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.
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McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of Proximal Development.
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MacLeod, Saul. (2016). Bandura – Social Learning Theory.
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My Personal Learning Experiences with Cognitivism and Connectivism

Cognitivism Connectivism Learning Theory by Brittany Thompson Robinson Instructional Designer

Being a digital native, Connectivism has always played a large role not just in how I develop and facilitate curriculum – but also in my own personal learning experiences. For example, when I was a 14-year-old middle school student, I wanted to build my own website so I used Connectivism to teach myself how to read and write HTML code.

I was in middle school during the height of the first Dot Com Boom, and I just knew this “World Wide Web” stuff was important. I wanted to master HTML and web design – and maybe even start my first business – by building websites for myself and my friends. I started by using the search engine, which was called Ask Jeeves back then, to search for HTML tutorials for beginners. Eventually, that led me to the excellent website,, which features a variety of hands-on tutorials for teaching yourself to read and write HTML, JavaScript, and more – all while you build working webpages.

In this way, I used various different digital tools to seek out information on the Internet from a variety of places. And I didn’t stop there. While reading the information displayed in each tutorial, I simultaneously typed the code in Notepad as instructed. As I followed along, I also compared my code to the visual images that were included in each tutorial. By testing my code in the Internet Explorer browser, which was the gold standard back then, I was able to instantly verify that my code was working. This was another way I used a diverse variety of digital tools (specifically, the Internet, a tutorial website, a web browser, and Notepad) to learn something new.

When I stumbled across a problem, such as broken code, I learned to troubleshoot and quality check my code. I also learned the important skill of searching the internet for help. By pulling information from multiple different resources, including various websites, search engines, and online forums or other communities, I was able to slowly piece together a working knowledge of web design and development. Of course, not all online resources are accurate. I had to learn good decision-making skills to discern which “advice” I should follow and to determine which tutorial websites were the best for what I was trying to achieve.

My social and cultural influences also played a role in my learning. I was friends with lots of teenage boys who were gamers, web developers, and what you might call “computer fanatics.” This social circle was extremely helpful to me as they supported my decision to learn to code, shared tips, tricks and resources, and assisted with quality checking my code when it needed debugging. These experiences allowed me to gain a mastery of HTML that I was able to build upon for decades to come, and also introduced me to JavaScript, which I now use in my curriculum development and instructional design role.

Today, with modern resources such as in-person coding workshops (which were unavailable to me as a middle school girl in Kentucky decades ago), YouTube video tutorials, podcasts, conferences, and a variety of social media learning tools and eLearning or MOOC websites, I would have an even greater opportunity to put Connectivism to work for teaching myself to code. Throughout my career in adulthood, I have been a lifelong learner using Connectivism and digital media to further my own learning experiences.

Through the Cognitivist Lens:

The scenario listed above was not purely Connectivist; it also has some elements of Cognitivism. For instance, the tutorial websites I looked at took cognitive load into account. Lessons were broken into smaller segments so I could pick up the technical information with ease. The tutorial images, such as screenshots, were placed beside the corresponding text to improve clarity and avoid any confusion. Non-essential information was omitted from the tutorials.

At the time, I recall the website being laid out in a way that reduced cognitive load. However, that was the mid-1990s and, as we all know, the look and feel of the internet in general was a bit of a mess overall back then. I’m sure if I were to go back in a time machine to take a look at the 1997 version of, it would be overwhelming and I would feel overloaded by the design and layout. (The current layout of the website is not very clean or modern, but the information architecture is at least organized in a way that I can easily find what I am looking for within a few seconds. Of course, my perceptions of the website today are shaped in part by my own history and knowledge, as well as my own cultural and social background.)

I had an internal motivation to acquire this knowledge and I used my social network of people familiar with web design to assist me with the learning process. taught the content in small chunks, making the information easier to absorb for a newcomer like myself. Courses were set up in a way that I could read the instructions and then try for myself. As I did this over and over, I built a level of self efficacy and grew to master the content, becoming motivated to learn more and more about this topic.

Cognitivism and Connectivism

Cognitivism Connectivism Learning Theory by Brittany Thompson Robinson Instructional Designer

An Overview of Cognitivism

In Cognitivist learning theory, the thought processes are important to learning. These mental processes are shaped by our past experiences, which also shape how we process new information. Cognitivism focuses on acquiring knowledge and information.

Social Cognitivism builds upon the theory of Cognitivism while also stressing that the learner is an active participant in his or her own learning process. Therefore, motivation plays a strong role in learning.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load refers to the amount of effort it takes to process something in working memory. Working memory can generally hold between five and nine items of information at any one time (Atkinson and Shiffrin “Human Memory” – 1968.) For this reason, it is important that Instructors and Curriculum Developers do their best to reduce cognitive load and ensure the transfer of knowledge to all learners.

Here are some ways to help reduce cognitive load:

  • Break larger or more complex content into smaller segments that are more easily understood

  • Use a combination of audio and visual methods for communicating information

  • Any non-essential content should be ommitted

  • Text or verbiage should be placed near the corresponding imagery

An Overview of Connectivism

Connectivism is a modern learning theory for the digital age. Connectivist learning theory states that digital technology allows us to expand our network, therefore also allowing us to expand the number of tools, resources, and people where we can attain new information. The argument is that this contributes to greater intellect, although the learner must use good decision-making and critical thinking skills to discern between sources of information. This is essential in the modern digital environment, where information is all around us.

Overlap Between Constructivism and Connectivism

There is some overlap between Constructivism and Connectivism. Jerome Bruner was responsible for developing many theories of both Constructivism and Connectivism. Additionally, both learning theories take social and cultural influences into account when it comes to learning.


Jonesrebandt, Erin. (Oct. 22, 2013).  Connectivism
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MacLeod, Saul. (2016). Bandura – Social Learning Theory.
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Siemans, George (2005). “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age”
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Atkinson and Shiffrin. (1968).”Human Memory”.

Guyan, Matthew. (2013, November 1). “5 Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in eLearning”.

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