Implications Of Learning Theories On Instructional Design

Implications Of Learning Theories On Instructional Design
Summary: Are you interested in becoming an Instructional Designer? Or are you just starting out in the world of learning theories? The focus of this article is to inform the reader of 3 unique learning theories while discussing the implications they have had in the field of Instructional Design (ID).

Learning Theories On Instructional Design

Let's look closer at each learning theory, one at a time, explaining not only their definitions but also their implication on ID today.

Behaviorist Learning Theory

1. Definition

Behavioral learning theory can be summarized as learning that occurs through the behavioral response to environmentally sourced stimuli [1]. The foundation of this theory is built upon assumptions that "have little regard for the cognitive processing of the learner involved in the task" [2]. The assumptions take into account 3 criteria:

  • Τhe instructional task is the focus of a behavior response,
  • Τhe learning occurs through the influence of environmental stimuli, and
  • Τhe learning occurs through the process of repetition or rehearsal of the behavior.

Additionally, behavioral learning theory is traditionally divided into 2 sects: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. To see more information regarding conditioning, watch the following video:

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Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov is known for his experimentation with dogs. In his studies with dogs, Pavlov focused on natural responses that could be elicited through the use of unrelated stimuli. In his classical conditioning experiment, Pavlov used light (the conditioned stimulus) and paired it with food (the unconditioned stimulus) to elicit salivation from the dog. The idea was that after enough trials (rehearsals), the dog would salivate when the light is shown to the dog. Using the food, light became a condition that the dog would recognize (over time) and begin to salivate. Over time in the absence of the food, the light would become less influential and no longer elicit the same response [1].

Shortcomings to this type of conditioning are similar to the story of the boy that cried wolf. The light represents the boy that is crying and the food represents the wolf. After using the light enough times with the absence of the food, the conditioned stimulus becomes ineffective; similarly, the boy that continues to cry wolf for attention becomes unreliable in a sense and help will not come. In the elementary example above, the help that comes is symbolic of the response of the dog to salivate.

Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner is another influential behaviorist of the 20th century. Similar to Pavlov, Skinner also experimented with animals; however, his focus was on the effects of variables on learning behaviors. He primarily centered around the idea that reinforcement drives behavioral responses. In his classical experiment with animals, Skinner introduced food and water to a deprived animal in an effort to teach how to pull a lever. If the lever was pulled, the animal received a reward; however, as the experiments continued, the animal would only receive the food or water if the lever was pulled with a minimum force.

In this sense, the behaviors are influenced by the environmental factors that affect the learner. The learner would require some sort of satisfaction in performing a behavior in order to learn it. Some would call this motivation, but in conditioning, it is referred to as the stimulus. While this is similar to classical conditioning, the distinct difference is in the behavior that is to be taught. In operant conditioning, the behavior is not automatic (like salivation). This is a task that is to be completed. For those that are new to the world of learning theory, it is important to understand this distinction.

2. Applications In Instructional Design

Influential behaviorists, like Skinner and Pavlov, have jumpstarted the interest in behavioral learning theory as a means to educate. Applications of the theory were presented in the 1950s through the advent of Skinner’s teaching machines. The machines were comprised of a series of tasks to be completed by the learner—each designed to ensure that the tasks are completed correctly in order to move forward. The machines were inventive and based solely on eliciting a positive response in the form of a behavior.

These machines led to the development of programmed instruction which "follows an empirical approach to analyzing and solving problems" [1]. Some may view this as the birth of a systems design approach to education, which in fact may very well be. Think about how much lessons are laid out for students—content, guided tasks, practice, and feedback.

3. Impact On The Field Of Instructional Design

There is no doubt that learning in some instances results in the development of a physical skill; furthermore, the practicing of that skill will result in a response to a stimulus. The focus of behavioral learning theory resides in the use of reinforcement to drive behavior. Instructional Design can benefit from the use of reinforcement as a means to train learners to complete instructional objectives that are presented to them. The examples of teaching machines and programmed instruction are small contributions to the field but have paved the way Instructional Designers shape the learning environment to result in more effective strategies. It is important to note that many instructional strategies include the use of feedback to the learner as it assists in the development of positive behaviors that result from instruction.

