Learning theories, diverse students and creating content

This paper examines four learning theories and the diversity of students, in an online learning environment. An online secondary classroom includes a range of students. There are students that are self-sufficient in contrast to students with learning difficulties. Instructional designers need to consider the diversity of students when creating an instructional plan. The four learning theories include: behaviorism, constructivism, cognitivism and connectivism. Behaviorism is explained as human conditioning. Changing the behavior of the student creates learning. Constructivism is a theory of learning, which states that learning occurs when the student develops relationships relating their experiences to their thoughts. Cognitivists look at how the brain works to encourage learning. The cognitive theory looks at long and short-term memory and how the learner encodes the information. Connectivism uses networks, people and computers to make sense of connections and online environments. Learning occurs when connections are made. The learning theories are described from perspective of how they could be incorporated into an online learning environment.

Diverse Needs of Students

“The Vancouver Learning Network (VLN) is a secondary school and one of the 51 distributed learning (DL) schools in British Columbia (BC)” (Gauthier, 2009). Distributed learning schools in BC provide learners with enhanced access, flexibility and greater selection in learning, outside the classroom. One vision of the BC Ministry of Education with respect to DL, is to provide all students in the province with access to education. By allowing student’s entry to VLN courses, there will be a diverse population at the school and within each class. When the VLN began offering DL courses in 2003 there were less than 100 students. Now the school is very diverse with well over 6000 learners. Hart (2009) indicates that the schools are becoming very diverse and strongly suggests that there is a need for effective instruction to all students.

The BC Ministry of Education (2010b) refers to diversity as the difference found in each other. Some of the differences are visible while others are not. Visible examples are race, ethnicity, gender, age, and ability. Non-visible examples are culture, ancestry, language, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, socio-economic background. The learners could also have a mental illness, psychiatric concerns and learning and developmental disabilities. There are a variety of diverse learners in schools. Scott, Alpin and Ponnappa-Brenner (2008) imply that courses should design for the diverse population. There may also be cultural differences among the learners and the instructors.  Taylor (2010) indicates that instructors need to understand the cultural differences in order to ensure student success.

Schools of Education introduce new teachers to diversity, however continual professional development needs to continue. Morrison (2011) asks instructional designers to consider types of learners by asking the following questions: “Why is it important to give attention to learner characteristics when planning instruction? Which characteristics are most useful, and how is information about them obtained? What limitations might these characteristics place on your design? What factors in the environment will affect the instruction? Why is it important to give attention to learner diversities when planning instruction” (p. 55)?

Students are very diverse and therefore instructional designers (ID) should take this point into account when developing their instruction plan. Rothwell and Kazanas (2008) indicate that to be a successful ID, one should “be aware of the characteristics of the targeted learners” (p. 89) this should also include the diversity among the population. Completing the work setting analysis is important because it is certain, “that instruction will be designed in a way appropriate to the environment” (Rothwell and Kazanas, 2008, p. 112). The work setting analysis includes the “organization’s resources, constraints and culture” (Rothwell and Kazanas, 2008, p. 112). A learner analysis is also important for the ID to conduct. Learning theories should also be considered when creating online courses.


How Learning Theories may be Applied to Online Learning Environment

Learning theory “comprises a set of constructs linking observed changes in performance with what is thought to bring about those changes. Constructs refer to the concepts that theorists invent to identify psychological variables” (Driscoll, 2005, p. 9). Online learning is “instruction delivered on a computer by way of CD-ROM, Internet, or intranet…courses include both content and instructional methods that help people learn the content” (Clark and Mayer, 2008 p. 10). Underlying the theory, is how the course operates (Ruhe & Zumbo, 2009). Online instructors have a challenge to design their courses in accordance to sound educational theories. (Tallent-Runnels, Lan, Cooper, Ahern, Shaw, 2006) “Students in well-designed and well-implemented online courses learned significantly more, and more effectively, than those in online courses where teaching and learning activities were not carefully planned and where the delivery and accessibility were impeded by technology problems” (Tallent-Runnels, Lan, Cooper, Ahern, Shaw, 2006, p. 116). The following section examines four learning theories, behaviorism, constructivism, cognitivism, and connectivism. Each learning theory will be examined in relationship to an online learning environment.



Behaviorism focuses rewards and punishments for changing behavior of the learner. The changes in human behavior must be observable and measurable. Behaviorism is based upon the stimulus-response model. The stimulus-response model states that stimuli cause a response. The stimulus-response model was developed by John B. Watson, which influenced Ivan Pavlov, whose work led to classical conditioning.

