All about: Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective (Ertmer & Newby 1993)
March 23, 2007
Ertmer, P.A. & Newby, T.J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72. (abstract)
This article discusses behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism from an adult learning/training perspective.
Ok, so a few pages in and I’m already really appreciating the attitude towards learning taken by the authors. Their emphasis is squarely on how to take learning theories – behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism – and translate them into concrete practical ideas and exercises for learning.
They’ve made it very clear that they see value in all of the theories and that the role of the instructional designer (I.D) is to understand all of the theories and be able to identify which learning situations they are best suited for. This comes down to the types of learners, the types of teachers presenting the material, the material itself and the context in which it is to be presented.
Understanding the theories allows the I.D to find the strategies and tactics in each for effective learning, know which ones to use, figure out how to integrate them into the learning environment and predict which will be most successful.
It offers a list of 7 questions that can be used to differentiate the theories.
- How does learning occur?
- Which factors influence learning?
- What is the role of memory?
- How does transfer* occur?
- What types of learning are best explained by this theory?
- What basic assumptions/principles of this theory are relevant to instructional design?
- How should instruction be structured to facilitate learning?
*Transfer refers to the application of learned knowledge in new ways or situations, as well as to how prior learning affects new learning. (e.g. A student learns how to recognise/classify elms trees and then applies the same methods to maple trees)
Two opposing theories on the origin of knowledge – empiricism vs rationalism. Empiricism posits that knowledge comes from sensory input and our experiences, which we mesh together to form more complex associations. Seems reasonable. The learning focus comes in controlling the environment to maximise the occurence of associations.
Rationalism on the other hand says that learners discover what is already in their minds and knowledge is developed by reflection on what they already know in combination with the observations that trigger or reveal this knowledge. (This seems a little harder to grasp imho. The rationalist approach focuses on the best ways to structure new information so it is effectively encoded and sparks recall of related things that are already known. )
Behaviourism – learning (knowledge) takes the form of a response to stimuli (eg teacher holds up a flash card that says 4 + 2 = and the student says 6) – the primary focus is how the association between the stimulus and response is made, strengthed and maintained. Responses followed by reinforcement are more likely to recur in the future.
Behaviourism seems more useful (to me) in fact based situations. (As opposed to analytical / creative ones)
Hey, what do you know, the next question says much the same thing -
“These prescriptions have generally been proven reliable and effective in facilitating learning that includes discriminations (recalling facts), generalisations (defining and illustrating concepts), assocations (applying explanations), and chaining (automatically performing a specified procedure). However it is generally agreed the behavioural principles cannot adequately explain the acquisition of higher level skills or those that require a greater depth of processing (e.g., language development, problem solving, inference generating, critical thinking)(Schunk,1991)”
How Behaviourism is relevant to instructional design:
- An emphasis on producing observable and measurable outcomes in students [behavioural objectives, task analysis, criterion-reference assessment]
- Pre-assessment of students to determine where instruction should begin [learner analysis]
- Emphasis on mastering early steps before progressing to more complex levels of performance [sequencing of instructional presentation, mastery learning]
- use of reinforcement to impact performance [tangible rewards, informative feedback]
- Use of cues, shaping and practice to ensure a strong stimulus-response assocation [simple to complex sequencing of practice, use of prompts]
Stimulus is about something that the learner needs to know – generally as a question or an instruction to complete a task, the response is the answer or the successful completion of the task. Cues can be presented to facilitate the learning needed to create the correct response – examples of the correct answer or way to do something and repetition and reinforcement lead to the correct response being provided without the learner needing to rely on cues.
Cognitivism – this focusses more on more complex cognitive processes such as thinking, problem solving, language, concept formation and information processing.
It seems to be about equipping learners with effective learning strategies to process the information that they are given – as well as factoring in the students own beliefs and thought processes in interpreting/measuring how well they understand the knowledge.
