Understanding the Learning Process

An Analogy

One of my favorite analogies comes to mind when reflecting on the learning process.  About ten years ago I discovered an amazing hair colorist, Sherri.  She was and is amazing.  She does not have a list of ingredients, does not follow a template, does not “do” exactly the same thing to my hair time after time. But, my hair was always complimentary in color, cut and presentation.  Then, about seven years ago I moved to Yucaipa, California for a period of six years.  I found a new colorist, Carmela.  Carmela was very nice and pleasant.  She followed Sherri’s original “recipe” perfectly, every time.  She cut my hair however I wanted, whether it looked good or not.  My hair was not always complimentary in color, cut or presentation.  When my family relocated to Orange County I immediately returned to Sherri’s care, to wit, my hair once again is always complimentary in color, cut and presentation.  In this analogy, Sherri is a “guru,” which according to the World English Dictionary refers to someone who is a leader in their field (“guru,” n.d.).  Carmela is a stylist, but she is not a leader in her field; she follows orders, the same recipe time after time, never investing in the needs of the customer beyond what the customer expresses.  Sherri, on the other hand understands the process, she analyzes the customer’s features, she determines the “best” color, cut, shape, and/or appearance for them, and she proceeds to create the best style for the customer.  A long analogy with the point being, we should all be the guru for our own learning.  Additionally, in an ideal world we will each become “gurus” of instructional design.  Smith and Ragan posit “reasoned and validated theoretical eclecticism has been a key strength of our field because no single theoretical base provides complete prescriptive principles for the entire design process” (as cited in Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 69).  The contention is that “given the myriad of potential design situations, the designer’s “best” approach may not ever be identical to any previous approach, but will truly “depend upon the context” (p.70) an instructional design strategy referred to as “systematic eclecticism.”  It seems to me that learning is like colors.  There may be a few primary colors (theories), but when blended together the result is a variety of beautiful arrays, each unique unto itself.

My learning style

My personal learning style has been honed over many years.  For instance, in my elementary through undergraduate school years I would read a text, highlight the text, outline the highlighted text and then proceed to make myself questions and answers from these extensive notes. This study/learning strategy was time consuming, but successful.  From an objective, observational standpoint it reflects a behaviorist approach to learning.  But was it really?

After years of reflection I realize that these strategies worked for me because I am a visual/kinesthetic learner.  I read the text (visual).  I highlight the text (visual).  I outline the text by hand (kinesthetic, cognitive and visual).  I create questions and answers from these notes (kinesthetic, cognitive, visual).  During this extensive process, I was interacting with the material, reflecting on the material, assimilating the material and reorganizing it within my heretofore previous knowledge base.  This description seems to be representative of cognitive theory.  For instance, in 1990 Good and Brophy stated cognitive learning involves the “acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information” (as cited in Mergel, 1998, p. 7).  But, was the extent of the learning that took place?

My academic activities have afforded me the opportunity to learn in both formal and non-formal contexts.  My formal education occurred from the primary grades through undergraduate school, where I received my B.A. in Psychology from California State University, Fullerton.  After taking time off, however, I enrolled in a teacher credentialing program at the University of Redlands.  However, a complication arose.  In order to teach high school, you need to have a degree in a subject that is not only teachable, but is in demand, or, in the State of California be able to prove you have the requisite knowledge of said subject area by passing an appropriate formalized assessment.  I did not have time to take another two years of classes of “formal” education.  I had to be “qualified” to student teach within six months.

In response to this dilemma, I turned to “non-formal” education defined as “any organized, systematic educational activity, carried on outside the framework of the formal system, to provide selected types of learning” (Smith, 1999, 2008).  Further, this non-formal education would be considered “deliberative” by Eraut because “time was specifically set aside for learning” (as cited in Smith, 1999, 2008) and “self-education” because I utilized a self-devised learning plan (Smith, 1999, 2008).  I successfully passed all three exams in the first sitting and thus became “qualified” to teach Health Science and receive a Single Subject credential.  However, there are not many openings for Health Science instructors, so I again purchased textbooks, this time in the areas of Biology, Physical Science, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics.  Again, I was successful.  I passed the basic science sections and the specialized section of Biology in the first sitting (reward and reinforcement).   At this point I am credentialed in basic science, health science, psychology, and biology.  The question is how did I learn this vast amount of material without the benefit of a formal education?  I designed my own learning system consisting of elements from a variety of learning theories. With a Psychology background, a puritan work ethic, positive learning experiences and intrinsic motivation, I was able to develop a successful system enhanced by an understanding of the goals to be achieved (i.e., the types of information being assessed). The strategies incorporated included aspects of all three theories Behaviorist, Cognitivist and Constructivist as I progressed in my learning of the new subject matter (“knowing what vs. knowing how vs. reflection-in-action”) (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 68).

Finally, I have also positively benefited from constructivist strategies through collaboration and discussion.  This has been the newest form of learning acquired as a result of re-entering the formal education system at Walden.  In fact, the Masters program for Instruction Design and Technology seems to incorporate many constructivist tenets such as “situating tasks in real world contexts, use of cognitive apprenticeships (modeling and coaching a student toward expert performance), presentation of multiple perspectives (collaborative learning to develop and share alternative views), social negotiation (debate, discussion, evidence-giving), use of examples as real “slices of life,” reflective awareness, and providing considerable guidance on the use of constructive processes” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 65).  To date these techniques have been experientially successful and I have adapted well to the learning strategies; however, I have concerns as to whether or this approach would be applicable in a “traditional” or even less rigorous settings.  For instance, my sister is attending University of Phoenix online for her B.A. in Accounting.  She has regaled me with countless stories of team projects that end with her or other team members doing more than their share of the project.  I have to wonder, is she benefitting from the implementation of this strategy?

Finally, I apologize for going on long in this discussion post, but I wanted to leave everyone with two intriguing ideas.  First, although we reviewed three primary learning theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism, there are far more learning theories to consider.  In fact, there is a database “Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database” which provides access to “50 major theories of learning and instruction” (Smith, 1999).

Second, what would happen in classrooms if students were matched to teachers based on learning styles?  For instance, rather than one teacher differentiating instruction to 30 different learners, each unique in their own way, there was a way to determine students’ primary learning styles and teach them in instructional settings designed to maximize that potential?  There could be a class of primarily visual learners, primarily auditory learners, primarily kinesthetic learners.  This would not be ideal for all types of classes, but perhaps for fundamental classes where the foundational knowledge is being taught.  Then, when it is time to transition students into more cognitively aware / constructivist environments diversity would be more beneficial.  Just a thought.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 59-71. Retrieved from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com

Mergel, B. (1998). Instructional Design and Learning Theory (Graduate paper, University of Saskatchewan). Retrieved from http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/802papers/mergel/brenda.htm.

Smith, M. K. (1999). Learning Theory. In The Encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm

Smith, M. K. (1999, 2008). Informal Learning. In The Encyclopaedia of informal education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/inf-lrn.htm

guru. (n.d.). In Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition.  Retrieved November 03, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/guru


4 thoughts on “Understanding the Learning Process

  1. Hi Lynn,
    You have a good background in theories and how they work and how to interpret them. In our course reading for this first week emphsis was on phychologist and scientist and you are a bit of both. I asked the quetion on one of our colleague’s post of how would the situation be handled in a classroom setting with people of different learning styles and would the teacher be able to teach outside of his/her learning style to be able to understand and reach the students? We should be able to learn from your experiences as we prepare for the instructional design career field.

    • Kimberly,

      I was very fortunate in that I am a very adaptable teacher. I was able to design lessons to reach all the different learning styles; the issue is, is that what is best for the students? By trying to accommodate the different learners all in one group, the learners not currently “engaged” find other ways to amuse themselves, often to the detriment of the class. What do you think?


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