The Implications Of 3 Adult Learning Theories On Instructional Design

The Implications Of 3 Adult Learning Theories On Instructional Design
Summary: Are you new to the field of Instructional Design? Do you want to expand your knowledge of adult learning theories and practice of design? This article takes an in-depth look at 3 adult learning theories and the implications of those theories on Instructional Design.

Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Adult Learning Theories On Instructional Design

Let's have a look at 3 learning theories, one by one, and find out how these can have an effect on Instructional Design:

1. Behaviorism

Behaviorism is a learning theory that considers learning as a process of reacting to external stimuli, focusing on measurable behaviors. Behaviorists view learners as passive participants and consider learning as an acquisition of new behavior. Desired behaviors can be elicited by either classical or operant conditioning. Classical conditioning occurs when a response is elicited to natural stimuli, such as Pavlov and his salivating dogs. The smell of food creates a natural response and triggers salivation. Operant conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced.

Operant conditioning controls behavior through positive and negative reinforcement. A classic example of operant conditioning is B.F Skinner and his Skinner box. The rat ‘learned’ to press the lever and was rewarded with food. The reward strengthened the behavior. Another example of positive reinforcement can be easily seen in elementary school. Many times, students are ‘rewarded’ for positive behavior. The goal is to reinforce the ‘good’ behavior at school. Watch this video for a simple explanation of behaviorism.

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Behaviorism has greatly influenced the field of Instructional Design. The theory itself has expanded well beyond Skinner’s box and Pavlov’s dogs. The following are examples of how behaviorism has impacted the field of Instructional Design:

  • Teacher-led and designed learning
  • Repetition, drills, and practice
  • Learning is measurable and can be defined by learning objectives
  • Question-answer (stimulus-response) with instant feedback
  • External motivation
  • Chaining-predetermined steps to be followed
  • Learners are assessed primarily through testing
  • Instructional cues

If an Instructional Designer chooses to utilize a behavioristic approach, it is important to understand the implications of the theory and how the design process is influenced. Using a behavioristic approach, the designer should analyze the situation and develop clear and precise learning objectives. Ertmer & Newby suggest using a "pre-assessment of students to determine where instruction should begin [learner analysis] while placing an emphasis on mastering early steps before progressing to more complex levels of performance [sequencing of instructional presentation, mastery learning]" [1]. The tasks given should be manageable, created, and directed by the designer. The evaluation should consist of measuring the objectives, whether they were met or not. This approach works well when there are specific goals to meet, and a clear path to achieve them.

2. Cognitivism

Cognitivism is a learning theory that focuses on the inner activity and mental process of the mind. According to Richey, Klein, & Tracey, "The ways that learners process and apply information changes one’s thoughts and internal mental structures" [2]. This theory uses the analogy of comparing the human mind to a computer. Check out this link for a simple description of cognitivism.

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If you choose to design from a cognitive perspective, it is important to understand the implications of cognitivism on design, and how they impact you as a designer. Here are a few implications of cognitivism on design.

  • Learners process, store, and retrieve information
  • Connect new information to schema, schematic organization
  • Information processing model
  • Short and long-term memory, storage, and retrieval
  • Meaningful information is easier to learn
  • Chunking
  • Mnemonics, advanced organizers
  • Short, focused lessons with balance of visuals and graphics
  • Remove all distractions and irrelevant information
  • Practice with corrective feedback

Ertmer & Newby advise Instructional Designers implementing a cognitive approach to "examine the learner to determine how to design instruction so that it can be readily assimilated (i.e., What are the learner’s existing mental structures?)" [1]. Completing a learning analysis will give many details that can provide a framework for instruction, such as prior knowledge and schema. According to Mergel, "The influence of cognitive science in Instructional Design is evidenced by the use of advanced organizers, mnemonic devices, metaphors, chunking into meaningful parts, and the careful organization of instructional materials from simple to complex" [3]. These techniques will be helpful when utilizing the cognitive approach to design. Another aspect of cognitive theory to consider when relating to Instructional Design is the cognitive task analysis. Rather than focusing on measurable tasks, the Instructional Designer can measure non-observable and mental tasks that will be taught, such as decision making and problem-solving.

3. Constructivism

Constructivism is a learning theory that focuses on inquiry-based, active learning, in which learners individually construct knowledge based on their past and present experiences. Sharing multiple perspectives is a key component of constructivism, as collaboration is essential and ignites conceptual growth. The development of self-knowledge is constantly changing, and self-reflection is key. The focus is on learning that is relevant and realistic, and constantly evolving through a facilitated environment. Learners are actively thinking, analyzing, synthesizing, and collaborating. Learning is non-linear, open-ended with unestablished goals. Evaluation of learning using this theory is difficult, and not easily measured. Each learner is different and should be evaluated as such. For a simple, easy to understand the definition of constructivism, you may want to watch the following video.

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Constructivism has changed the way we view and approach Instructional Design. This theory has impacted Instructional Design, and it is essential to understand its influence on design practice. Listed below are concepts in this theory that influence Instructional Design:

  • No standardized curriculum
  • Teacher serves as a facilitator of learning
  • Relevant and realistic, authentic learning
  • Collaboration, cooperation, and a multi-perspective approach
  • Previous experiences and knowledge contribute
  • Active learning- question and reflect
  • Guidelines, not steps
  • Cognitive apprenticeship
  • Project Based Learning
  • Evaluation is goal free and depends on learner -open-ended

In order to facilitate a constructivist approach, it is essential to understand your learners and their needs as the content is determined by the learner. Ertmer & Newby recommend placing an "emphasis on the identification of the context in which the skills will be learned and subsequently applied [anchoring learning in meaningful contexts] while allowing learner control and the capability of the learner to manipulate information [actively using what is learned]" [1]. Constructivism empowers the learner, promoting collaboration while fostering real-life problem-solving skills. This approach is open-ended; therefore, it is necessary for the Instructional Designer to avoid a prescribed curriculum.



  1. Ertmer & Newby: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective
  2. Richey, Klein & Tracy: The instructional design knowledge base: theory, research, and practice
  3. Brenda Mergel: Instructional Design & Learning Theory