Learning Theories, Models, and Techniques

NB: The following are all either instructional design models or can be adapted to create or at least to inform instructional design models. The list is far from complete, and the definitions are necessarily brief and so, in many cases do not do justice to the concepts. When possible, principle originators of the theories, models, or techniques are named. If your favorite model is not listed, it’s because a) I prepared this a few years ago and haven’t revised it, b) I simply overlooked it (this is already a long list), c) or it’s not here because of my sheer ignorance.                                                                                                                                                                                           

  1. ADDIE Model for Instructional Design: analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation, rapid prototyping. The origins of this widely-used model are obscure.
  2. Advance Organizer Technique, Ausabel. The technique of providing students with introductory materials that constitute a framework or anchoring idea to which new learning can be attached. An advance organizer might be, for example, a chart, a graph, a set of general principles, a procedure, or an activity that engages the student’s prior knowledge. See Schemata Theory.
  3. Algo-Heuristic Model, Landa and Kearsley: Task is algorithmic, semi-algorithmic, heuristic, or semi-heuristic.
  4. Anchored Instruction. See Problem-Based Learning.
  5. Andragogy, Knowles. A theory of adult learning, but applicable to younger people as well, that emphasizes self-direction and responsibility for one’s own learning. According to the theory, adults need to know why the need to learn something, need to learn experientially, approach learning as problem solving, and look for immediate value or practical benefit.
  6. ARCS Model of Motivational Design, Keller. These are the four steps for promoting and maintaining motivation: capture attention (through perceptual arousal or inquiry arousal), establish relevance, build confidence, and build satisfaction.
  7. ASSURE Model for Instructional Design, Heinich, Molenda, Russel, and Smaldino. Analyze the learners; state the objectives; select the methods, media, and materials; use the media and materials; require learner participation; evaluate and revise.
  8. Behavioral Learning Theory/Behaviorism, Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson, Skinner. The now-discredited notion that one cannot sensibly, scientifically speak of internal, mental states because these are not observable but rather must view the learning process in terms of inputs, or stimuli, and outputs, or behaviors. A learning environment is created by adjusting the inputs, the positive or negative reinforcements, to produce the desired outputs. Abraham Maslow on Behaviorism: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it were a nail. Behaviorists recognize two types of learning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. See Classcial Conditioning, Pavlov and Operant Conditioning, Thorndike, Skinner.
  9. Brain-Based Instruction. Any educational technique, theory, or model that draws upon our current understandings of neurological processes, such as the recognition based on studies at Johns Hopkins that the parts of the prefrontal cortex that do advance planning and control do not start developing until about age 16 and are not fully developed until about age 24 or the recent discovery of mirror neurons, which “enact” a behavior that is not actually done but simply observed. See Brain Plasticity Model, Layered Brain Model, Neurological Emotional Mediation Model, Society of Mind Model, and Split Brain Model.
  10. Brain Plasticity Model. Instruction predicated on recent research showing that the brain continues to rewire itself throughout life and actually, in some cases, creates new neurons. The message: Use it or loose it, and you can teach an old dog new tricks. Contrary to popular belief, the infant brain starts out with lots of connections, which are weeded out based on experience, and certain early experiences are essential to retention of dedicated wiring (for, say, recognizing a particular phonetic distinctive feature).
  11. CANOE Personality Model. See Five Factor Model of Personality.
  12. Classcial Conditioning, Pavlov. Procedure by which a motivating stimulus (e.g., desire for food or sex) is paired with a neutral stimulus (a bell, shoes), leading to an transference of the motivational power to the previously neutral stimulus.
  13. Cognitive Learning Theory, Chomsky. The notion that the mind contains rules and representations and information-processing capabilities for modifying these and that learning and acquisition are distinct processes for bringing about such modifications. The latter occurs automatically, typically without cosncious awareness of it.
  14. Cognitive/Narrative Model, White and Epston. A model of human psychology that relates many aspects of human thought, feeling, and action to the stories that people tell themselves. The role of the teacher or therapist or coach is to work with the student or client to develop richer, more productive personal narratives involving personal agency.
