Learning theories


Learning theories
An overview of Cognitivism and Connectivism, including dates, key researchers and connections to teaching and learning. Share your opinions on the strengths and limitations. Implications for instructional design.

What is cognitivism:

Cognitivism is a traditional learning theory, which focuses on how the mind acquires, stores and retrieves information, rather like a computer. It views knowledge as schemas and is concerned with the organization schemas in the mind.

Cognitivism is a traditional view in that learning should be memorable and meaningful.  Knowledge is a static body that is added to over time and is learned ready for easy retrieval with new knowledge added and stored in comparison to what is already known. Cognitivism is a theory that predates the internet.

Key researchers and dates 

1885 Hermann Ebbing Forgetting curve –how quickly we forget information if we make no attempt to remember it.

1932 FC Barlett Concept of schemas –how the brain structures knowledge

1936 Piaget Theory of cognitive development – 4 stages of reasoning

1952 George A Miller Short-term memory 7+/- 2 theory – how much information the brain can hold in the short-term memory“slots”.

1960 Bruner Spiral curriculum and 1961 Discovery learning

1962 Lev Vygotsky Zone of Proximal Development and Sociocultural theory

1963 David Ausubel Subsumption theory –ways to organize instructional material that helps learners organize their content to make it meaningful and memorable.

1965 Robert Gagné Conditions of learning– internal conditions and external conditions

1968 Atkinson and Shiffrin Multistore model of memory – Sensory register, short-term memory, long-term memory – linear process like a computer

1971 Allan Paivio Dual coding Theory –2 cognitive subsystems one for language and one for imagery

1974 Baddeley and Hitch – Working memory model= short term memory, with different systems for different types of information.

1983 Charles Reigeluth Elaboration theory – instruction should become increasingly complicated with: (1) elaborative sequence, (2) learning prerequisite sequences, (3) summary, (4)synthesis, (5) analogies, (6) cognitive strategies, and (7) learner control.


Connections to teaching and learning

Cognivitism is often used in developing classroom lessons because it encourages curiosity.

Learners are active participants in the learning process. They use various strategies to process and construct their personal understanding of the content to which they are exposed.



It enhances learning and cognitive learning theory enhances lifelong learning.

Self-efficacy boosts confidence.

Enhances Comprehension.

Improves problem-solving skills.

Helps learn new things faster.

Teaches concept formation and abstract thinking

It has many practical applications.



It refers to the cognitive process we cannot directly observe.  Likewise, it relies heavily on inference.

Much of the research done in cognitive science has been done in laboratory settings without direct application to educational settings.

Another weakness of the cognitive approach is that it ignores other factors towards behavior that have been shown to affect behavior.


Implications for instructional design

There is a need for instructional design to bridge the gap between learning research and educational practices.

Cognitive theories are generally useful for more complex learning tasks.

The primary goal is to transmit knowledge to the learner in the most efficient way allowing for encoding of information. An instructional designer must consider both the learning task requirements and the current capabilities of the learner.

Start by gaging pre-existing knowledge with a cognitive task analysis.

Design tasks for effective and efficient processing of information.

Activities allow learners to compare existing cognitive knowledge structure with new information.

Information should be in manageable pieces or chunks.

Prompt feedback should provide information on the correctness of responses from learners to motivate them to think about what is relevant and important for them.


What is connectivism:

Connectivism is a theory of knowledge where knowledge is a set of connections in a network and learning is the ability to create and traverse these connections. Knowledge is chaotic, constantly changing and goes beyond the personal resulting from the interconnectivity of networks. It is based on the idea of knowledge sharing networks using technology.  Put simply it is a social learning network.

The idea of connectivism was first introduced as a theory of learning and pedagogy by George Siemens in2004. Siemens felt that the learning theories of behaviorism, constructivism and cognitivism needed to be reassessed in view of technological advances. It was the first theory that took into account the digital age.   

Learning online is fundamentally different from traditional learning with the teacher and books directing learning.  Learning is now an organic process which takes place in networked environments.  The model of learning in connectivism is one of network formation rather than of knowledge acquisition. The steps are seen to be:

1 Aggregating

2 Remixing

3 Repurposing

4 Feeding forward.


Available information should be assessed using deductive reasoning (Downes):

The principles of connectivism include:

·     The learning process is a connection of information sources.

·     Knowledge has become a networked product/project.

·     Technology can significantly influence learning.

·     Learning can reside in non-human appliances.

·     The diversity of opinions can result in learning, connecting individual know-how to that of others.

·     A core skill is detecting connections and creating connections between ideas.

·     Learning takes place when one makes decisions.

·     The capability to know is more crucial than what is currently known.(The pipe is more important than the content of the pipe.)

·     Current and accurate knowledge is the goal of connectivism learning activities.

·     Continual learning can be achieved by nurturing connections.


Key researchers and dates

2004 George Siemens Connectivism:A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

2005 Stephen Downes E-Learning2.0 E-learn Magazine

2007 Connectivism Conference

2008 then 2009, 2011 and 2012 A series of MOOCs on “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” (or CCK08)

2015 Al Dahdou, Osórion, Caires papers exploring the foundations of connectivism.


Connections to teaching and learning

Connectivism complicates learning and teaching, because it is no longer teacher structured learning. The teacher should acts as a facilitator in group work and class discussion.  S

How do we access what needs to be learned and what has been learned?

First theory that evaluates the material that is being learned and ask if it is worthy of study? Is there something more recent and up-to-date?

In many business schools this axiom is a reality, with business professionals as the teachers “Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends” where“friends” are the professionals.



Learner-centered learning is more motivating.

Learners are self-motivated, adapting learning strategies based on previous experience.

Fosters collaborative skills

Socialized learning

Helps individuals to learn how they prefer to learn and their learning strengths

Connectivism shifts the role of instructional designer from a centralized teacher to each individual learner

The theory embraces individual perspectives and diversity of opinions, theoretically providing for no hierarchy in the value of shared knowledge.

It takes into account the behaviors of learners in the "digital age" in an explicit way that is absent in other theories.


As a theory there is seen to be a lack of scientific research and empirical data, with no concrete theory of how learning occurs for the individual.  It can be argued that connectivism is a pedagogical approach rather than a learning theory.

It is the responsibility of the learner to create their own learning experience.  

Connectivism shifts the role of instructional designer  

Connectivism embeds the idea of learning without teachers.  The lack of structure and teacher guidance in learning complicates the integration of knowledge.  If learning is decentralized and learners choose their own learning path, you cannot create a centralized assessed learning outcome. 

Connectivism requires students to discern if something they read is fact or fiction, personal/cultural bias may make this difficult. 

Is being so connected good for us, isolates us from the real world.

Implications for instructional design

The massive amount of information that is available makes the job of the instructional designer complicated, how to pare this information down to the essential. Connectivism with its chaotic structure, is the antithesis of good clear minimalist instructional design.

Therefore, instructional designers need to identify the rationale for the learning and then seek to create stimulating and motivating learning activities that ask and allow learners to create social learning networks. These learning activities are going to need to be small researchable projects, depending on the age and technical competence of the learners. 

Connectivism shifts the role of instructional designer from a centralized teacher to each individual learner. 

Creative projects, such as blogging can often be overly time-consuming to set up for both the designer, but more particularly for the learner who is not an expert. 

How do connectivist educators create content-specific that allows for standardized testing.

Overview of Constructivism, Polly Watt, created on Canva
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