My Approach to Applying Learning Theories to Instructional Design

Instructional Design for the 21st Century - Brittany Thompson Robinson

I thoroughly enjoyed the edX Micro Masters course: USMx: LDT100x Instructional Design and Technology: Learning Theories. This course went into great detail discussing the following learning theories:

  • Behaviorism
  • Constructivism
  • Connectivism
  • Cognitivism
  • Andragogy (Adult Learning Theory)

Since I create course curriculum and facilitate classes for both children and adults, I definitely see these theories and approaches fitting into the courses I design. After taking this course, I have a stronger idea of how I will use learning theories and complex assessments in my upcoming Instructional Design and Development projects.

I wouldn’t say there is one theory that is most “relevant” for my learners; rather, I teach in a blended learning environment that combines multiple learning theories and techniques for all learning styles. In my classes, the various learning theories and approaches work in conjuction with each other.

My courses are technical in nature – such as learning to develop video games, use Photoshop, or write JavaScript code – but there is also a creative aspect to them as well. Because digital technology is the solid background for all of my courses, there is a strong Connectivism component to my teaching. Students are even taught how to search the web for tools and resources to implement in their final projects, and are encouraged to do so.

HTML coding is a type of training that can make use of Behaviorism (Keramida, M.Ed., Marisa. 2015). For instance, I can use Behaviorism to teach my participants correct coding commands and debugging, while I can use Constructivism and group work or Social Constructivism during the project planning phase for the students’ final website project (McLeod, S. A. 2012, 2016.). Not only does this give my students a taste of real-world project management and scope; it also allows them to learn from each other, collaborate creatively, and build their own skills. In true Cognitivist form, their experiences and social connections help contribute to their learning.

Although I currently teach adults and children, my background originally was in Adult Learning Theory (Andragogy). For the past ten years, I have been teaching adult learners and naturally have been applying Knowles’ 5 Assumptions and 4 Principles to my classes (Pappas, C. 2017). Because adult learners bring their own prior knowledge and diverse past experiences into the classroom, I always start off by explaining the reasons why we are learning each topic, and providing task-oriented instructions. My online courses are particularly self-directed and autonomous, while also offering a Connectivist approach and providing guidance and support via digital tools such as email or private Facebook groups. I feel that this works well for brining interactive learning into the 21st Century “digital age”.


Pappas, C. (2017, July 20). The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles.
Retrieved from

“The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – Infographic”. (April 2, 2014).     Retrieved from:

Keramida, M.Ed., Marisa. (2015, May 28). Behaviorism in Instructional Design for eLearning: When and How to Use.
Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of Proximal Development.
     Retrieved from

MacLeod, Saul. (2016). Bandura – Social Learning Theory.
Retrieved from

Andragogy: Adult Learning Theory

Andragogy Adult Learning Theory Infographic by Brittany Thompson Robinson Instructional Designer

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to teach children as well as adults. Although there are many similarities, there are also many differences between designing curriculum and facilitating a class for adults rather that for children. One of the biggest differences is that children are clean slates, while adults bring a lifetime of past experiences, existing knowledge (or bias/opinion), and social/cultural influences into their learning environment. Adults also do not learn in the same ways that children do. Therefore, typical pedagogy that works with younger learners may not apply to adult learners.

In comparison to pedagogy, which is Greek for “child-leading” (although it applies to learners of all ages), the word andragogy comes from the Greek for “man-leading” and specifically focuses on adult learning theory (for all genders).

Andragogy (Adult Learning Theory) includes formal, informal, and non-formal learning:

Formal – learning goals and objectives are formally set by someone other than the learner, such as a trainer or organization

Informal – the learner sets the learning goals and objectives

Non-Formal – blends formal and informal learning, as when the learner’s boss or manager requests that he or she conduct self-directed learning on a topic that will lead to improved job performance

The 5 Assumptions About Adult Learners

Malcolm Knowles, who is known for developing Andragogy (Adult Learning) theories, made five (5) assumptions about adult learners:

1. Adult learning is self-directed and independent;

2. Adult learners bring prior experiences and knowledge into learning situations;

3. Adult learners are ready to learn;

4. Adult learners thrive in problem-based learning situations that immediately impact their current situations/carrers/lives

5. Adult learners have internal (intrinsic) motivation

The 4 Principles of Adult Learning

Knowles also believed that the following four (4) principles apply to adult learning:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluating their instruction.

  2. Experience is the basis for learning.

  3. Adults flourish when learning subjects of immediate relevance and impact to them.

  4. Adult learning is problem-centered (Kearsley, 2010)

Andragogy in Action

To help illustrate how andragogy might apply to a real world learning scenario, let’s say you are an Instructional Developer who has been tasked with creating an online course that teaches new business owners how to use a digital media tool to streamline the e-Business process. You will need to:

  1. Explain to the learners why it’s important for them to master this tool and/or learn specific information

  2. Ensure instruction is task-oriented.

  3. Consider the broad experiences, skill levels, and backgrounds of learners when it comes to using computers or digital media software.

  4. Ensure the online course is self-directed and autonomous; however, as an instructor, you should also be available to offer support, guidance, and troubleshooting as needed.

For additional information, view my infographic on adult learning theory:

Andragogy Adult Learning Theory Infographic by Brittany Thompson Robinson Instructional Designer