  15. Communications Model, Roman Jakobson. Any act of communication, such as teaching, speaking, or writing, involves sender, receiver, context, message, contact (or medium), and code. Adapted by James Kinneavy for his theory of discourse.
  16. Component Display Theory, Merrill. Among other things, this theory classifies instruction into primary and secondary performance forms. Primary forms can either tell or ask and can be instances or generalities. Primary forms include rules (tell generality), examples (tell instance), recall (ask generality), or practice (ask instance). Secondary forms include prerequisites, objectives, helps, mnemonics, and feedback. A well-planned lesson, according to Merrill, uses these as needed based upon the type of content to be learned (e.g., fact, concept, process, procedure, principle) and the action be taken by the student (e.g., find it, use it, remember it).
  17. Concept Mapping. The use of a diagram or other visual representation that shows relationships among concepts. The inverted pyramid for newspaper style is an example of a concept map, as are other kinds of graphic organizers such as comparison-contrast charts, story maps, flow charts, fishbone diagrams, SIPOC charts, sentence diagrams, and tree diagrams. See Advance Organizer Technique.
  18. Conditions of Learning, Gagne. Theory proposes that there are five major types of learning, each presenting different conditions and so requiring different approaches or methodologies. The five types are learning of verbal information, of intellectual skills, of cognitive strategies, of attitudes, and of motor skills.
  19. Cone of Experience, Edgar Dale. Levels of engagement: read, hear words, watch still picture, watch moving picture, watch exhibit, watch demonstration, do a site visit, do a dramatic presentation, simulate a real experience, do the real thing
  20. Constructionism, Harel, Papert, Kafai, and Resnick.  Students learn by constructing personally meaningful artifacts that they share with others.
  21. Constructivism, Vygotsky, Piaget, Bruner, and Papert. The idea that the learner does not simply passively take in and store information but, rather, actively constructs and adjusts or revises internal models.
  22. Continuous Improvement Model, Shewart, Juran, Deming, and Ishikawa. Define concept, implement skeletal system, evaluate and refine, implement refined requirements, evaluate and refine, implement refined requirements, and on. Aim is to reduce errors or defects over time. Uses wide variety of tools, including quality circles. Applicable to any task or process in peer/community learning environment.
  23. Cooperative/Collaborative Learning. A model for learning in which students work in pairs or groups, often teaching or otherwise assisting one another.
  24. Criterion-Referenced Instruction, Mager. Do a goal/task analysis. Establish performance objectives that contain an exact specification of outcomes to be achieved and of the criteria for evaluating those outcomes. Do criterion-referenced testing. Do reteaching to mastery.
  25. Critical Thinking, Glaser (?), Shepherd. Instruction in the techniques of inductive or deductive reasoning (e.g., using a Venn diagram to analyze items for class membership, analyzing an inductive inference to determine its reliability based upon representativeness of the sample). Includes all instruction in logic (propositional, symbolic, modal) but also in systematic thinking generally within particular academic domains. The “critical” part of the expression suggests a metacognitive, ongoing critique of the thinking process being used. See Metacognition.
  26. Discovery Learning, Bruner. The notion that students are more likely to be engaged by and to retain that which they discover on their own by means of participating in an activity or process. The goal of discovery learning is to produce active, life-long learners who are self-motivated. See Constructivism.
  27. Disruptive Technology Model, Christensen. New technologies are dismissed by those with power and authority because of their early limitations, but they improve exponentially. Early adopters, such as young people, often drive a revolutionary, disruptive shift to the new technology because they are more flexible and are interested not on minor improvements in the status quo nor on the new technology per se, which they take as a given, but on the actual goal of the use of the technology. The new technology completely revolutionizes learning, but this takes place in spite of the educational establishment (teachers, schools, etc).
  28. Distributed Cognition Theory, Hutchins. Theory that minds do not form representations but, rather, form representations of interactions, and that cognition is thus distributed among the thinker and his or her previous experiences, physical environment, social environment, and cultural artifacts and tools.
  29. DMADV Model. This is a variant of the DMAIC Model developed due to recognition that improvement of processes beyond a certain level often required fundamental redesign. The acronym stands for define, measure, analyze, design, and verify.
  30. DMAIC Model, Bill Smith. This model comes from the world of business and, in particular, from the Six Sigma approach to quality control developed at Motorola, but it can be applied to any process. The acronym stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control.
