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According to L&D pro Elaine Biech, “Learning is not an automatic consequence of pouring information into another’s head. It requires the learner’s own mental involvement and participation.

So, how can Learning and Development teams hope to design effective training programs if they aren’t aware of the mental forces that drive learning?

The short answer is, they can’t.

Learning theories are attempts to model out the “mental involvement” that enables learning. Philosophers, scientists, and psychologists have been trying to untangle exactly how we learn for some time now. Although no one theory reigns supreme, certain frameworks stand out.

In this article, we’ll go over five such theories—and suggest how L&D teams might apply them for better learning outcomes:

  1. Constructivist Learning Theory
  2. Adult Learning Theory (Andragogy)
  3. Learning Curve Theory
  4. Connectivism
  5. Collaborative Learning


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Learning Theories to Apply in L&D

1. Constructivist Learning Theory

Is the learner an active participant in the learning process or a passive recipient of knowledge? Is the learner’s mind a “black box,” meaning researchers can only rely on visible behavior? What’s the role of socialization in learning?

These are a few of the many questions learning theorists have tried to answer.

Here’s what proponents of the constructivist learning theory have to say:

  • Learning is an active process
  • Learning is a social activity
  • Learning is based on personal, existing knowledge and experience
  • It’s worth studying learning as an inner (mental) process

We can define the theory further:

“Constructivism is the theory that says learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information. As people experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they build their own representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge (schemas).”

As opposed to behaviorists (who see learning as essentially a set of physical responses to stimuli), and an agreement with cognitivism, constructivists focus on learning as an inner mental process. But, in contrast to the latter, they believe the learner takes a particularly active role. They also put more weight on social interaction as part of effective learning.

Two key constructivists that have helped shape the way we understand teaching and learning include:

  • Jean Piaget: A Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget is credited with pioneering research around the developmental stages of cognitive ability and learning in children. For Piaget, “the teacher became not a transmitter of knowledge but a guide to the child’s own discovery of the world.”
  • Lev Vygotsky: Vygotsky lived and worked at around the same time as Piaget, coming up with related but distinct theories of child development. He’s credited with the theories of the Zone of Proximal Development, and the teaching method of “scaffolding.”

Though original constructivist theorists were focused on how children learn, their frameworks are useful for anybody looking to instruct, teach, or train.


How to Apply Constructivist Learning Theory

Since constructivists believe in the active role of the learner (and the importance of social involvement), here are a few ideas for building courses around this model:

  • Q&A: Existing knowledge and experiences are important to constructivists. Assess prior knowledge with pre-quizzes or questionnaires to gauge where learners are. Encourage employees to ask and answer their own questions through research and group discussions.
  • Explore different media: Don’t rely solely on lecture-style training. Find ways to build interactivity into courses, whether through the medium itself or the way learners interact with the material. Peer learning and dialogue—with the instructor as the facilitator—is encouraged.
  • Include relevant context: For constructivists, learning is personal and can’t be uncoupled from our lived experiences. Ground learning moments in a context that’s relevant to your employees.

This notion of the learner as an active driver of learning is also fundamental to another important learning theory, especially for L&D teams: adult learning theory.

2. Adult Learning Theory (Andragogy)

Believe it or not, before the Second World War, theorists were almost exclusively concerned with studying the way children learned—nobody gave any thought to whether the process in adults was any different. Then came Malcolm Knowles.

Knowles is credited with formulating the theory of “andragogy” (adult learning theory) in the U.S. in the 1980s. He specifically sought to untangle the differences in how adults learn versus how children do. He adapted the pedagogical model to accommodate major differences in motivation, process, and style.

The major points of his theory are based on six assumptions about how adults learn:

  • The need to know: Adults crave to understand why they’re learning something.
  • Learner’s self-concept: In a learning situation, adults need to be treated as adults, with pre-existing knowledge, experience, and points of view.
  • The role of learner’s experiences: Adults’ varied experiences mean they can more actively participate in a learning process than children (who lack that life experience).
  • Readiness to learn: Adults should enter learning situations when it makes sense in their career, life circumstances, or life goals.
  • Orientation to learning: For adults, learning courses should be grounded in a real-world context, not abstract “learning for learning’s sake.”
  • Motivation: Adults are primarily driven by internal factors, like a desire for higher self-esteem.

All this would seem to make a world of sense. But pedagogical models, where the instructor is the authority figure and where learning is “poured into the heads of students,” are more prevalent than one would think—even in L&D settings. How can learning and development teams respect the principles of adult learning theory in their training?


How to Apply Adult Learning Theory

Adult learning theory insists that the (adult) learner needs to be in the driver’s seat more often than not.

  • Use a bottom-up approach to training needs analysis. Instead of relying on top management to determine learning needs, let employees lead the way.
  • Let adults share their experiences. Your learners are rich with prior experience and knowledge. Let them be the subject-matter experts in the areas they know about, and engage in some peer learning.
  • Opt for self-directed learning. Lesson planning, researching, independent study…L&D teams act more as facilitators than all-knowing instructors in this set-up. Learners self-direct when possible.

Of course, whenever you learn anything, there’s always going to be some trial and error. Even if you embrace adult learning theory, it will take some time before learners truly get the hang of new material. Learning curve theory can help explain that.

3. Learning Curve Theory

For some new tasks, it might take no time at all to get up to speed. For others, it could feel like a slog before you finally get the hang of it—and then you’re off and running. The learning curve theory explains this phenomenon.