John Watson introduced the world to behaviorism in 1913. He suggested, “psychology should be concerned only with the objective data of behavior” (Driscoll, 2006, p. 31). In 1938, psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed that a learned response is due to an environmental cue. The three principles of teaching of new behaviors are shaping, chaining and fading. The use of a positive reinforcement is applied with the principle of shaping. The reinforcements could be grades, positive comments or in a blended science classroom, where students collect hydrogen gas. At the VLN science students have an opportunity to come in for face-to-face laboratory work. One experiment the junior science student’s complete is the creation of hydrogen gas. After mixing diluted hydrochloric acid with a small piece of magnesium strip of metal a small amount of hydrogen is created. A positive reinforcement would be hearing the gas make a popping sound when ignited with a burning splint. A negative reinforcement for this experiment would be no sound. Chaining will not be involved this situation, because “chaining serves to establish complex behaviors made up of discrete, simpler behaviors already known to the learner” (Driscoll, 2006, p. 47). To create hydrogen gas, the students must first know how to carry hydrochloric acid and hold a test tube properly. These are skills that a junior student in science will likely not have. The fading principle can also not be involved in this situation because of the danger to the students. The fading principle will implement the use of lessening verbal cues over time, in a potentially dangerous situation. The fading principle might be used to determine if the student can follow the problem-solving framework.

The online science 8 students will be shaped into using the proper framework for problem solving. This will be accomplished using computer-based instructions that will include positive reinforcement. The principle of chaining will also be used. “Chaining serves to establish complex behaviors made up of discrete, simpler behaviors already known to the learner” (Driscoll, 2005, p. 47). The framework of problem solving has six discrete individual steps and follows a particular order.

Behavioral learning is associated with direct instruction. With the behaviorism concept there is predictability and reliability. If there is predictability then the ID must build into the online lessons thinking skills in order to master the concepts that the learner must acquire. Direct approach to instruction uses a step-by-step process to introduce concepts. The linear model of instructional design is used for programmed instruction, and assessment of identifiable discrete units (Ruhe & Zumbo, 2009). This type of explicit instructional approach gives the best scores on standardized tests. Direct approach of instruction is supported by behavior learning theory that focuses on rewards and punishments to change behavior. This direct approach leads to learning. Learning activities include presentations of new material through language. The online presentations can include explanations, modeling and demonstrations, or by having the students reading the content or using multimedia materials.

Behavioral learning is a theory that is also associated with simulations. With the behaviorism concept there is predictability and reliability between the response of the user and the stimulus. If there is predictability then the instructional designer must build into the simulation, a set of sub skills that the learner must acquire, “…and then select stimuli and presentation strategies that build the sub skills” (Deubel, 2003).

With behaviorism there are strengths to using this learning theory in an online class. For example, in a simulation with very specific goals, the student is focused on achieving the goal via cues that prompt the student pay attention. Alternately, if specific behaviors are not present then the intended behavior may not continue. One such example includes an online class where students must login at least three times per week. The instructor needs to add new discussion items that are related to the class and give rewards for participating. For example, the Japan earthquake could prompt the following online science class discussion. The Lower Mainland is long overdue for a shallow-focus earthquake. According to Varahamihira, an earthquake will arrive a week after the occurrence of a huge cloud, called an Earthquake cloud. This cloud was spotted in the skies over Vancouver, Richmond, and Burnaby yesterday. How is it possible to predict earthquake in terms of the specific location and time that it is going to take place? Students that logged into the course during the week of the Japan earthquake and participated in the discussions would be rewarded and others would not.



The constructivist learning approach states that knowledge is constructed through experience and discovery. Experience and discovery is an active process that results in learning. Constructivism places importance on learning conditions, which allows students to take ownership of their learning. The learning conditions include self-awareness, having an appropriate environment, possessing ownership of the learning, social negotiations, and multiple perspectives and modes. Virtual tools, such as learning management systems and other Web 2.0 tools, build communities that emphasize learning conditions. Constructivism explains that learning and knowledge is encouraged through doing, guided experiences, as well as collaborative learning, reflection and direct studies. Collaboration and reflection promotes higher order skills that include problem-based learning. Problem-based learning requires learners to discover information and develop critical thinking about real-life problems.