  31. Dual-Coding Theory, Paivio. States that learning situations ideally involve simultaneous visual and verbal channels, the former being analog, the latter symbolic, each of which is stored separately in long-term memory. One enhances the other. However, care must be taken to avoid overloading one channel or the other or creating attention conflicts between the channels.
  32. Elaboration Theory, Reigeluth. Present concepts and skills from simple to complex.
  33. Emergent Phenomena Model (aka Epiphenomenalism), Mill, Papert, Mandelbrot, Resnick, Conway, Kauffman, and Wolfram. Complex behaviors, such as flocking, traffic jams, design in the natural world, and (importantly) learning and invention, are commonly the result of surprising higher-level design features that emerge from the complex and chaotic (in the mathematical sense) interactions between surprisingly simply underlying rules.
  34. Experiential Learning, Dewey. Learning by doing and experiencing.
  35. Feedback Types Model, Rogers. Evaluative, Interpretive or Reflexive/Reciprocal, Supportive, Probing, Understanding
  36. Five Factor Model of Personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN or CANOE).
  37. Flexibility Theory, Spiro, Feltovitch, and Coulson. Theory that learning in real life, as opposed to in school, takes place in complex and ill-structured domains and that students need practiceractice in spontaneously, on an ad hoc basis, restructuring their knowledge in adaptive response to situational demands. Practitioners favor multiple representations of content, instructional materials that do not simplify the real complexities of the subject matter, case-based instruction, knowledge construction, and interconnected rather than compartmentalized knowledge sources.
  38. Formative Assessment. Assessment that doubles as a teaching tool, often continuous, embedded assessment.
  39. Game Model, Wittgenstein. The student learns by participating in and internalizing preexisting, socially elaborated (rather than deductively rule-based) systems (e.g., the language game, the hierarchy game, the philosophy game).
  40. Goal-based Scenario Model, Schank. Embed concepts and skills in a goal-based project that the student will find motivating (e.g., prepare PR and marketing materials for concert). See Project-Based Instruction.
  41. Guided Learning. Aka, teacher-assisted learning, as opposed to independent learning. The teacher carefully selects and arranges the order of the materials to which the student will be exposed and actively prompts the student during interaction with the materials with regard to what to attend to, what to do, and what to think about. The teacher might even model some of this or do parts of the overall task that are beyond the student’s current ability.
  42. Heuristics for Decision Making and Problem Solving, Simon, Newell, and Polya. Decision making and problem solving almost always done in conditions of uncertainty requiring less than optimal (e.g., nonalgorithmic) strategy. Some common strategies: make a list, create a model or picture, work backward, solve a similar but simpler problem, use means-ends analysis, construct or find concrete examples and study those, use trial and error, disprove the opposite (reductio ad absurdum).[1]
  43. Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow. A classification of human needs showing a dependency relationship whereby the lower needs need to be satisfied in order for conditions to exist for satisfying the higher needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization.
  44. Higher-Order Thinking Skills Instruction (HOTS). Instruction that concentrates on sophisticated skills, traditionally those in the top three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Cognitive Domain: analysis (analyze, connectinfer), synthesis (generalize, combine, anticipate, express, rewrite, formulate), and evaluation (compare, discriminate, judge, critique).
  45. Imitative Behavior Model, Augustine. The student learns by imitating behavior in his or her environment.
  46. Information Theory Model, Shannon and Weaver. Any act of communication, such as teaching, involves sender, message, encoding as sign, transmission as signal along some channel in conditions of more or less noise, and decoding by receiver. Good model for analysis.
  47. Inquiry-Based Learning Model, Schubert, Blumenfeld, Marx, Krajcik, Soloway, Levstik, and Barton. Instruction is driven by questions, which may or may not be student-originated.
  48. Iteration Method, Louis Aggasiz. Have student do it over and over, demanding further improvement each time. Stretches student beyond what he or she believed was his or her best possible output.
  49. KWL chart, Ogle. A graphical organizer: K – What I know; W = What I want to know; L = What I learned.
  50. Layered Brain Model. From studies in phylogeny and ontogeny, the recognition that the brain consists of layers developed evolutionarily, a lower level (in the hindbrain and related structures) that does autonomic behavior and emotional response, a layer on top of that (the limbic system) that does socially-mediated emotion and sensory processing, and a layer on top of that that does reasoning. NB: These are VERY crude approximations, but the basic idea is that instruction is best when it uses all these parts.
  51. Learning Communities. See Situated Cognition, Brown, Collins, and Greeno.
  52. Learning Styles, Fleming: visual, auditory, verbal (reading/writing), kinesthetic or tactile
  53. Learning Styles, Honey and Mumford: activist, reflector, theorist, pragmatist
  54. Learning Styles, Kolb: converger, diverger, assimilator, accommodator
  55. Metacognition. Thinking about one’s own thinking. See Open Learning.
  56. Mnemonics, or Method of Loci. A learning aid that makes use of easily remembered associations as a jog to memory (e.g., Every good boy deserves fudge for the notes on the lines of the staff in the treble cleff). Called the Method of Loci when the items to be remembered are associated with the parts of a place.
  57. Montessori Method, Montessori. The idea that a child’s “true normal nature” is to engage in self-directed learning. The method involves providing a rich learning environment containing many resources, such as manipulatives or, more generally sensorial materials, and leaving kids more or less free to explore this environment under the guidance of an instructor, director, or facilitator.
  58. Moral Foundations Theory, Haidt, Joseph, and Graham. Theory that people’s moral concepts and actions are based upon five fundamental polarities, with particular ones being of greater or lesser importance to individuals. The foundations are Care: loving and protecting others, the opposite of harm; Fairness: acting in accordance with mutually accepted and universally applied rules, the opposite of cheating; Loyalty: putting one’s party, team, family, nation, or other group above others, the opposite of betrayal; Authority: adherence to rules laid down by leaders or traditions, the opposite of subversion; and Sanctity or purity: concern with perfection, cleanliness, holiness, etc., the opposite of degradation. According to the theory, liberals are concerned most about Care and Fairness, whereas conservatives are concerned most about Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.
  59. Neurological Emotional Mediation Model. Theory based upon the recent discovery of dedicated structures (spindle neurons in the anterior cingulated cortex and frontoinsular cortex) for mediating between and integrating higher and lower portions of the brain and thus higher and lower processes. Such mediation is essential to socially mediated intelligent behavior. Implication is that good learning designs implicate lower and higher structures and encourage growth of spindle cell connections due to brain plasticity. See Brain Plasticity Model.
  60. OCEAN Personality Model. See Five Factor Model of Personality.
  61. Open Learning, A. S. Neill, Daniel Greenberg. Theory that learning is something one does, not something that is done to one, and that if one wants to produce truly dedicated life-long learners, then one should take advantage of the natural curiosity of children and raise them in a learning environment in which they are encouraged to take responsibility for directing their own learning to meet intrinsic, self-defined needs, wants, desires, goals, etc. Schools and classrooms run on open learning models often make use of democratic tools and techniques such town halls or town meetings, representative government, legislation, codes of conduct, due process, hearings, etc.
  62. Operant Conditioning., Thorndike and Skinner. Associative learning technique whereby the strength and/or frequency and/or likelihood of a behavior is increased or decreased via rewards or punishments.
  63. Original Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Affective Domain, Bloom and Krathwohl: receiving phenomena, responding to phenomena, valuing, organizing, internalizing. NB: Each is enormously elaborated, with many subskills/objectives.
  64. Original Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Cognitive Domain, Bloom: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. NB: Each is enormously elaborated, with many subskills/objectives.
  65. Original Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Psychomotor Domain, Dave: imitate, manipulate, precision, articulation, Naturalization. NB: Each is enormously elaborated, with many subskills/objectives.
  66. Original Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Psychomotor Domain, Simpson: perception, set, guided response, mechanism, complex overt response, adaptation, origination
  67. PQRST. A study method: preview, question, read, summarize, test
  68. Problem-Based Learning. The student begins with a problem to be solved, not with content to be mastered, as med students do during rounds. 
