A Reflection on Learning Theories

As an instructional technologist in a school district huddled around a conference room table, I can recall countless planning sessions where we discussed our next redesign of training materials to introduce a new version of an application as well as how we were going to design the next online training module. These planning sessions were usually focused on what skills we felt the learner needed to know and modules were built to suit specific learning objectives. We did our job and trained them, but the nagging question has always been, did they learn anything? To help students learn, we have developed training content based upon auditory, visual and kinesthetic (McCarthy, 1981) learning styles. In reflection, I have realized that besides a person’s learning style, there is so much more to consider such as the motivation of the learner, the capability of a learner based upon their multiple intelligences, and what adult learning theory is applicable to the type of learning the student is participating in when it comes to the andragogy of adults and how we learn.

Malcolm Knowles, the father of andragogy, the art and science of helping adults learn, proposed five (5) factors involved in adult learning that include someone with an independent nature directing one’s own learning, an abundance of life experience, needs that are related to changing social roles or “climbing the corporate ladder,” a problem-centered orientation with an interest in the immediate application of new knowledge and someone driven by internal motivation factors (Merriam, 2001, p. 5).

During the course of this Learning Theories class, I had the occasion to offer training sessions to Grade Reporting Secretaries on downloading reports from eSchoolPlus and preparing the report in Microsoft Excel to be used as a source for a mail merge in Microsoft Word.  Before each class, I found myself pondering about the motivation of each person signed up to take the training and I reflected on the three models of motivation in an achievement-related setting.  The expectancy-value model is an expansion of Atkinson’s (1958) model, which defined expectancy and value as motivational constructs. The basic premise of the model is that students’ expectations of success and the value they place on success are important determinants of their motivation to engage in achievement-related behaviors (Wigfield & Eccles, 2002a, p.91). The second model, goal orientation, refers to “a set of behavioral intentions that determine how students approach and engage in learning activities” (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988, p. 514). The third model is attribution theory that addresses individuals’ thoughts, emotions, and expectancies following an achievement-related outcome (Weiner, 1980b ) .

I have come to realize that my learning process is much more involved. I have always been a hands-on person and the kinesthetic learning style has worked for me. This course has helped me to make sense of how I process information and has offered me different approaches to the ways I may learn best whether I am preparing to facilitate a training class or one day design an online class using steps of the ARCS model of motivational design (Keller, 1987a, 1987b) that provides a systematic, seven-step approach (Keller, 1997) to designing motivational tactics into instruction. The learning style model classifies students according to where they fit on a number of scales pertaining to the way they receive and process information (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 3). Recently in my department, we received dual monitor, adjustable arm workstations that were going to be assembled and installed on 10 desks for trainers. Two of us were in charge of setting them up. We had talked about installing them for a while, but I was having a hard time visualizing how it was going to look at each desk. When the boxes can in, I unpacked the first workstation and layed all of the parts out. As I began to assemble the arm of the workstation that would hold the monitors, I could visualize what it was going to look like and everything started to make sense. After reading the instructions and putting together all of the parts, I handed the assembled workstation off to my partner for installation to the desk and I never needed to refer to the instructions again.

In this moment, I learned how learning styles, adult learning theories and multiple intelligences play a part in my learning process. We talked about this project on several occasions, but for me, I could not visualize what the end-product would look like. Once the workstations were delivered and I was able to start putting pieces together, it all made sense. When I look at the four (4) learning theories related to adult learning, Action and Experiential learning theories helped me in this situation. Action learning is the approach to working with and developing people, which uses work on a real project or problem as the way to learn. Participants work in small groups or teams to take action to solve their project or problem, and learn how to learn from that action (O’Neil, 2000, p.44). Experiential learning is learner-centered and operates on the premise that individuals learn best by experience. A good way to describe this theory is “learning by doing”. Experiential learning thus has the learner directly involved with the material being studied instead of just thinking and talking about that material (Conlan, Grabowski & Smith, 2003).

Everyone has potential and Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist, sought to broaden the scope of human potential beyond the confines of an IQ score. He developed eight (8) intelligences to map a broad range of human abilities. During my project, I was able to call upon my logical-mathematical and spatial intelligence. Logical-mathematical includes sensitivity to logical patterns and relationships, statements and propositions (if-then, cause-effect), functions, and other related abstractions. Spatial intelligence involves sensitivity to color, line, shape, form, space, and the relationships that exist between these elements. It includes the capacity to visualize, to graphically represent visual or spatial ideas, and to orient oneself appropriately in a spatial matrix. By putting my hands on the material, I was able to link past experiences with the current project and learn what was needed by doing. Once I was able to visualize how the end product would be, I identified the logical steps needed to successfully construct the workstation. Needless to say, I was motivated to engage the project, but the reasons behind it would entail an extensive new set of theories that we will leave for another time. As I continue my career in instructional design, remembering moments like this will empower me to look at situations differently and listen to the words they use (linguistic intelligence) with more insight about how someone might learn a task or take on a project and successfully complete their goals.

In reflection of this class, I have learned that there is a method, a style, a reason and a motivation behind everything we endeavor upon. The connection between learning theories, learning styles, educational technologies and motivation is like one big puzzle. To teach a class or design online courses may take motivation and skill, but there are many more pieces that must be considered before going live or teaching that first class. Theories and styles give us a road map toward reaching our students in a way much deeper than we otherwise would have. Like the 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury said, “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants” (phrases.org, 2014). We are able to see more and do more, not because we are better than others or more superior. We can because of the roads others have traveled that allow us to apply better methods to our instruction. We are all unique and bring a distinctive style to the way we learn and the way we teach. By making the right connection between learning theories and styles as well as educational technology, with the right motivation, we can really make an impact on our student’s learning potential.


McCarthy, B. Educational Leadership. March, 1997. Volume 54, Number 6, “ How Children Learn,” Pg 46-51. Retrieved online: http://online.sfsu.edu/hdomizio/824/4Mat_Learners_McCarthy_97.pdf

Web Article: Conlan, J., Grabowski, S., & Smith, K. (2003). Adult learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from  http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/index.php?title=Adult_Learning

Article: Keller, J. M. (1999). Using the ARCS motivational process in computer-based instruction and distance education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning (78).

Armstrong, T. (2009). Multiple intelligences in the classroom (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.Available in the Walden Library databases. Chapter 1, “The Foundations of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences”. Chapter 2, “MI and Personal Development”

Martin, Gary (2014) The meaning and origin of the expression: Standing on the shoulders of giants Retrieved from: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/268025.html

Gredler, M. (2009). Learning and Instruction, Theory in Practice. 6th ed.

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