Cognitive Learning Theory

1. Definition And Characteristics

Cognitive learning theory, or cognitivism, put the learning focus on the individual; cognitivists define learning as "involving the reorganization of experiences in order to make sense of stimuli from the environment" and "an internal and active mental process, which develops in a learner, increased mental capacity and skills in order to learn better" [2]. The primary focus of learning is on the development of knowledge by the creation of schemas. Schemas are like catalogs of information that can be used to identify concepts or experiences through a complex set of relationships that are connected to one another. In short, the catalogs act like a database of knowledge for the learner. 2 prominent theories that will be discussed are Gestalt theory and information processing theory; these 2 have paved the way for cognitivism and its impact on the field of Instructional Design.

Relationship To Behaviorism—Gestalt Theory

"Early movements [offering] alternatives to stimulus-response initiated in Germany" [1]. The leaders of this movement, which is called Gestalt Theory, focused on the individual’s perspective of the relationships that connect various situations and behaviors. In other words, Gestalt theory emphasized that "individuals always react in a total, well-organized response to a situation" [1]. While this was one of the early developments in cognitive learning theory, its focus was on the central processing of decisions that are made to result in a specific behavior depending on the situation.

Gestalt theory can be portrayed through the model of a role-playing game (RPG). Imagine a character that is faced with many situations as he/she moves through the game. Certain decisions have to be made to result in a behavior that may affect the outcome of the situation. As the player uses the character throughout the game, it becomes clear that information is acquired over time which may sway decisions later in the game. Take the instance that a critical piece of information required to make a game-altering decision is not acquired. This would result in the player making a choice of behavior only relying on experiences that are relevant; this could result in a different outcome.

Notice that in the example provided decisions are made based on prior experiences and information that is acquired throughout the game’s progression. In essence, this is representative of how an informed decision is made by the learner to exhibit a behavior that is appropriate for the situation at hand. While this example is rather simplified, it provides an example that relates to human decision making at the cognitive level.

Information Processing Theory

Information processing theory further supports cognitive learning theory. Similar to Gestalt theory, the focus of learning is on the individual. The processing of information by the learner is similar to the way a computer processes information. The memory system is broken into 3 stages based on this approach:

  • Sensory memory
  • Working memory
  • Long-term memory

Information is constantly being processed by the memory system via sensory memory, but only "important" pieces of memory are sent to long-term. Generally, the working memory is responsible for moving the information into the long-term memory store [1].

Think about the first math lesson that you had taken to acquire the information that was needed to pass the test. In this scenario, sensory memory picks up and processes the information, filtering out the nonsensical data. All extraneous information is filtered out while the information that catches the attention of the learner is passed on to working memory. Generally, the working memory stores the information for a longer period of time; if rehearsed enough times, it will essentially be sent into long-term memory. This would explain why that math lesson was straightforward and simple in the classroom after practicing the concept once or twice in class. The working memory still kept the important data accessible to you; however, later on at home, the homework seems that much more difficult. Not necessarily because it is "harder", but the working memory may require more rehearsal to establish a clear connection to the concept and store it in long-term.

Information processing takes the learning process and compares it to the way that a computer processes information. The more times information needs to be accessed, the quicker the computer will recall the information in future times. While this relationship gives a simple example of how we as individuals process information, how is this information structured?

Schema Theory

While information processing theory breaks down the process of taking information and processing it for storage and retrieval, schema theory further explains the organization of information as it is constructed and redefined. "Schema theory exists in long-term memory and refers to how [knowledge] is organized in memory" [1]. Schemas are constructs of the concepts that are stored in long-term memory. The more organized the schema is, the more efficient the recall of the information is when it is needed later.

A schema that is defined is not concrete; in other words, it can be altered in the light of new information. The schema can also be expanded to develop relationships between similar chunks of information. Depending on how learners build their cognitive foundation, the schema can improve the acquisition of new memory structures. To see a short video about cognitive learning theory, watch the video provided:

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Cognitive learning theory has made an impact on the field of education with the formation of strategies to enhance the storage and retrieval of data from memory. It is important to note that contributions from all theories centered around cognitive processing have played a role in the formulation of strategies including rehearsal, chunking, and mnemonics to name a few. While these strategies are primarily used as instructional strategies, they could be implemented by Instructional Designers during the development of instructional-based solutions.


One of the most widely used strategies could arguably be a rehearsal. The expression "practice makes perfect" may seem cliché, but it does fit very well when discussing cognition and development. As one rehearses, the working memory is exercised. Think of a person that starts working out at the gym. In the beginning, the types of workouts may be limited and the amount of weight that could be lifted may be a minimum. As the person works out, a system is generally developed to perform a certain number of repetitions to improve muscle strength. In this example, muscle strength is synonymous with long-term memory. The memory repeats the process of working with important information until it has been stored as long-term memory for later access.