  69. Programmed Learning Model, Pressey, Skinner, and Crowder. Presentation of instruction in highly granular modules, with integrated module-specific assessment (what we would now call formative assessment), and immediate feedback. If student shows mastery of the module, he or she moves forward. If not, he or she receives remediation to mastery (via similar module). Self paced. Many variants, including ones involving hyperlinks whereby the student guides his or her own progress through alternative modules.
  70. Project-Based Instruction. See Goal-Based Scenario Model.
  71. Rapid Prototyping. See Continuous Improvement Model.
  72. Reciprocal Learning, Palincsar and Brown. Teaching as dialogue involving summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting.
  73. Revised Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Cognitive Domain, Anderson: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating
  74. Revised Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Psychomotor Domain, Harrow: reflex movement, basic-fundamental movements, perceptual abilities, physical abilities, skilled movements.
  75. Schemata Theory, Vygotsky, Bartlett, and Bruner. The learner forms internal models, or schemata, that may or may not then be revised in light of additional evidence or experience. Importantly, new learning will proceed more rapidly and completely if it can be attached to a preexisting internal schema. See Theory Theory.
  76. Self-Regulated Learning. See Open Learning.
  77. Situated Cognition, Brown, Collins, and Greeno. Theory that the gaining of knowledge or skill is a situated activity bound to particular social, cultural, and physical contexts. Practitioners attempt to develop participative, mutually reinforcing and empowering learning communities.
  78. Society of Mind Model, Minsky. The mind consists of hundreds of thousands of highly specific, hierarchically organized, complexly interdependent subsystems that constitute a society. So, there are literally hundreds of thousands of highly specific intelligences, each with its own inputs, outputs, design, degree of addressability and plasticity, etc.
  79. Socratic Method, Socrates. Pose deceptively simple question related to default, unexamined assumption. Elicit answer. Challenge the student and get him or her to go deeper by asking questions to a) clarify; b) probe assumptions, rationale, or reasons; c) examine evidence, d) question viewpoint or perspective, e) probe implications and questions, f) question the question.
  80. Spiral Learning, Bruner. The idea that learning is more likely to stick if it is returned to and built upon periodically.
  81. Split Brain Model, Sperry. Based upon studies of characteristics of the left and right hemispheres, the notion that one should appeal in instruction both to the visually and spatially oriented right side of the brain, which does associative, creative, lateral thinking, and to the verbally, symbolically oriented left side of the brain, which does logical, linear thinking.
  82. SQ3R. A study method: survey, question, read, recite/write, review.
  83. Stages of Cognitive Development, Piaget: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, formal operations
  84. Stages of Moral Development, Kohlberg: preconventional (obedience and punishment orientation), preconventional (self-interest orientation), conventional (interpersonal accord and conformity), conventional (authority and social-order maintaining), post-conventional (social contract orientation), post-conventional (universal ethical principles)
  85. Stages of Psychosocial Development, Erikson: hope (trust vs. mistrust), will (autonomy vs. shame and doubt), purpose (initiative vs. guilt), competence (industry vs. inferiority), fidelity (identity vs. role confusion), love (intimacy vs. isolation), care (generativity vs. stagnation), wisdom (ego integrity vs. despair)
  86. Stages of the Ethic of Care, Gilligan: preconventional (goal = individual survival), transition from selfishness to responsibility for others, conventional (goal = self sacrifice to be good), transition from goodness to truth that one is a person too, postconventional (goal = principle of nonviolence/do not hurt others or self)
  87. Sudbury Model. See Open Learning.
  88. Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner. In its most recent instantiation this theory proposes that there exist eight reasonably distinguishable intelligences: bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, intrapersonal, visual-spatial, musical, and naturalistic.  Other candidates for intelligences along these lines include spiritual, existential, and moral.
  89. Theory Theory, Gopnik. The idea that from a very early age (even before birth!), learners act as scientists do, forming theories about the world and testing them.
  90. Traditional “Stages of Learning”: instruction, rehearsal, transfer.
  91. VARC Model. See Learning Styles, Fleming.
  92. Waterfall Model, trad. model for software development: define concept, define requirements, do preliminary design, do detailed design, implement, test, accept. Applicable to any task or process done individually or in a peer/community learning environment.

[1] This strategy can, of course, in some cases be carried out rigorously/algorithmically, in which cases it is no longer technically a heuristic.


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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