Much more emphasis on connecting prior knowledge (which might not be exactly the same but close) to new knowledge – use of analogy to make new concepts seem familiar more quickly.
Sort of about identifying patterns which could be useful in problem solving by showing the learner what information they need to access to deal with a new situation that may resemble something they already know.
More about how to learn than how to teach.
“Knowledge acquisition is described as a mental activity that entails internal coding and structuring by the learner. The learner is viewed as a very active participant in the learning process” – I have to say here that this strikes me as the way that knowledge is acquired under any system – even behaviourism. This kind of statement assumes that in a behaviourist model (where it is implied that knowledge is simply branded onto the brain through sheer repetition) the learner doesn’t make any effort to apply their own meaning to the instruction/information being imparted and that they don’t relate it to other things that they have learnt. This process may not be built into the learning experience by the teacher but I would be surprised if it didn’t happen in the learner regardless.
Cognitivism, like behaviourism, emphasises the role that environmental conditions play in facilitating learning. Instructional explanations, demonstrations, illustrative examples and matched non-examples are all considered to be instrumental in guiding student learning. Similarly, emphasis is placed on the role of practice with corrective feedback.
Cognitive theories contend that environmental “cues” and instructional components alone cannot account for all the learning that results from an instructional situation. Additional key elements include the way that learners attend to, code, transform, rehearse, store and retrieve information. Learners’ thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and values are also considered to be valuable in the learning process.
Learning results when information is stored in the memory in an organised, meaningful manner. Teachers/designers are responsible for assisting learners in organising that information in some optimal way. Designers use techniques such as advance organisers, analogies, hierarchical relationships and matrices to help learners relate new information to prior knowledge. - This seems to say that the brain is a big filing cabinet and it’s easier to find something when it’s organised alphabetically. If teachers present information in a way that is structured differently to the behaviourist approach of simply dealing with the facts, are they simply presenting more facts or are they facilitating greater understanding? I guess if it is able to create more meaning for the learner, then it will be more memorable.
Transfer in Cognitivism works in the same way as in Behaviourism – “when a learner understands how to apply knowledge in different contexts, then transfer has occurred.”
“Specific instructional or real-world events will trigger particular responses but the learner must believe that the knowledge is useful in a given situation before he will activate it” – This is just a matter of knowing what you know and why it is useful. It’s about being able to create associations with existing knowledge and new input.
Cognitive theories are usually considered more appropriate for explaining complex forms of learning (reasoning, problem-solving, information processing) than are those of a more behavioural perspective.
Two techniques used by both camps in achieving this effectiveness and efficiency of knowledge transfer are simplification and standardisation. That is, knowledge can be analysed, decomposed and simplified into basic building blocks. Knowledge transfer is expedited if irrelevant information is eliminated. Well duh.
Behaviourists would focus on the design of the environment to optimise that transfer while cognitivists would stress efficient processing strategies.
So essentially, cognitivists teach study skills or they present cues that are more psychologically oriented to understanding. (Taking understanding to equal knowledge that a learner can ascribe personal meaning to)
The actions undertaken by the teacher or instructional designer seem to be the same (aside from the emphasis given to creating links to prior knowledge) , it’s mainly the language that has changed. Behaviourism revolves around the teacher, cognitivism revolves around the learner.
Both use feedback – B’s for “reinforcement”, C’s to “guide and support mental connections”.
Both use learner/task analysis – B’s to see what the learner already knows (and thus where to begin) and what “reinforcers should be most effective”. C’s to determine the learners predisposition to learning and how to design the most effective learning experience.
I guess the cognitivist approach in this case seems a more compassionate one however ultimately they both dumb down or ramp up the material depending on the learners capacities.
