Several factors impact how individuals learn. Some of these factors are more general in nature. For example, someone may prefer to learn in a traditional classroom with an in-person lecture. Given the advances in technology, some learners prefer the convenience of logging on to their computers to engage in online discussions and complete their assignments online. As programs in various colleges and universities consider how they structure their courses, different learning styles and theories must be considered. The theories from psychologists and the foundation of learning science help define and shape the approaches that should be taken to support the multifaceted approach to supporting learners.
Research has established that there are three fundamental principles of learning: “1) building on learners’ background knowledge; 2) connecting prior knowledge to new learning; and 3) requiring students to reflect on their own learning” (“Learning Sciences,” n.d.). These principles apply to all learners regardless of age and background. As the On-U Learning selection committee prepares to create additional courses and programs, there are some important historical perspectives to consider. Popular in 1920 through 1950, theorist believed that people learned based on positive or negative reinforcement, also known as behaviorism (“Behaviorism,” n.d.). These reinforcements can lead to habits forming. The critique of this theory is that there is no consideration for free will or consciousness. Understanding that learners have a responsibility and role with their learning, psychologist presented the theory of cognitivism to encompass the idea that new learning occurs when learners can connect new information and ideas with things that they already understand (“Cognitivism,” n.d.). Theorists acknowledge that there are elements of both of these theories in online learning today.
In addition to specific theories, there are two psychologists that have also shared their thoughts on the different learning styles. Lev Vygotsky brought up the idea of meaningful interactions as part of learning. He conceptualized the Social Development Theory, which supports the idea that social interaction is required for cognitive development (“Lev Vygotsky,” n.d.). This theory is in line with many learners that prefer in-class sessions or hybrid courses. Vygotsky also conceptualized the Zone of Proximal Development, which is essentially a scale that is unique to each learner. The scale ranges from “what the learner is able to do independently,” what the learner can do with some support and what is out of the learners comfort zone (McLoed, 2014). The ideal spot for a learner is in the middle of this scale where they can pull from what they know and what they need to work towards. Psychologist John Dewey promoted the idea of experimental learning, which includes a hands-on interdisciplinary approach (“John Dewey,” n.d.). He believed that learning should have real-life application. A contemporary theory that is related to this is constructivism. Learners learn by active engagement with educational material (“Constructivism,” n.d.)
There are several aspects to consider when understanding learning styles and the optimal approach for a learner. Considering all the theories, the background of the learner is also important to consider. Social-cultural factors and past experiences of the learner in their personal lives will impact how they interact with the information. Students that have been in the military before they start college come with experiences that are different from students that enroll in college right after high school. Former military and active duty may use their experiences traveling the world or serving in leadership roles to help them understand and relate to the what they are learning. Additionally, consideration should be given to the various socio-economic backgrounds of learners. Every learner will not have the same experiences and these different experiences will provide unique opportunities to engage with courses. Given these variables, consideration must be given to unique backgrounds of learners as courses are being designed. Since there are a variety of learners, courses should employ multiple learning theories.
The learner also has an important role in the learning process. It is important that the learner be aware of the techniques and environment that best supports their success. As mentioned previously, some learners prefer online formats because they are able to work from different locations and when they have time. And other learners feel more connected to courses when they are able to attend a live lecture. Learners should also be aware of how they connect with the material they are learning. They are ultimately responsible for being open about the additional support they need. Most learners understand it is best to ask for support and direction.
In sum, it is important for learners and instructors to understand that people learn from a combined approach of theories. Past experiences can impact how we learn. For example, receiving an acknowledgement for a job well done could lead to other positive behaviors. So elements of behaviorism may be present. It is also important for an individual to determine how they best learn. This can lead to higher productivity when one can pull from strategies that best support their learning styles.