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Learning Theories and Higher Education


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Frank Ashworth, Gabriel Brennan, Kathy Egan, Ron Hamilton and Olalla Saenz

Frank Ashworth Photo Gabriel Brennan Photo Kathy Egan Photo Ron Hamilton Photo Olalla Saenz Photo



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This paper offers a number of materials and resources which may be used as teaching aids for introduction-level courses in learning theories, especially those in higher education. The materials were developed during our participation in a postgraduate diploma module on the psychology of learning and learning theories in 2004, as part of the diploma in third-level learning and teaching at the DIT Learning and Teaching Centre.

The materials include:

  • three timeline diagrams illustrating the development of learning theories which locate key thinkers and key ideas in their historic and socio-political contexts
  • three summary diagrams of behaviourist, humanist and social learning theories using a honey-comb image
  • power-point slides summarising the five orientations of learning: behaviourist, humanist, cognitivist, social learning and constructivist
  • an introductory text to support the visuals.

Introductory Text

The visual materials presented here should be used in conjunction with the following two readings: Merriam, S.B. and Cafferella, R.S. (1999) Learning in Adulthood: a comprehensive guide, second edition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (chapter 11, which includes a table/matrix illustrating the five orientations of learning); and Gredler, M. (2005) Learning and Instruction: theory into practice, fifth edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall (introductory and final chapters). The Merriam and Cafferella table/matrix is hotly contested as an accurate and useful representation of the field of learning theories, and is perhaps a little naïve. Nonetheless, it has a certain usefulness as an initial introduction to a complex topic.

In this paper the matrix has been augmented, and a number of significant contemporary theorists, such as Engestrom, Eraut, Boud and Illeris have been included (see Table 1). The aspect of adult education in the final section of the original matrix is elaborated here to include aspects of learning in tertiary education generally.

Using the diagrams

The theorists in the diagrams were chosen according to their perceived relevance to the domains of learning psychology and learning theories, and as representatives of the numerous theorists within each domain. Their current relevance for teaching and learning in higher education was also considered in the choice.

The five domains of learning are colour coded as shown :