Techiques in the Cognitivist approach
- Emphasis on the active involvement of the learner in the learning process [learner control, metacognitive training (e.g. self-planning, monitoring and revising techniques)]
- Use of hierarchical analyses to identify and illustrate prerequisite relationships [cognitive task analysis procedures]
- Emphasis on structuring, organising and sequencing information to facilitate optimal processing [use of cognitive strategies such as outlining, summaries, synthesisers, advance organisers]
- Creation of learning environments that allow and encourage students to make connections with previously learned material [ recall of prerequisite skills, use of relevant examples, analogies]
Cognitivism seems to be more about making knowledge more meaningful by helping learners link it to existing knowledge. Learning needs to be more tailored to the learners needs and abilities. Use of analogies and metaphors is one cognitive strategy. Other cognitive strategies include the use of framing, mnemonics, concept mapping, advance organisers and so forth.
If the teacher does the work in shaping the information so that it is more easily absorbed by the learner, the learner still seems like a fairly passive participant in this process, just a better taught one.
Let’s see if the Constructivist approach brings the learner into the process any more.
Knowledge “is a function of how the individual creates meaning from his or her experiences”
I’m not sure that I understand how knowledge can be a function – this implies a process rather than an outcome or something relatively concrete. Knowledge of something can evolve over time as contexts change but ultimately it seems like something that is fixed.
Most cognitive psychologists think of the mind as a reference tool to the real world; constructivists believe that the mind filters input from the world to produce it’s own unique reality.
Is this to suggest that cognitivists take a near solipsistic view of the world and assume that all knowledge is already held in the mind? My understanding of cognitivism from the earlier part of the article suggests nothing of the sort.
The evolution of educational philosophies here seems at best to be that greater attention is paid to the (probably ever-present) ability of the learner to filter received information and process it.
I get the distinct impression that the people putting forward one theory/philosophy tend to misrepresent that which came before in an attempt to make the new seem more enlightened and progressive. (Or it could just be the authors of this article and/or the people that they are referencing).
Of course people apply their own experiences to data that they take in and of course they make links to other similar knowledge that they have in the course of giving it meaning, which is unavoidably personal. Encouraging and stimulating this is a sound method for encouraging learning but it’s hardly been invented in the last 20 years.
Constructivists do not share with cognitivists and behaviourists the belief that knowledge is mind-independent and can be “mapped” onto a learner. Constructivists do not deny the existence of the real world but contend that what we know of the world stems from our own interpretations of our experiences. Humans create meaning as opposed to acquiring it. Since there are many possible meanings to acquire from any experience, we cannot achieve a predetermined “correct”meaning.
Again, I’m not sure that this fairly represents the views of behaviourists or cognitivists at all. Cs and Bs from my reading focus on methods of delivering instruction, not the philosophical vagueries of whether something exists because one person has had a different experience of it to another. A nutritionist sees a banana as a source of potassium, a creationist as evidence of God and a farmer as a source of income but none will deny that it is a piece of fruit. (But maybe this is a difference between meaning and truth/facts – I think meaning shapes a view of truth but can’t change it and just because something thinks something is so, doesn’t mean it is.)
Knowledge emerges in contexts within which it is relevant.
Constructivists argue that knowledge is situationally determined (Jonassen, 1991a) Just as the learning of new vocabulary words is enhanced by exposure and subsequent interaction with those words in context (as opposed to learning their meanings from a dictionary), likewise it is essential that content knowledge be embedded in the situation in which it is used.
Again, makes a lot of sense
(I wonder if my work in the fact based, highly practically oriented VET sector is colouring my views on these philosophies to a degree. Some of this particularly meta stuff seems interesting but irrelevant at times). This bit is good though.
Just as shades of meaning of given words are constantly changing a learner’s “current” understanding of a word, so too will concepts continually evolve with each new use.
Again, in the VET sector this seems a little overstated. Things seem a little more static here. I see what they mean though.
For this reason, it is critical that learning occur in realistic settings and that the selected learning tasks be relevant to the student’s lived experience.
The goal of instruction is not to ensure that students know particular facts but rather that they elaborate on and interpret information.
This type of learning serves a different purpose to that in a behavioural model.