The origins of the learning curve theory begin with German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 20th century. Ebbinghaus pioneered fascinating research about how people learn (and forget), uncovering cognitive biases like the serial position effect. Though he didn’t use the term “learning curve,” his experiments led him to explore the differing rates at which people retain and forget information.

It wasn’t until 1936 that a certain Theodore Paul Wright applied this idea with a more economic bent. He was interested in the question of labor productivity (in the aircraft industry). In a publication titled “Factors Affecting the Costs of Airplanes,” he explained that, “the cost of each unit produced decreases as a function of the cumulative number of units produced.” Production costs decreased as workers grew more comfortable with the task (over time).

This idea was solidified in a mathematical model called “Wright’s Law”: Y = AX^B.

  • Y = cumulative average time (or cost) per unit
  • X = cumulative number of units produced
  • A = time (or cost) required to produce first unit
  • B = slope of the function

Later research by the Boston Consulting Group would broaden these ideas out to include more factors affecting productivity, with the publication of their “experience curve.”


How to Apply Learning Curve Theory

If you like to play around with mathematical models, you could have a lot of fun predicting and forecasting (using Wright’s Law) employee, team, or department productivity over time. If you’re so inclined, here are some tips for common types of learning curves you might encounter:

  • The diminishing returns learning curve: employees are getting the hang of things quickly, but keep an eye out for costs when the plateau hits.
  • The increasing returns learning curve: This would indicate that people will need a while to get the hang of these tasks, but once it’s under their belts, they’ll become proficient quickly. Keep employees motivated and engaged in that early “shallow curve” phase.
  • The S-curve: learning will be slow at first, followed by a steep acceleration to proficiency and then a plateau. The lower down the plateau, the better.
  • The complex learning curve: This is what will probably appear for tasks that will take a while to attain mastery, even after many repetitions. Improved training techniques and qualified candidates will help keep costs down.

Useful conclusions can also be drawn from Ebbinghaus’ earlier research on memory and recall.

  • The primacy effect: when given information in a sequence, people tend to better recall the first information given.
  • The recency effect: when given information in a sequence, people tend to better recall the most recent information given.

So, keep the most important bits of information during a training at the very beginning or right at the end of a course. This is certain pertinent information for applying our next learning theory: connectivism.

4. Connectivism

Connectivism is a more contemporary learning theory crystallized by the MOOC-pioneer George Siemens in 2004/5. It explores the importance of networks in how we learn, and was developed as the internet was radically changing how people absorbed information the world over.

For Siemens, “when we learn, we’re essentially involved in a process of pruning, forming, and developing our networks.” These include those:

  1. Based on biology (neurons connecting to enable learning)
  2. Based on our school systems/formal learning, like in a university
  3. Based on external social networks or systems, including phone apps, internet-powered networks, and AI-powered platforms

For him, learning is an essentially shared, chaotic, networked, and ever-changing process, and doesn’t occur only in the mind of the individual.

His theory is driven by eight guiding principles:

  1. Learning and knowledge rest in diverse opinions
  2. Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources
  3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances
  4. The capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  5. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning
  6. The ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill
  7. Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities
  8. Decision-making is itself a learning process

Though connectivism isn’t without its critics, it’s one of the first real attempts to understand what it means to teach and learn “in the digital age.”


How to Apply Connectivism

The role of teachers and instructors in connectivism is minimal—they’re meant to enable learners to set up their own learning environments and tap into learning networks. You can do this by:

  • Encouraging learners to search for information on social media, through MOOCs, websites, and other digital platforms
  • Enabling learners to “hook up to networks” that will enable a flow of information: forums, buddy system, peer-to-peer learning
  • Encouraging honest and transparent feedback loops

The role of collaboration in connectivism is clear, but perhaps not as easily attained in a learning and development setting as it is in our next and final learning theory: Collaborative Learning.

5. Collaborative Learning

We work in teams, so why wouldn’t we learn as a team?

This is the main premise behind Collaborative Learning.

Collaborative Learning is a training methodology where people share knowledge and expertise by teaching and learning from one another. While traditional learning settings are top-down, with instructors determining learning needs and disseminating training, Collaborative Learning is different. Learning needs are declared by employees themselves, and subject-matter experts step up to create courses, share knowledge, and provide feedback loops:


360Learning‘s platform combines collaborative tools with the power of an LMS, and we’ve seen the results of what collaborative learning can do — our clients drive course completion rates of over 90%, and the the average time for course deployment on our platform is just 11 minutes.


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Three Examples of How to Apply Collaborative Learning

  1. Instead of instituting a corporate re-skilling initiative for 1,000 engineers, a company could encourage each employee to set their own learning goals based on their specific aspirations and priorities for development.
  2. When the company adopts a new billing software, the Customer Ops team is able to quickly create best practices and a course on how to use the software. Employees are able to start using the software right away. Customer Ops can then continue to update the course to reflect employees’ questions.
  3. Instead of a sales enablement manager setting mandatory pitch-assessment modules to be completed by all reps, she could give reps the opportunity to declare where they were running into problems and propose solutions. Then she could create learning paths that offered the support and guidance needed to improve.


The Takeaway

These are only five of the many learning theories out there. Some frameworks seem diametrically opposed, while others dovetail nicely. At 360Learning, we’re certain of the mind that Collaborative Learning, as a training methodology, proves the best results—we see it every day with our clients. Pick and choose the elements that provide the best results from the different learning theories you know about—we’ve got a feeling that those that are peer-based, collaborative, interactive, and democratized will yield the best results.


About the Author

Robin Nichols is the Managing Editor at 360Learning. Robin is interested in the crossroads of technology and culture.


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