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Learning Theories and Higher Education

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

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The timelines

The timeline in the diagrams spans the period 1850–2005 with the rationale that in the 1850s psychology emerged as a discipline independent from biology and philosophy, leading to the development of the specific field of learning psychology/learning theories.

Timeline 1 – 5 Orientations of learning – outlines the emergence of the five orientations during the twentieth century and notes some significant historic events.

Timeline 2 – Theories of learning – extends the information from the first diagram and includes the names of a selected number of learning theorists from the Merriam and Cafferella (1999) table.

Timeline 3 – Theorists – illustrates the distribution of learning theories throughout the twentieth century, with lifespans of nineteen selected, influential theorists.

For the purpose of the presentation of the materials, the concept for the timeline is presented as a narrative – a series of interpretative panels. In placing the emerging theories within the structure of a narrative, the rationale is to support an understanding of the essential differences, complementary aspects, and overlapping features of the theories – a more dynamic representation of their relationship to each other than a static, linear image as in the Merriam and Caffarella table.

Building on the colour theme, a ‘patterned’ grid structure is introduced as a backdrop for the presentation of the theories. The pattern also acts as a metaphor (beehive) accommodating the different theories within a single framework. At the stage of writing, the visual language have been developed to communicate the essentials. However, the research was not sufficiently progressed to explore hybrid relationships and we concede that further development is required in this area.

Commentary on timelines

The timelines indicate the emerging trends in psychology in general and in the psychology of learning. Psychology was initially tied to philosophy and biology, until, in the mid 1800s, it became a separate discipline. Learning psychology emerged initially with the development of behaviourism by Watson with his 1913 paper ‘Psychology as a behaviourist views it’. Researchers such as Thorndike and Skinner built upon these foundations. The development of behaviourism, the first domain, was brought about because psychologists were able to carry out experiments in laboratories under strict conditions and thus observe behaviour as never before. These laboratory experiments were possible due to growing culture of tolerance for such activities, reflecting the developing industrialisation of society and advances in technology.

In broad linear development terms, Behaviourism was followed by Humanism, Cognitivism, Social Learning Theory, and Constructivism. A brief explanation of each of these terms follows, with an indication of how the associated concepts impact on third-level learning and teaching.


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