I’m finding that I’m quoting a lot more from this section of the article as it’s hard to summarise what the constructivists are about. Knowledge seems to be a dirty word though.
Representations of experiences are not formalised or structured into a single piece of declarative knowledge and then stored in the head. The emphasis is not on retrieving intact knowledge but on providing learners with the means to creat novel and situation-specific understandings by “assembling” prior knowledge from diverse sources appropriate to the problem at hand.
Isn’t this just association by another – ridiculously long – name? Taking a range of information that you have processed and added meaning to and applying it in a different situation. (After all, in any theory, you aren’t going to take prior knowledge from inappropriate sources, are you. )
I’m starting to actually appreciate heuristics now – any idea that you can’t express clearly in a handful of words is starting to feel like padding and technocrat-ese.
Constructivists emphasise the flexible use of pre-existing knowledge rather than the recall of pre-packaged schemas
Ok good, so it encourages problem solving – but doesn’t cognitivism
The point seems to be that constructivism offers an approach which is more about context than any system before.
There is no need for the mere acquisition of fixed, abstract, self-contained concepts or details. To be successful, meaningful and lasting, learning must include all three of these crucial factors : activity (practice), concept (knowledge) and culture (context). (Brown et al. 1989)
But I thought that “experiences are not… structured into a single piece of declarative knowledge and then stored in the head”?. And doesn’t the behaviourist and cognitivist approach make use of activity(practice) in reinforcement?
Context seems to be the big revelation of constructivism. (A worthwhile addition to the previous theories but not awe-inspiring).
Something else about the discussion of constructivism so far – I’m yet to see a single concrete example of how this is applied in the learning environment – but I’ll read on now.
Now I consider myself a good progressive lefty but the more I read about the underlying philosophy of constructivism, the more I am reminded of the words of Cartman, E (2001) – “It’s all a bunch of tree-hugging hippy crap”. There’s nothing new here that isn’t simple commonsense and there is a lot of touchy-feely-nobody -can-be-wrong-because-everyones-opinion-is-valid-but-come-assessment-time-this-is-out-the-window bullshit. (I like blogging, there is no way I could say this in an essay)
I’m also thinking of heuristics as I’m going here – my favourite so far is Constructivism is a bunch of tree hugging hippy crap.
Can you tell that it’s late and I”m getting tired – I’m sure that at the heart of the constructivist philosophy are some valuable and useful insights but the language surrounding it is horrendously obtuse, ideologically driven and seemingly irrelevant to the needs of actual learners.
The constructivist position assumes that transfer can be facilitated by involvement in authentic tasks anchored in meaningful contexts.
Yes, the context in which learning occurs adds to the learners ability to bring their other experiences to the fore in creating associations which help them to understand the things that they are being taught. (Oh, shouldn’t say taught, I think the point of constructivism is to remove teachers from the context entirely). This seems to be the only new thing so far.
Ooh, got another one – Hulk inspired this time. Constructivism make Col mad – Col smash.
Ok, this seems to be the crux of it all – the goal of instruction is to accurately portray tasks, not to define the structure of learning required to achieve a task
“introductory knowledge acquisition is better supported by more objectivistic approaches (behavioural and/or cognitive) but suggests a transition to constructivistic approaches as learners acquire more knowledge which provides them with the conceptual power needed to deal with complex and ill-structured problems”
Ok, now we are getting somewhere. It’s more about working at a higher level , not learning about things but learning how to apply the things that you would already know in the course of doing a particular job – say working as an Instructional Designer.
“For example, a typical constructivist’s goal would not be to teach novice I.D. students straight facts about Instructional Design but to prepare students to use ID facts as an ID might use them. As such, performance objectives are not related so much to the content as they are to the processes of construction.”
Ok, so that sheds new light on that other article I was – uh – less flattering about. The Tse-Kian one. Still, the whole emphasis on the use of multimedia there seemed way off track and I stand by that.
