Applied Learning Theory

Some Applied Learning Theory
Marilla D. Svinicki, Ph.D.
Center for Teaching Effectiveness
The University of Texas at Austin

While a lot of research in psychology is too specialized or too basic or too new to have much direct application to the classroom, there are some concepts well-documented in the literature which, with a little imagination, have very direct implications for instruction.


The first principle of learning which applies to designing instruction is motivation. Although to many of us who have suffered through boring classes, learning seems to occur in the absence of motivation, it is far more efficient in a motivated learner. Below is a list of things most commonly mentioned as motivators for learning.

  1. Need to know - One strong motivator for learning a new skill or set of information is a need for the information to complete some other tasks or do some other job. For example, teaching students to do statistical test is like pulling teeth until they have to do a paper which involves data analysis. One way or another they will learn enough about the statistics they need at that time to complete the job.

  2. Curiosity - Another strong motivator is the unanswered question, the novel experience, the unexpected result, what we generally mean by curiosity. The instructor can capitalize on this by beginning topics with questions or paradoxes or simple questions to stimulate that curiosity.

  3. Relevance - When the instructor can demonstrate the relevance of new information or skills to other aspects of the students' existence, this will serve as a source of motivation. This can be done by slanting the material to already demonstrated areas of interests for the students or using those areas as the settings for analogies and examples of new material.

  4. Success - The sources of motivation listed above apply mostly to getting the learning started. It is just as important to keep the learning going once it starts, and nothing succeeds like success. The instructor who incorporates activities which are readily accomplished without being mindless into the learning is taking advantage of the motivating properties of success itself.

  5. Interest value of the material - There are many different ways of presenting the same information. Some serve to motivate the learner because they are inherently well-done and interesting; others tend to stifle motivation. Material which contains a lot of examples and variety tends to be inherently more interesting regardless of the topic than material which is constantly the same and/or very abstract.

  6. Fear - Unfortunately one very powerful motivator of students is fear, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of poor grades. While we don't recommend emphasizing this particular source of motivation, we do urge instructors to "speak softly and carry a big stick." Each course has ground rules for acceptable behavior, and it is dangerous to assume that those ground rules are intuitively obvious. Standards of work quality, deadlines, ethical practices are all reasonable expectations and indirect sources of motivation. The best way to use those sources of motivation is to make them clear at the beginning and to enforce them fairly throughout the semester. The best way to undermine those sources of motivation is to fail to enforce them, to begin making exceptions for weak reasons, to appear to waffle excessively on every point. This does not mean that the instructor should make a rule and never change it. It means that changes in the rules should be kept to a minimum and only made for good cause. The more thought which goes into the initial decision on a set of rules, the less likely changes will be needed.

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The next principle of learning which applies to instruction is that of organization. When someone learns new information, the process can be viewed as taking place in two steps. The first step involves identifying the information which needs to be learned; the second step involves classifying the selected information according to some schema and incorporating that schema into the long term storage network in memory.

Identifying information to be learned

We are constantly being bombarded by stimulation. Some of it is important; most is not. Therefore even though we "receive" these stimulus inputs, we do not necessarily respond to them unless we have a reason to or they are brought to our attention. If we want a student to learn some information, we must first make it stand out from its environment. Our students will do this themselves as they study the content of our courses. They highlight sentences in books; they take notes in class. These activities are designed to make certain information stand out from the rest. Unfortunately many times the things they choose to highlight are not the things we would have them learn. Therefore, we as instructors must help sort out the important information and make it stand out from the details and elaborations used to clarify it. Instructors can use a technique similar to textbooks by learning to "speak in italics or bold type," that is, to use their voice to emphasize critical information. "Dramatic" pauses before and after main points, changes in inflection, changes in tone are all ways that an instructor signals the importance of the information. A change in the visual environment such as use of a slide or transparency also can be used to highlight new information. Verbal cues can be used to make information stand out from the background . Saying something as mundane as "this is an important point" or repeating verbatim a critical point cues the students' attention effectively. The students can be primed to notice critical points by providing them with an outline, a pretest, a set of questions or a set of objectives at the beginning of the presentation.

Classifying the information to be learned

The second step in learning information or skills is to organize and classify the information so that it can be stored in the memory. Of course, no one knows for sure what a memory system looks like or how it works, but there are some reasonable hypotheses which seem to fit the data and certainly can be used as a model for thinking about learning and memory. One model of memory which has been useful in instructional design is an immense cross-referenced information network. For each concept or memory in the network there is a central categorization/name. Attached to that core are relevant attributes which can serve as categories. These are attached in varying degrees of strength to each other depending on their prominence. The system can be entered at any point and the probability of eliciting the other nodes in the system depends on how strongly they are connected. So, far example, in one memory system, the central concept "dog" might have as one of its related categories "animal" and further off "mammal," although the latter is not a strong association unless you're in biology. A stronger association is "pet" and possibly through that "cat." Other attributes attached to the "dog" concept would depend on our experiences with dogs in the real world. The entire network would be very complex, but people with similar backgrounds and similar cultures would have similar major categories and associations. New information entering the system is first classified according to its most prominent attributes (which often depend on the situation in which it is encountered), and this mini-network is overlaid on the existing network, where similar categories form connections.

