Ever since I have started my MBA program, I have re-discovered my respect for theories. First, as theories are researched, tested on the basis of actual populations, and analyzed scientifically, they tend to be more consistent with existing facts than common sense, which may be colored by bias. Second, theories summarize and organize a great deal of information, sometimes collected across diverse locations and times. Thirdly, it is empowering to find your ideas and previous project work validated by theories. It is also interesting to see how many of the theories talk about essentially the same basic principles. And conversely, it is also equally interesting to see how thinking around learning theories has evolved over the years.

Since beginning my career in training and performance more than a decade ago, I have slowly learned about, and built up, a toolkit of about 40 learning theories which I visit from time to time. But of course, like in all toolkits, some tools are more frequently used than others! Here are just four of the learning theories that I often use, or recommend for peers and mentees.

  1. 1910 – Edward Thorndike’s Laws and Connectionism Theory
  2. 1969 – Robert Gagne’s Nine Events of Learning
  3. 1988 – Spiro, Feltovich, and Coulson introduce Cognitive Flexibility Theory
  4. 2007 – M. Lombardi’s Authentic Learning Model

I will talk about the first two theories in this post, and use a later post to observe on the remaining two.

The first theory that provides me with a stable foundation is Edward Thorndike’s Laws and Connectionism Theory based on Active Learning Principles (1910). According to Thorndike, learning is the result of associations forming between stimuli and responses (S-R). Such associations or “habits” become strengthened or weakened by the relevance, frequency, and volume of S-R pairings. The main principles of this theory are:
Learning requires both practice (S-R) and rewards: While most training provides some sort of stimulus (practice scenarios, assessments, team work, case study) for the Learner to build responses, rewards are often an overlooked mechanism in training design, especially e-learning design. Gamification and Social learning can help address this challenge.
A series of S-R connections can be chained together if they belong to the same action sequence: For example, while designing a course on biological sample collection from a subject population, information about the ethical consequences of the process can be included to make the S-R connections stronger. However, including the names and features of different ethical response computer systems is a step too far and does not belong to the same action sequence. It will in fact block the Learner’s experience.
Transfer of learning occurs because of previously encountered situations: This is the reason case studies and scenario based learning are so useful in training design. If the training is too theoretical, and does not address real life challenges, it will not be used by the Learner.
Intelligence is a function of the number of connections learned: Training should provide multiple opportunities for the Learner to face their challenges and fears, and enough support (training content, tips & tricks, hints, motivation) to enable the Learner resolve these on their own.

The second theory I would like to present is also the one I most recommend: Robert Gagne’s Nine Events of Learning (1965). It is a simple, practical, easy to use learning theory that will ensure a great training experience for the Learner. The nine events Gagne refers to are:

  1. Gain the Learner’s attention
  2. Inform them of the training objectives, or better still, the performance objectives, i.e: how the training will help the Learner’s performance
  3. Help the Learner recall their prior knowledge of the training topic
  4. Present learning content
  5. Provide learning guidance
  6. Elicit performance by providing opportunities to practice
  7. Provide feedback
  8. Assess performance
  9. Enhance retention and transfer of knowledge into applicable skills

The second and final part of this series is posted here.