Back to the core module today, and in the morning session we discussed learning theories and how they are applied. One of my colleagues brought up research that people have a bias towards teaching in the way that best matches how they learn – something to be aware of. The learning theories we discussed can be grouped into four broad categories – behaviourist, cognitive, humanistic, and biological, and it was noted that while most of the work on learning theories has been done in the context of children’s learning, much of it also applies to adults.
The behaviourist school says that learning is built on previously learned behaviour, and should feature frequent and timely rewards and reinforcement. Notable theorists include Watson, Skinner and Pavlov. Cognitive theories argue that learning is a complex process that is constructed by the learner themselves, using new information to develop and transform existing knowledge. The work of Piaget was discussed, before moving on to social constructivism, the current hot trend. Building on previous cognitive theories, social constructivists argue that an individual’s learning takes place within their wider social and cultural group. Vygotsky’s concepts of scaffolding and the ‘zone of proximal development’ were discussed, followed by Kolb’s learning cycle. The humanistic category was discussed briefly, as a reaction against behaviourism and the need to encompass the whole of one’s life as a learning experience. Biological theories were not discussed at all as being outside the practical application of this course, and the morning ended with a brief debunking of the concept of learning styles, citing the work of Coffield and others.
The afternoon was about different approaches to learning – surface, deep, and strategic. Surface learning is superficial, with students learning only the minimum they need to complete the task at hand and often forgetting it straight away. For this reason surface learning is generally viewed as inappropriate. In my own work I see this all the time, with academics only interested in the bare minimum they need to do as they know they can, for example, call my team twice a year when they need to set up new assignments in Turnitin. What I would like to do is find a way to fully engage them so that their learning becomes embedded, just part of their knowledge and experience – deep learning. The new VLE should help with this by being more intuitive and user friendly. The strategic approach to learning is one that combines elements of both, choosing the best approach for the particular time and context. Perhaps our troublesome academics would argue that they are merely being strategic?