Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Learning Theories That Actually Work

"The development of effective online learning materials should be based on proven and sound learning theories." --Anderson and Elloumi, Athabasca University

Sounds good. Couldn't agree more. But what exactly are the "proven theories" I should be using? Learning science can be strange... after all, a theory by definition is "an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true." (Merriam Webster). So how do you get a "proven theory"? Well, theories are also structures, ways to think about and exploit certain bodies of knowledge. And in some cases, in learning for example, they can be highly practical tools for simplifying what otherwise can be highly complex. So they get used, in the real world, and in that way are "proven to be sound."

I'm not a researcher. I'm not even an academic. I am, however, an educator. Learning products and programs and courses and services I've built, or built the guidelines and teams for building, have taught literally hundreds of thousands of people on all levels of education in all sorts of different fields of content. I've worked in corporate, higher ed, continuing ed, K-12. I've worked internationally and domestically, and in content areas as diverse as sales training and medical education, social work and computer science. I've done a lot of teaching teachers to teach. All of it has been technology-delivered, from web to video to satellite to CD-ROM to videoconference. A lot has been hybrid. So I'm in a bit of a unique position to talk about what works... everywhere.

I also operate in the business world, which is to say I build things that people buy. And people who buy things expect them to work. So I don't and won't waste time and energy and resources trying out the latest, greatest, hottest new learning theory. I have to go with what I know. I've made some mistakes. But there are some things that just never let me down. And that's what I'd like to share here.

So in response to Athabasca's Theory and Practice of Online Learning quoted above, and to the Deans for Impact report on the Science of Learning, I offer my own brief compendium of what I call Learning Theories That Actually Work.

Here's what a learning theory needs in order to qualify for my list:
  • It makes sense on the face of it
  • It has a solid history in research and practice
  • It's easy to implement
  • I've tried it, and it works
Below are my top 8. They are in order from "Start Here" to "End There," with "Include This By All Means" in between.

1. Gagne's 9 Events (Learning Model)
2. Felder-Silverman Learning Styles Model (Global/Sequential, Visual/Verbal)
3. Social Learning Theory (Role Models)
4. Maslow's Hierarchy (Identity-Level Outcomes)
5. Bloom's Taxonomy (Critical Thinking)
6. Active Learning (Discovery, Individualized Instruction)
7. Metacognition (Self-Awareness)
8. Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels of Evaluation (Outcome Measurement)

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