Constructivists learning theory is associated with a simulation approach to instruction. Bills (2010) says “in order for high engagement strategies for simulation and games to provide instruction, the principles that promote learning must be incorporated” (p. 431). Bills (2010) continues to say that the “big picture provides insight into where the high engagement simulation or game should be used” (p. 431). Simulation scenarios should also be representative of a real-world situation that the learner may be expected to perform in. In BC the salmon industry is prosperous business. “In fact, British Columbia farmed salmon is now BC’s largest agricultural export” (BC Salmon Farmers Association, 2010). Many of BC students will be involved one way or another in the Salmon business when the graduate. A group of elementary students from Langley BC school district created a Salmon Farming simulation for others to learn from (Uconnect School Students, n.d). The topic of salmon farms is very controversial in BC. The simulation has the participants manage a salmon farm. There are many responsibilities managing a salmon farm. The participants need to pick a site for their farm, buy the fish and food. They also need to make sure that the environment is healthy for the fish to live in as well as increase the respectability of the salmon farming industry. These responsibilities seem minuscule in a simulation, but they are very real in the salmon farming industry. Constructivist instruction goals include problem solving, analysis, critical thinking and reflection (Driscoll, 2005). The process of learning with simulation is emphasized in constructivist instruction.

One strength of constructivism is that content can be offered from various perspectives. For example, collaborative problem-based learning could be incorporated into the online class. The learners will learn by working through a real life problem in an active process with their classmates. A weakness to this theory is that the evaluation process may overwhelm the instructor. Within the learning process, each learner will have varied experiences and therefore the evaluation process may not be valid.



Cognitivism explains that learning and knowledge is stored in organized meaningful ways. The goal of instruction when using the cognitive approach is to “make knowledge meaningful and help learners organize and relate new information to existing knowledge in memory” (Silber and Foshay, 2010, p. 7). Cognitivism focuses on knowledge that improves through multiple opportunities to practice. The Cognitive approach uses “internal coding and structuring of new information by the learner; discrete changes in knowledge structures; what learners know and how they come to know it” (Silber and Foshay, 2010, p. 5). Knowledge is structured into a schema. Schema is created the foundation of schema theory. Schema theory was developed by D. Ausubel in the 1960s and further developed in the 1980s by Rumelhart. This theory explains how packets of knowledge can be generated, however there are limitations to the schema theory, which contribute to the cognitive load theory.

The cognitive load theory was developed in 1988 by J. Sweller to optimize performance that is limited by working memory. There are three forms of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous and germane. Intrinsic load is inherent in the difficulty of the material. Extraneous load is an added load from the design of the online course or presentation. An example of extraneous load is having three different methods of conveying the same topic. The different methods would be text, image and movie. The learner may not know which one to look at and therefore become confused by the extra information. These two can be minimized to prevent cognitive overload. Germane load is the desired relevant load that enhances schema development. This last load is enhanced or decreased by the organization, motivation, and time on task.

It is the belief of a cognitivits that students learn by receiving, accumulating and retrieving information. The instructional designer will have to decide the appropriate task for the online environment so that the information is processed properly. A key to this theory is that the online learner is actively engaged with the subject matter. The subject matter must include authentic activities and social interactions. For example, there is a proper process to instruct writing on chemical formulas. To have the learner actively engaged in an online environment, the ID could create a branching scenario with Adobe Captivate in which the learner guides their learning. The scenario will not move forward unless the learner has entered the proper parameter for that particular situation. An example of this would be a scenario would not move forward unless the learner typed the correct answer to the following question: what is the combining capacity for sodium? The correct answer is +1. If the learner inputted the correct answer then the scenario would move on, if not, a feedback window will appear with some helpful information. Quality processing is also important and can be affected by the following strategies: discovery learning, scaffolding, instructor as coach, learner control, assessments and cooperative learning. The instructional designer needs to build, with the aforementioned strategies into online instruction

Cognitive learning theory is one theory that supports a problem-based approach to instruction. Everyday people encounter many experiences, which they want to make sense of. These experiences people encounter explain how people learn and human learning is driven by active minds (Burner in Silber and Foshay, 2010). The cognitive theory of learning uses the discovery method, “initiated in pre-packaged sets of materials” (Silber and Foshay, 2010, p. 70). This theory includes learners that are actively processing and reflecting. When the learners are using computers, the computer should be able to adapt and respond to the learners needs (Ruhe & Zumbo, 2009). Within the learning management system the students can use the journal tool for reflecting on their discovery. The learning objects that are within the online class should be able to adapt to the learner and direct the learner in the best direction for learning. For example, when the student selects the incorrect answer an explanation should appear. The same type of question should appear later and hopefully the student would get the correct response.

There are two strengths to the cognitive theory. First, it focuses on instruction and therefore may have a longer impact on learning. Secondly, well-written cognitive objectives are clear and can be used for higher order learning. Within an online environment the instructional designer should focus on the content in order to avoid extraneous information that may cognitively overload the students.