What we want to do as teachers is facilitate the correct and efficient categorization of information, and then provide plenty of repetitions and opportunities for the information to be recalled and restored in memory, so that it can be easily retrieved in the future when we're not around. We can start by providing an organizational system in the first place. Information which is presented in a well-organized manner has a much higher probability of being stored according to that system than information which is haphazardly presented. Therefore, instructors should put a lot of time into developing an overall scheme for organizing the information in their discipline. One caution to this idea, however, is that if the instructional goal is to teach the students to provide their own organizational systems from unorganized information, the instructor shouldn't do it for them.

Another helpful procedure is to look for organizational schema that the students already use or understand and use those as the basis for presenting new information which is organized along similar lines. This is the rationale for the use of analogies as teaching aids. The analogy calls out of memory a particular set of connections and organizational structure. By comparing the new information to that preexisting structure, the student can more readily classify and organize the new information. Sometimes this can backfire on an instructor if the system being used as an analogy is not one the students understand anyway. It doesn't do any good to use an explanation that no one can understand to explain a concept that no one can understand. For this reason instructors are encouraged to draw on the things with which the students are familiar or find interesting anyway. Examples operate in much the same way as analogies though less directly.

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Active Response

A third area of learning theory which is pertinent to the design of instruction is the support of active responding as the best method for learning. We would never think of learning a physical skill simply by watching someone else do it; but somehow when it comes to learning information, we seem to think it's sufficient to merely read or hear the information once. If we are to be able to say that something has been learned, the learner must be able to retrieve that information or skill and use it. Until then, we have no evidence that the information/skill has been correctly stored. The incorporation of active responding into learning provides the opportunity for a learner to test hypotheses and determine if his/her understanding of the material is accurate.

Active responding also contributes to transfer of learning to real world situations. The students must learn to use information in an active way, to search through the mounds of knowledge and ideas stored away, find those places which are useful to a particular problem, and apply them to the solution. Until the student is placed in the position of using the information we have given him/her, the only application situations in which their storage system is tested are those which they generate for themselves. These may or may not match the situations we would choose for them. For example, many students "test" themselves by reading through their lecture notes, silently nodding whenever they recognize something. This recognition is not the same response they will face on an exam or in real life. Unfortunately, our student have very few alternative systems for self-testing. The more we can provide a variety of situations in which the material or skills can be used, the more likely it is that the learning will transfer to real life use.

Active responding also serves as a monitor for the learner. Active responding sets the stage for evidence of progress , which is one of the key motivators of learning. Without this evidence of progress, a learner may be hard pressed to maintain attention to the task and continue to take in new information.

This active responding should be done before the completion of instruction. It should be a part of the instruction itself. This can be done by incorporating questions for the entire class into a presentation, by using content-focus problem solving discussions during class, by using homework both in the formal sense and in informal thought questions for the students to mull over outside of class. It involves including exercises in the class period which get the student to use or critique or defend the information being learned.

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The final step in the learning sequence is the delivery of feedback to the learner after a response. One reason for including active responding in learning is to give the learner some idea of how well his or her internal system for processing new information functions when faced with a real question. The capstone on the process is the feedback itself. The learner will receive feedback whenever he or she responds. The question then becomes who controls that feedback and how well does it advance our goal of teaching the student. Let's consider an example. Have you ever listened to someone singing along with the radio while wearing headphones which block out their own voice? The amount of feedback they are receiving on the accuracy of pitch and loudness is minimal. It is coming primarily from the sensations produced by the muscles in the throat and diaphragm, not a particularly good source but a source nevertheless. Now take the person's headphones off and let them hear themselves. Their performance improves immediately because the feedback is now directed at pitch and loudness. The same is true for learning. To be effective, feedback must be directed at the response to be learned.

The feedback a learner receives can come from many sources. It can be given directly by the instructor, which is desirable because it can then be tailored to the individual's needs. It is also almost guaranteed to be more accurate. However, it is a rare situation which allows the instructor to devote as much time to individual feedback as is desirable. Therefore the instructor would be advised to set up the learning environment to provide feedback and then teach the students how to recognize and benefit from it. Models, such as examples of completed work, tapes of good and bad performances, demonstrations followed by active practice experiences, all provide sources of feedback for the students against which they can compare their own efforts. Another possible source of feedback is the other students, with periodic monitoring form the instructor. An instructor can also allow students to critique their own behavior while the instructor evaluates the critique. As the students become skillful in self-analysis, the need for direct instructor feedback decreases.

While the ideas presented above represent only a small portion of the possibilities for teaching which are based on theories and research in psychology, they are some of the most readily implemented by the average instructor.

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