Rehearsal is widely used in many applications where learning is necessary, particularly in educational settings. Various courses that require the rehearsal of cognitively complex tasks, like a mathematics or science course, use rehearsal as a means to assist the learners in processing the information to long-term memory. One could argue that once long-term memory stores the information, the information has been "learned". But what happens if the information is processed to long-term memory, but there seems to be difficulty in the retrieval process? To combat this problem, other strategies are used to improve the organization and retrieval process.

Chunking And Mnemonics

Sometimes learners may have difficulty in retrieving information, although it may be evident that it has been "learned". Instructional strategies that have been developed in the presence of cognitive learning theory are chunking and mnemonics. Chunking is the process of grouping similar pieces of information together into a "chunk" that can be sent to working memory for rehearsal and further processing. While working memory has a limit of 7 (plus or minus 2), creating a chunk of information increases the amount that can be worked with. Long strings of numbers may be difficult to remember, but if the information is grouped (the first part, the second part,  the third part) then the working memory can hold the information for long enough to write down the number.

Another clever strategy used to improve storage and retrieval is the mnemonic. There are certain concepts or critical pieces of information that may need to be easily recalled for a later time; additionally, it may need to be learned in a way that is "easy" to process. Think of the order of operations from mathematics. The mnemonic "PEMDAS" may be recalled as useful way to remember the order in which operations should occur. Start with parentheses, then work with exponents, followed by multiplication and division, and then addition and subtraction. This should occur from left to right. The use of mnemonics is generally designed by organizing the information in a way that can be easily processed and retrieved later on. This strategy has greatly impacted the way that individuals work with new information [1].

3. Impact On The Field Of Instructional Design

With the advent of cognitive learning theory, Instructional Design expanded its scope of practice to include solutions that focus on the learner in the design process. Some Instructional Designers follow an iterative process that uses information about the learners as well as the environment to develop instructional solutions [2]. The Instructional Designer comes up with a list of instructional goals that can now be expanded beyond just observable behavior; furthermore, using assessment tools that test the newly acquired knowledge that has been "transferred" to the learner is also available. Instructional Design shifted in the presence of cognitivism and includes a more system-like design approach with a focus on the learners.

Social Learning Theory

1. Definition And Characteristics

Social learning theory also offers contributions to the field of Instructional Design. Social learning theory focuses on the impact of learning based on factors related to the social environment. In other words, learning occurs in the context of a social situation that the learner is placed in. Variables that are considered within the scope of this theory center around the environment and psychological state of the individual. The influences that are the environment and state of mind have on the learner are profound. If the learner views a behavior as having an acceptable outcome, then the learner is more likely to engage in the activity [1]. Watch a short video on social learning here:

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2. Applications

Various applications are a result of social learning theory and have had a profound impact on the field of Instructional Design. It is important to note that the applications represented below are just a few of the implications that social learning theory has had on the field itself. These include the use of models and establishing self-efficacy:

Using Models

Models have been used continuously to help portray information in a way that can be observed by the learners. Models generally include a performance or demonstration of an activity that leads the learner to interpret the observation into useable information for processing. Other examples may include graphic pictures, electronic media, or symbolic representation of concepts.


Think of the expression "perhaps it rubbed off on me". This has a direct relationship to social learning theory. Self-efficacy can be influenced by the design of lessons that allow for learners to view others of similar ability succeeding at instructional tasks. This could be achieved in a number of creative ways, but generally is most effective in collaborative activities where learners work in small groups. Overall, self-efficacy is the belief that one can be successful at particular tasks.

3. Impact On The Field Of Instructional Design

Social theory has left its mark on the field of instructional tasks by expanding the way that instructional solutions can be developed. With the addition of how the social aspect of the environment can influence learning, a world of instructional strategies has generated new opportunities for learning. Collaborative learning groups and the use of peer review are widely used in many settings in which learning occurs. In this way, knowledge is not just transferred to the individual, but by using a set of observable behaviors, the learner can interpret the models in a way that improves their individual understanding [3].


The world of Instructional Design has evolved over the years. Influences from various learning theory movements like behaviorism, cognitivism, and social learning have constructed a foundation which acts as pillars of successful approaches. While each theory includes specific focal points with regards to how learning occurs—either by behavioral response or knowledge acquisition—they have contributed unique perspectives on learning as a whole and are responsible for how the field of Instructional Design has changed over time.


  1. Richey, R., Klein, J., & Tracey, M. (2011). The Instructional Design Knowledge Base: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group
  2. McLeod, G. Learning Theory and Instructional Design
  3. Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory