How to improve instructional design by applying research-based concepts and practices.
Peggy A. Ertmer and Timothy J. Newby wrote “Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective,” and this article has served instructional designers for the past two decades by guiding them in applying three key learning theories to improve their practices. Today’s instructional designers come to the field from diverse backgrounds, often previously having worked as subject matter experts or trainers in their specific fields or various business administration roles, and many lack formal education in content development or design. No matter your background, knowledge of the following three adult learning theories will empower and enable you to create meaningful content that meets your learners’ needs and accomplishes your intended learning objectives.
Instructional designers in corporate settings are often asked to create content that is influenced by the concept of behaviorism. Stakeholders may ask instructional designers to create content that will change employees’ behavior or performance on the job, such as learning how to perform a task or performing a task more quickly or more efficiently. The training content is considered successful if the behavioral change is observed in employees after completing the training.
Behaviorism in the workplace best teaches low level skills. Behaviorists are concerned with what learners can be observed doing, and not with learners’ thought processes, so skills such as manual labor lend themselves to behaviorism. For example, an instructor can demonstrate a skill; learners then practice the skill, are assessed, and eventually are expected to complete the skill independently on the job. Learners are not expected to actively think about what they are doing, as behavioral skills generally are not cognitively demanding.
Behaviorism is often a theory that instructional designers default to if they do not have formal training. A possible risk to this is that instructional designers who do not possess knowledge of educational theories may never ask their learners to perform at higher levels than a behavioral base set of skills.
Cognitivism focuses on the thought processes that lead to knowledge. This theory proposes that learners should take active roles in discovering meaning as they learn. An example may be an employee reflecting on the content taught at a professional conference, then applying the knowledge to their unique workplace setting. By actively and consciously thinking about the content and making it personally relevant, the employee in this example is displaying the cognitive learning theory in action.
Cognitivism allows learners to forge meaningful connections with the content; however, when applying this theory it is necessary to be aware of cognitive overload, or the risk of over-burdening learners with too much new content. Workplace training should be delivered at a reasonable pace, giving learners sufficient time to process and reflect before new content is presented. When creating online courses, instructional designers can bundle them into programs within the learning management system so that learners progress through the content in the correct order and at a manageable pace.
Instructional designers using cognitivism should conduct a thorough front-end analysis, to discover the characteristics of their average learners. Ideally, they should observe their learners first-hand. This observation should not be confused with behaviorism; the goal here is to gain insight into how the learners operate (by discovering their motivations, thought processes, and their own goals as learners). This knowledge guides instructional designers in creating relevant content for their unique group of learners.
In constructivism, learners actively build or construct meaning from their experiences. This theory proposes that knowledge is not passed from instructors to learners, but rather, learners individually create meaning for themselves. In the workplace, this is often accomplished during annual reviews when employees are asked to write self-reflections, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. Employees may be asked to identify their own goals for the coming year, and will similarly be asked to report on their own progress throughout the year.
Constructivists place value on the process of knowledge acquisition, sometimes emphasizing this even more than the end results which will vary from learner to learner. Grouping learners into teams or cohorts is a common constructivist activity, which invites learners to collaborate, discuss, and debate throughout the learning process.
This theory demands that instruction is as active as the learning process. Despite the fact that the focus is on the learner, the instructor is required to also participate in this journey. In corporate settings, this can be accomplished through mentorship programs, where senior employees support and guide new employees in constructing meaning and gaining mastery of expected skills.