A weakness to this theory is that it relies on the assertion that the learner must have the appropriate prerequisite skills and experiences. Designing an online class with all the prerequisites could be very expensive in both in time and cost. Oftentimes students enter a class, having acquired approximately fifty percent knowledge from the previous course. One example includes when science 9 students are expected to learn how to write chemical names and formulas and then proceed to science 10, where students are expected to build on previous knowledge and write chemical equations. The science 10 students must know how the write the chemical names and formulas prior to writing the chemical equations. Another weakness is that there are strict parameters set for learning objectives that are determined by the BC Ministry of Education. This applies well to a secondary online class where students are required to abide by a fixed learning outline and spontaneous discussion is not as abundant as there is in a face-to-face class.



Recently, technological approaches have been infused into learning, especially distributed learning. Siemens (2006) postulated that learning involves networking. There are both external or social networks and internal networking such as interactions of neurons that connect nerves. He believes that other learning theories fail to take into account the learners’ current relationship with technology and knowledge. Siemens (2006) indicates that learning “is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.” He continues to say that learning can also occur outside of the individual. The learning could occur within an organization or within a database. The organization or data sets has the specialized information and it is “the connections that enable us to learn are more important than the current state of knowing” (Siemens, 2006, p. 30).

Connectivism uses networks, people and computers to make sense of connections and online environments. The connections occur between information, people and ideas. The online environments include communal databases that store text and graphics as well as forums for sharing ideas. Connectivism also tries to make sense of the expanding information that is available, mass participation in class as well as social networks. Connectivism is focused on the connections and these connections are more important than specific knowledge. Siemens (2006) is claiming that where one learns is more important then what or how. The connection between the learner and other learners, as well as sources of information, must be chosen carefully.

There are both strengths and weakness to this learning theory. A primary strength of the connectivism theory is that there exists an abundance of available information on the Internet for the online students to explore. Information is not just from static web pages. For example, information may be obtained from places such as blogs, Twitter and Youtube. Other strengths include, flexibility and context. The earthquake example presented earlier can be examined from varied perspectives. The learner may take the perspective of the city’s mayor, a policeman, geologists or non-believer. Additionally, connecting with others is another strength. Downs, Siemens and Cormier (2011) are experimenting with massive open online courses (MOOCs). In September 2011, these educators are going to create connections by running a MOOC that will run globally and attempt to answer whether learning occurs when formal boundaries are reduced.

With strengths there are weaknesses and secondary students may not be ready for a connectivism type of learning. There is an abundance of available information that is accessible to students that could enhance and improve their learning process. A potential drawback applies to an untrained learner that attempts to sift through all the information before them and perhaps not knowing how to skillfully select facts. Online courses in BC apply strict objectives for each class. Instructors may find it confusing to combine the required prescribed objectives to the information that the students are learning. If it is confusing for the instructor then it will likely be confusing to a new learner.



An ID should understand the different learning theories and how to incorporate them into an online learning environment. Additionally the ID must consider that the learners in an online course are diverse. There are strengths and weaknesses to all learning theories. These strengths and weaknesses should be taken into account when developing online courses. Since the online learning environment is very fluid, perhaps the ID can consider using a combination of the four different learning theories.



British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2010b). Diversity. Retrieved May 15, 2011, from http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/diversity/

Clark, C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). eLearning and the science of instruction: proven guidelines fro consumers and designers of multimedia learning (2 ed.). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (Third ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Gauthier, C. (2009). Case study:  Vancouver Learning Network (secondary), British Columbia, Canada D. A. M. X. Abrioux & E. Frances Ferreira (Eds.),   Retrieved from http://www.col.org/Pages/default.aspx

Hart, J. (2009). Strategies for culturally and linguistically diverse students with special needs. Preventing School Failure, 53(3).

Ruhe, V., & Zumbo, B. D. (2009). Evaluation in distance education and learning The unfolding model. New York: The Guilford Press.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge   Retrieved from http://www.elearnspace.org/KnowingKnowledge_LowRes.pdf

Tallent-Runnels, M., Thomas, J., Lan, W., Cooper, S., Ahern, T., Shaw, S. M., et al. (2006). Teaching courses online: A review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 93-135.

Taylor, R. (2010). The role of teacher education programs in creating culturally competant teachers: A moral imperative for ensuring the academic success of diverse student populations. Multicultural Education, 17(3), 24-28.

Share this post:

Recent Posts

Comments are closed.