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.
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“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

My Personal Experiences with Behaviorist Learning Theory

Over the years, I’ve had many experiences with Behaviorism, both as a student and as an instructor or facilitator. One learning scenario that presents the Behaviorist learning theory in practice is when I was taking a college course on sustainability and environmental studies.

Interestingly enough, the professor for this course took a Constructivist approach to learning. Some highlights included class debates, during which he would present topics such as global warming, carbon footprints, and political beliefs, and would challenge us to think differently about these topics:

  • What do you believe?
  • Why do you feel the way that you do?
  • What if you considered it from this perspective instead?
  • What is the problem with this scenario?
  • What behaviors or actions created this situation?
  • Are these actions and behaviors sustainable long-term? Why or why not?

This class also included a lot of field work using the Constructivist model. From touring solar farms to looking at pollution levels in local streams and soil samples, we would experience things for ourselves and ask open-ended questions. These chances to explore the world around us and develop our own perspectives through critical thinking remain some of the most memorable experiences from my college career, and profoundly shaped who I became as a person.

Although the majority of this class was taught using a Constructivist approach as outlined above, there were times when the professor switched to an approach that more closely aligned with Behaviorism. As discussed in my blog post on Behaviorism, Behaviorism has some key features, including: learning is observable, and behaviors are influenced by positive and negative reinforcement.

For instance, the professor used Behaviorism to teach use scientific approaches to measuring the acidity levels (pH) of soil and water in our local college town. These are scientific standards and there is a “correct” and “incorrect” procedure for collecting the samples as well as measuring their pH level. Doing this incorrectly would have negatively impacted our data for the class research project during our field study, so we practiced before we departed. The professor observed us, offering words of encouragement if we were doing it correctly as well as assisting those who were struggling.

Our final project consisted of us reading required learning materials and preparing a presentation for the whole class on why a particular person, belief, or topic was aligned with sustainability or was in fact “unsustainable.” This is also known as the “discrimination” approach (Keramida, M.Ed., Marisa, 2015). We used our knowledge of statistics, scientific data and research, modern technology (thanks to our field studies) and mathematical formulations to make our determinations. The positive “reward” for correctly determining whether our particular research topic was sustainable or unsustainable was a high grade from the professor and approval or agreement from our classmates. In this situation, negative reinforcement would have included feelings of shame or embarrassment, a lower grade from the professor, and possibly even having to respond to challenging comments from disapproving/disagreeing classmates.

To this day, this particular class stands out as one of the most long-term beneficial (and interesting) classes of my entire college career. I’m grateful that my professor took a blended approach to learning. I think his class would have been much different if it had been solely Constructivist or Behaviorist. By skillfully using Behaviorism to help us understand scientific methods, memorize terminology, and grasp new information, he helped us gain knowledge that would allow us to better approach the Constructivist parts of the course.

If my own experience is to be used as an example, it shows just how much the blending of these methods allowed me to retain the information from the course. Over 15 years later, I still remember some of these facts, discussions and presentations as if they were yesterday!

When NOT to Use Behaviorism (A Personal Learning Experience)

In my previous blog post about Behaviorism as a learning theory, we discussed some of the psychological foundations of behaviorist learning theory. If you read my blog post or are familiar with Behaviorism, you probably already know that it works well for certain learning scenarios, such as:

  •  Memorizing standards
  • Mathematical formulas and equations
  • Scientific facts
  • Language vocabulary
  • or other information that can be memorized and has a clear “right” or “wrong” answer.

Behaviorism works well for science and mathematics courses. It can be an excellent way to memorize equations and formulas. It also comes in handy when learning foreign languages, allowing participants to master vocabulary and basic sentence structures.

However, Behaviorism – like all learning theories – has its limitations. There are some situations where Behaviorism might not be the best approach for knowledge transfer.

When NOT to Use Behaviorism

I can think of a situation when Behaviorism was not the best way to present the learning material, however, when I recall my husband’s tales of his web design professor. Design is a skill set that is best learned through some guidance. The instructor can provide scaffolding for the learners, for instance, and can build upon the learner’s existing knowledge of the subject matter. In my design classes throughout college, we were grouped with other students, allowed to collaborate and learn from each other, and received one-on-one guidance from our instructor to help us become the best possible designers.

My husband’s professor, on the other hand, took the opposite approach and did not offer guidance. Instead, students were expected to memorize the “rules” of design straight from the textbook and grades were based on passing true/false assessments. While Behaviorism works well for some subject areas, I do not agree that it is the best approach for learning creative topics such as design. A different approach, such as Constructivism, may have been more appropriate in this scenario.

Behaviorism – What Does Pavlov’s Dog Have to Do with Learning Theory?

What does Pavlov’s dog have to do with learning? The foundations of Behaviorism as a theory for explaining human behavior actually started quite by accident.

At the turn of the 1900s, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov was researching the digestive processes of dogs when he noticed something completely unexpected.

Although the dogs in his lab salivated while being fed, they also began to salivate when they associated a stimulus with feeding. For instance, if the dogs heard a bell or saw a lab assistant each time they were fed, they would eventually start salivating anytime they heard the bell or saw the lab assistant – even if they did not receive any food.

This is called “classical conditioning” and it doesn’t just apply to dogs; it applies to human behavior and learning as well. B.F. Skinner would later build upon Pavlov’s work with his research on “operant conditioning,” in which the positive or negative reinforcement of a behavior occurs after the desired response (Alana Barnett, 2015).

Connections to Teaching and Learning

How does Behaviorism fit into Learning Theory? Like Pavlov’s experiment with the dogs, Behaviorism theorizes that all actions or behaviors can be learned and unlearned. When external stimuli cause us to have a reaction, positive reinforcement can encourage us to learn a behavior (and repeat our action in response to the stimulus). Likewise, negative reinforcement can teach us to “unlearn” a behavior (and cease our reaction).

When external stimuli cause us to have a reaction, positive reinforcement can encourage us to learn a behavior (and repeat our action in response to the stimulus). Likewise, negative reinforcement can teach us to “unlearn” a behavior (and cease our reaction).

Behaviorist learning theory looks at learning as teacher-initiated, performance-based, and focused on external behaviors that can be visibly observed by others. As one can imagine, Behaviorism has its limitations. However, it can be useful for learning standards, mathematical formulas, scientific facts, language vocabulary, or other information that can be memorized and has a clear “right” or “wrong” answer.