#ocTEL Application of Learning Theories

I had a bit of a backlash to this area because learning about theories either confuse or frustrate me. But I have found some value in reading about these, albeit briefly and then thinking about what I do already in my teaching practice. What I would still like to know though is which approach is most effective. I’ve had a got a trying to show a few examples of how I think some of the learning theories are used on my course. I only read the materials on the theories briefly because I’m time-deficient this week! (that’s my excuse anyway)

Theories of Learning and how it reflects what I already do.

I always remember the Pavlov’s Dog experiment, in that the dog is rewarded everytime he does something correct. The learner is seen as a passive recipient to external stimuli.
– Online self tests with immediate feedback. Students enter the answer and immediately receive a reward (or not) if the answer is wrong. They continue until the right answer is achieved.
The mind is like a computer and needs to be ‘opened up’ to be able to understand the learner. Mental processes like thinking, problem solving, knowing, need to be explored in the learner.
– This seems to suggest that a more individual approach is needed. That we need to understand the individual student’s computer. An example of this in action might be:
– Tutor provides feedback after an assignment is marked. This is individual to the student and is an attempt by the tutor to try and understand what might have been doing on for the student in terms of their understanding of the course materials and the application to the assignment.
Learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. This suggests that individual learners have a more active involvement in their knowledge generation, and that their own context (such as previous experience, reasons for taking the course, or current work or career aspirations) are likely to influence what and how they learn and engage with the materials.
– This is reflected quite a lot in my course materials. Throughout I encourage students to reflect on their own experiences and/or current work questions and how this relates or ‘fits’ with the topic I am teaching. They are encouraged to continue this reflection in the discussion boards and in the assignments.
Social Learning
People learn from one another, via observation, imitation and modelling.
– This aspect is encouraged throughout the course I lead. Students are encouraged to share their experiences of using the course material/tools and their own experiences related to this, usually stemming from their work. Students also learn by observing me as a course leader, and aware of my previous research and healthcare experience – in that I model and reflect and feedback my own experiences and how these relate to the course materials and to what I have been hearing about and from the students.
– Yet this is the area that I find the most difficult to encourage amongst the students on my course. I think several reasons might act as a barrier at times to this:
– (a) student expectations differ – some are signing up for an online distance learning masters course because they don’t want to be having to interact with people directly/face to face
– (b) students are all over the world. Their culture, home and work life and access to resources (broadband etc) will differ and this may impact upon their enthusiasm towards, the practical ability to interact with others more. Some just don’t have the time either and some only do the very necessary things needed to pass.
(c ) from a course perspective, I don’t think we really have it right in terms of developing a more open social learning environment. We use Blackboard, which is a bit clunky, and students can only interact with each other using discussion boards (and sometimes assessed Wikis) within each individual course unit, as we have it set up.

This is an area I am interested in – mainly because my own learning style is a natural network/interacting type person and I learn so much this way, and learn things that are not necessarily a fixed part of the curriculum (I think this is called rhizomatic learning). I would like to try and develop some research on this, as students taking the course I run are based around the world, they are nearly all adult learners / in employment, with a range of experience from quite new, to very experienced and in senior careers. Some will be returning to education after many years away from it, whilst others might have just finished a previous course. Most however, will be new to online distance learning. Thus this heterogeneous student population provides a number of likely barriers and opportunities to social learning. So, if it is given that social learning can be beneficial, then we need to find ways of encouraging and fostering this, with a student group such as mine. – Any funders out their?

Maybe I as an instructor/lecturer need to be doing more to encourage others to have this approach. But then isn’t this me trying to impose a certain learning style onto another student, just because I like it? Perhaps variety is needed in which students have more control about how they engage with the learning materials – what learning theories are their own default, and which the course material allows for.


"a technophobic in recovery" . Hello - I'm a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, England. My subject area is Public Health. I spend most of my time teaching postgraduate students on a fully online distance learning programme in public health and primary care. I have come from a research background in public health and primary in the UK National Health Service. My main research & public health interests include the evaluation and impact assessment of public health interventions. I have published papers on randomised controlled trials, cross sectional studies and systematic reviews. My teaching and learning interests, more recently pursued, include pedagogy for vocational postgraduate students in an international context; the use of web-based technology for learning; Open Learning and MOOCs and the development of critical thinking skills and research training.

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2 comments on “#ocTEL Application of Learning Theories
  1. Nicola Whitton, MMU says:

    Hi Roger.

    Great analysis, I really like the way that you’ve linked the theories to your own practice. You start with a pertinent question too: which one works best? And I think it’s a question to which there isn’t an answer, but it depends on who’s teaching, who’s learning, the subject and the context (and probably a whole host of other factors).

    Constructivism is very fashionable in HE at the moment, and provides a model of learning that ties into “higher-levels” of learning, but actually I think there’s a place (albeit limited) for other models even including behaviourism, as there are some things that do just have to be learned (although far fewer than Mr Gove would have us believe) and behaviourist models (e.g. gamification) can provide motivation where there is no intrinsic motivation (but can also kill intrinsic motivation where it does exist).

    Just my thoughts, Nicola

  2. Hi thanks Nicola for your encouraging comments. I think context is so important in all of this, and as you suggest is going to differ because of many different factors. I teach on a fully online MPH programme, with students all over the world, making this ever more important to consider. Like you, I think behaviourist models can be just as important – students seem to respond to some of the the simple “do something and get immediate feedback”. I find students tend to struggle more with activities and learning approaches that require them to think or reflect, and this remains a challenge for me to encourage.

    Your work on gamification sounds fun. If I had time I’d like to find out more about this area – I’ve had a few ideas on and off about a game for public health, in which students were given a city and came along various scenarious, and they had to use some of the principles taught on the course to work through the problems etc. But not enough hours and all that!

    Speaking aside – are you part of any networking opportunities more locally around online learning/TEL etc?



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