“Some of the specific strategies utilised by constructivists include 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”
The following are several specific assumptions or principles from the constructivist position that have direct relevance for the I.D
- An emphasis on the identification of the context in which the skills will be learned and subsequently applied [anchoring learning in meaningful contexts]
- An emphasis on learner control and the capability of the learner to manipulate information [actively using what is learnt]
- The need for information to be presented in a variety of different ways [revisiting content at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes and from different conceptual perspectives]
- Supporting the use of problem-solving skills that allow learners to go “beyond the information given” [developing pattern-recognition skills, presenting alternative ways of representing problems]
- Assessment focused on the transfer of knowledge and skills [presenting new problems and situations that differ from the conditions of the initial instruction]
Ok,this is all making a lot more sense now. I guess the problem with summing up peoples opinions about a new field that they are quite invested in is that they will tend to couch the discussion in far more ideological and evangelical terms than others.
As one moves along the behaviourist-cognitivist-constructivist continuum, the focus of instruction shifts from teaching to learning, form the passive transfer of facts and routines to the active application of ideas to problems.
Meaning is created by the learner: learning objectives are not pre-specified nor is instruction pre-designed.
Are you sure this isn’t just a high-falutin way for teachers to get out of delivering instruction?
All that said, I think teachers still have a strong responsibility to facilitate this learning by providing adequate and timely support and feedback.
Ah, just like it says here I guess
Here the task of the designer are two-fold: 1) to instruct the student on how to construct meaning, as well as how to effectively monitor, evaluate and update those constructions; and 2) to align and design experiences for the learner so that authentic, relevant contexts can be experienced.
Ok, so in a nutshell – this is probably closer to an actual, usable heuristic – constructivist learning is contextually problem based. It’s all about already having a base level of knowledge and being put in a real world situation with a job to do where you have to work out how to use what you know and how to learn what you don’t know but need to finish it.
Not so hard after all.
What might be most effective for novice learners encountering a complex body of knowledge for the first time, would not be effective, efficient or stimulating for a learner who is more familiar with the content. Typically, one does not teach facts the same way that concepts or problem-solving are taught; likewise one teaches differently depending on the proficiency level of the learners involved.
(Holy crap – just did a quick word count – this weighs in at 3733 so far – no wonder it’s taken a while – I think I need to do this differently. Still, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot from this)
A behavioural approach can effectively facilitate mastery of the content of a profession (knowing what); cognitive strategies are useful in teaching problem-solving tactics where defined facts and rules are applied in unfamiliar situations (knowing how); and constructivist strategies are especially suited to dealing with ill-defined problems through reflection-in-action.
Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place.
Tasks requiring a low level of processing (eg basic paired associations, discriminations, rote memorisation) seem to be facilitated by… a behavioural outlook (eg stimulus-response, contiguity of feedback/response)
Tasks requiring an increased level of processing (eg classifications, rule or procedural executions) … have a stronger cognitive emphasis (eg schematic organisation, analogical reasoning, algorithmic problem solving)
Tasks demanding high levels of processing (eg heuristic problem solving, personal selection and monitoring of cognitive strategies) are frequently best learned with … the constructivist perspective (eg situated learning, cognitive apprenticeships, social negotiation)
The approach of cherry-picking the best strategies from the three, based on the complexity of the task and the knowledge level of the learners is known as “systematic eclecticism”
OK, that’s it.
Great article guys – some of the constructivism stuff drove me nuts but we got there in the end. (Maybe a few small case-studies might have been nice but that’s just me)
Entry Filed under: 911,behaviourism,cognitivism,constructivism,directed instruction,e-learning,education design,eLearning,learning environment,pedagogy,prescriptive,strategies. Posted in 911 ,behaviourism ,cognitivism ,constructivism ,directed instruction ,e-learning ,education design ,eLearning ,learning environment ,pedagogy ,prescriptive ,strategies .