Instructional designers, or anyone else in the business of educating and training others, should understand the science and psychology behind learning and memory. Trudy Kowallis Christensen said, “When I design instruction, I usually don’t start with a particular theory. My main focus is the problem and the problem situation.” (Christensen, 1). As Instructional Designers, we must consider the nature of the problem first, then choose the most appropriate learning theory or model to effectively address that problem.

A good instructional designer uses knowledge of human cognition to determine when and how to apply particular learning theories, models, and frameworks to solve specific problems. Until we get a singular, unified theory of Instructional Design, those of us working in the field have to combine theory for the audience and context. This might not be the same for all situations.

As a professional Learning Experience Designer, I believe most, if not all, learning theories could be applied to online learning. For instance, the iPhone app, Memrise, uses one of the most brilliant, engaging applications of behaviorism for eLearning that I’ve ever experienced. The true/false questions and quizzes are perfect for a behaviorist approach, and content is provided for all adult learning styles. At first, I questioned the ability to learn a language without some level of constructivism or social interaction, but Memrise skillfully incorporates video content and gamification to overcome that hurdle. I’ve rapidly progressed from beginners’ German to German II using this app. 

Constructivist approaches in an online course should scaffold upon what students have previously learned, just like with a traditional instructor-led (in-person) course. “Although we’re learning in an online environment, a lot of the same principles about effective learning will apply.” (ADED PSE). Just because you use a different medium (the internet) to teach the same skills, doesn’t mean the principles behind your instructional design will drastically change. You’ll just need to master the technology and find creative ways to meet learning goals given the limitations of said technology. That includes the instructor carefully planning and facilitating opportunities for students to interact, whether through group projects, a team Google Drive document, collaborative software like Airtable, Zoom calls, online forum discussions, a Slack community, Google Chat Hangouts, or a plethora of other ideas.

Reflection assignments are equally important, not just for critical thinking but also for overcoming the forgetting curve. When assigned at proper intervals, such as 2 days, 2 weeks, and 2 months after instruction, reflection assignments and even quick “booster content” like pop quizzes can help the students retain information. Crucially, reflection helps create new neural pathways in the brain because learners have to articulate and write down their thoughts, then prove them.

A note about constructivism in online learning:

The second speaker in the ADED PSE video (at 1:54) disappointed me by saying constructivism is more “challenging” and “a tricky goal” in an online format. (ADED PSE). In my experience, this is a misinformed belief resulting from either feeling intimidated by online technology or not fully understanding the instructional design principles that go into planning a successful online course. I’ve spent the past few years developing mass eLearning courses for thousands of students per month, all of which take an increasingly social constructivist approach. It generally takes about six months to plan one 90-day course, because online instructors and eLearning curriculum developers have to guide students in creative ways with special attention to learning theories and technologies. I argue that instructional designers can plan a successful course for a variety of learning theories, whether online, in-person, or blended. By utilizing modern technology, such as instant messaging, webinars, online forums, online assessments, video games, booster content, and even virtual reality / augmented reality (VR/AR), there are a surprising number of creative ways to implement (social) constructivism in a learner-centered online environment.

Here’s an example. For a computer-based training, you might create an online learning game (possibly even AR/VR) where learners either play a character who works in a restaurant, or use their smartphone app to safely emulate cooking without any risk of getting burnt. It’s the learner’s job to take proper precautions in the correct order and at the correct times in order to avoid burning their hands. In order to pass the game, they’d need to receive a certain score – and they’d lose points if they forgot a safety procedure or caused the character to get burned.

For an in-person training without computer access, you might teach the learners the correct safety policies and procedures, explaining and also showing them the procedures, then giving them some hands-on practice. I might add social constructivism by partnering them with a senior employee or mentor for hands-on training in burn prevention on-the-job. Add positive conditioning by rewarding them verbally for positive behaviors, as well as creating a team competition where employees earn points towards gift card raffles (or similar gamification) each shift that they use desirable safety procedures to avoid getting burned. By using behaviorism to stop harmful behaviors and encourage new habits, gradually use the behaviorist training approach to help the learners gain internal motivation to continue the desired safety practices. Of course, there would also be a degree of natural intrinsic motivation among all learners because, hopefully, nobody would want to get burned. Booster content could be used to help the learners retain the information. For instance, they could be “pop quizzed” (in person or digitally) two days, two weeks, and two months after initial training to ensure they’re retaining what they’ve learned.

Works Cited

Wiburg, Karin M., et al. The Little Book of Learning Theories. Las Cruces, New Mexico. College of Education, New Mexico State University. 2016.

“Constructivist Theories of Learning and Online Course Design.YouTube, uploaded by ADED PSE, 28 January 2019, Retrieved from

“The Science of Learning: How to Turn Information into Intelligence | Barbara Oakley.” YouTube, uploaded by Big Think, June 12, 2017,

Christensen, Trudy. The Role of Theory in Instructional Design1The Role of Theory in Instructional Design—Some Views of an ID Practitioner*. Provo, UT. 2001.