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


create your own website for free video tutorial by brittany thompson robinson

For a recent MicroLearning project, I was tasked with learning a new (to me) digital media technology tool or application that could support me as an Instructional Designer. I actually used several freeware applications to create a quick video for new business owners, or anyone wanting to create their own website for free without having to pay a designer (see below). As a self-directed, hands-on learner, I taught myself how to use Shotcut in the same way that I taught myself to read and write HTML code so many years ago: by playing with the software until I got stuck, then researching online tutorials and walking through the steps until I figured it out on my own.

(Disclaimer: I do have some prior video editing experience as well, so some of the software was fairly intuitive and user-friendly for someone who has experience using other programs for video editing. I was able to take a Constructivist approach here by building upon what I already know and reaching out to more knowledgeable people for additional help and resources.)

Luckily, this is no longer the 1990s and we have resources such as micro-learning, blogs, Google (and other search engines), and YouTube video tutorials to assist with rapidly learning new technology such as this one. YouTube videos were extremely valuable in my ability to quickly learn my way around Shotcut, Screencastify, and (which was shockingly different than the WordPress interface that I use when designing client websites). I also followed along with YouTube videos for using Canva (which I was already familiar with) for making YouTube video intro images (which I had never done before).

As someone who is intrinsically motivated, this type of Connectivist + Constructivist learning process worked well for me. I was able to quickly master the skills required for this video, utilizing a variety of digital media tools, and rapidly turn my knowledge into a tutorial that I could immediately share with other self-directed learners on YouTube. I plan to use these same tools to create other video tutorials on my channel and may even create a behind-the-scenes tutorial on how I combined all of these tools to make this video (in case other learners want to accomplish the same thing).

Biggest a-ha moment: While self-directed and intrinsically motivated, I’m used to blending Connectivism with Constructivism for my own technical learning & it’s made me a bit of an impatient learner. I get frustrated when interfaces are not user-friendly enough for me to intuitively figure out how to use them, and I click away from YouTube video tutorials that don’t immediately dive into the lesson & tell me steps for doing something I’m trying to accomplish. This is an important realization that could play into how I learn, as well as how I create YouTube videos and especially tutorials for other learners in the future.

I found the user interface and limitations of the “free” version of Screencastify frustrating. While learning, I ran into issues getting the audio and video to export in a format that I could use for video editing purposes. It was difficult to transfer these files to YouTube compared to Screencast-o-matic and Overwolf, which I have used frequently for other projects in the past. I have decided to stick with Overwolf and Screencast-o-matic for this reason, although Screencastify gets the job done if you need a nice in-browser app for Chrome.

On the positive side, this gives me an idea to start including an index on any YouTube tutorial videos that I upload (and maybe also mentioning at the start of the video so that people can immediately skip ahead if they want). Thanks, Debra!

You can watch the video and learn more about the tools I used to create it here:

Video Tutorial: How to Create Your Own Website Using WordPress

Tools Used:

Screencastify (in-browser screen capture for Chrome… after using this tool, I actually prefer Screencast-o-matic or Overwolf for user interface and ease of transporting files to video editing software or YouTube)

Shotcut (free video editor – an excellent alternative to Adobe Premiere Pro, very intuitive and lightweight, renders quickly – even on a laptop that is not indented for video editing)

Canva (photo editing site – excellent free alternative to Photoshop)

WordPress (create your own website for free)

YouTube (free video hosting site)


Infographic on Constructivist Learning Theory

During my college course on sustainability and environmental studies, my professor took a Constructivist approach to learning. He would present topics such as global warming, carbon footprints, and political beliefs for class debates. The discussions and debates allowed us to learn from each other while challenging us to think differently about these topics. These discussions had a profound effect on me and remain some of the most memorable of my entire college career.

With Constructivism, learning builds upon what we already know as a foundation before proceeding to what is new or unknown. Similar to constructing a house, instructors can provide scaffolding as a foundation for their students, enabling them to build upon what they already know as they continue learning new skills.

I have personally experienced this type of scaffolding with my math and science courses. As a student, teachers taught us the foundational skills of basic mathematical formulas and scientific knowledge before moving on to more advanced material that built upon those same skills.

As an instructor myself, one scaffolding strategy that I use is teaching learners the basics of JavaScript coding first, before moving on to more advanced code. I break the code down into small pieces, and teach my students about variables and functions individually, before combining them into increasingly complex lines of code.

I take a hands-on approach by modeling the proper code for my learners and then allowing them to write their own code while I assist them with debugging any error messages. When students are struggling, I offer hints and clues or ask them open-ended questions to assist them rather than immediately telling them the answer. My goal is to teach them critical thinking skills while also gradually raising their confidence and their coding abilities.

In the extremely popular Minecraft courses that I facilitate for kids, I teach children (ages 6-14 years) how to read and write JavaScript code by using their favorite video game (Minecraft) as a learning tool. I will often break the classes into pairs of 2 students to allow for social constructivism. I try to match students who have a good grasp on the material with others who might be struggling, and I walk through the room and assist each pair with their code. As the students work together to solve problems and create solutions, they gain confidence and begin to develop a better grasp on the course material.

As you can imagine, all of these Constructivist approaches to learning help my learners to take an active role in constructing their own knowledge.

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!