6 Sign Learning Theory Elements To Include In eLearning Course Design

6 Sign Learning Theory Elements To Include In eLearning Course Design
Summary: If you are looking for a goal-centric learning approach that adds order to the cognitive chaos, then the Sign Learning Theory may be the best option. In this article, I'll explore the key components and 6 elements of the Sign Learning Theory you can include in your eLearning course design.

Applying The Sign Learning Theory In eLearning Course Design: Key Components And Elements To Include

The Sign Learning Theory was originally developed by Tolman, a proponent of "purposive behaviorism"[1]. Based on this theory, an individual learns by following signs that lead to specific goals. For example, they will learn about a new concept if they actively participate in eLearning courses and develop effective study habits. Accoding to Tolman, learning is always purposeful and centered around a primary goal.

Principles And Key Components Of The Sign Learning Theory

The Sign Learning Theory is rooted in behaviorism but Tolman veered away from the traditional path by suggesting that the relationship between stimuli takes precedence over stimuli response. He suggested that a stimuli is linked to another stimuli that the learner already finds meaningful. Here are the 3 key principles that you must consider when applying the Sign Learning Theory in eLearning:

  1. eLearning experiences should always be goal-centric and purposive.
  2. The learning process usually involves environmental factors that help online learners achieve the primary goal.
  3. Online learners will always choose the easiest or shortest route to reach their goal.

In order to facilitate the learning process, Tolman proposes three basic components to be employed: (1) the significant, that is the desired outcome, goal, or behavior, (2) the sign, referring to the stimuli that prompts learners to take action, and (3) means-end relations, referring to a learner's internal thought process or relationships. According to Tolman, these "sign gestalts" collectively form a "cognitive map". This cognitive map is also influenced by environment factors, which influences the learner's behavior and prompts them to choose specific gestalts.

In terms of eLearning course design, the above components can be translated to:

  • Significant: The specific learning objectives of the eLearning course. This enables online learners to know well in advance what they have to achieve.
  • Sign: Including in the eLearning course design interactive elements that ask learners to take action and not passively receive the information presented.
  • Means-End Relations: How the information presented is related to learner's previous knowledge. This can be achieved through repetition of basic concepts before introducing new ones, setting prerequisites, as well as eLearning pre-assessments.

6 Sign Learning Theory Elements To Include In eLearning Course Design

The Sign Learning theory provides us with 6 forms of learning that individuals may use to achieve their goals and deepen their understanding of the subject matter. eLearning professionals can use these forms of learning to make their eLearning courses more effective and purpose-driven.

1. Cathexis

Learners have the ability to associate specific objects or ideas with a particular drive. This can be either negative or positive. For example, an employee chooses to take an online training course because they know that it will help them get a promotion, which is form of positive cathexis. Avoiding workplace conflicts and not being tardy would be a form of negative cathexis, as both of these actions work against the primary goal. This is why it's important to research your audience in order to identify their drives and key motivators.

2. Field Expectancies

Learners discover that a certain action leads to a specific outcome. You can apply this in your eLearning course by providing real world examples, branching scenarios, and eLearning simulations that explore different decision paths. These eLearning activities also explore the benefits and applications of the subject matter. Thus, online learners can determine which tools and problem-solving approaches are going to help them achieve their goals in advance.

3. Equivalence Beliefs

An online learner feels that a secondary or "sub-goal" carries the same weight as a primary goal. For example, if an online learner believes that moving to the top of the leaderboard is the same with completing their eLearning course. The leaderboard is intended to motivate the individual so that they acquire the information, but it has now become an equivalence belief.

4. Field Cognition Modes

How an online learner arranges and configures information in order to solve the problem. This also involves the person's "perceptual field", such as their surroundings, personal beliefs, and emotional state. An online learner's perspective and inferences play a crucial role in the eLearning process. Challenge their assumptions by asking questions and encouraging them to work in groups. Interacting with their peers gives them the opportunity to see things from a different point of view, which opens them up to new eLearning possibilities.

5. Motor Patterns

The relationship between stimuli and physical movement. This also pertains to motor skills. Tactile eLearning activities allow online learners to interact with the subject matter directly while refining their sensory skills. For example, when they access a serious game on their mobile device they must tap, scroll, and swipe the screen in order to participate. As a result, they are engaging in kinesthetic learning, which relies on motor patterns.

6. Drive Discrimination

This type of learning is directly related to cathexis. In fact, it shares many of the same characteristics. It occurs when a learner must discriminate between certain drives in order to achieve their goal. In some cases, these drives may be competing or a particular drive is more effective or refined than the others. For example, an individual deduces that popping up their umbrella is a better option than getting out of the rain because they don't want to be late to an important meeting. They've weighed both options and chosen the shortest path to the goal. Branching scenarios are a great way to cultivate drive discrimination abilities in eLearning, as online learners must choose the path that leads them to the desired outcome using their analytic skills.

A vast majority of Tolman's research actually involved rats and monitoring their behavior. However, it applies to every eLearning experience, as it suggests that individuals are driven by their need to reach their goals or objectives. According to Tolman, positive reinforcement is a factor, but not the primary motivator.

Performance goals are an essential part of a successful eLearning strategy. Read the article Why and How To Use Performance Goals in eLearning to discover how to use performance goals to add value into your eLearning deliverables.


  1. Purposive Behaviorism