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

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

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
Retrieved from https://youtube /cFCYjm6nf40

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

Siemans, George (2005). “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age”
Retrieved from article01.htm

Atkinson and Shiffrin. (1968).”Human Memory”.

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

     Retrieved from



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!

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.

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