proper response.

Basic Premise:

1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).

2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).

3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).


Marton & Entwistle (1984)

Informs: Learning in Higher Education

Basic Premise:

1. Researchers should seek an understanding of the phenomenon of learning by examining the students’ experiences

2. Research about learning needs to be conducted in a naturalistic setting involving the actual content and settings people learn with.

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