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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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Cognitive theorists recognise that much learning involves associations established through contiguity and repetition. They also acknowledge the importance of reinforcement, although they stress its role in providing feedback about the correctness of responses over its role as a motivator. However, even while accepting such behaviourist concepts, cognitive theorist view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganisation of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information (Good and Brophy, 1990, p.187).

In the 1800s psychology emerged as a sub-discipline of philosophy. Wilhelm Wundt believed in the method of introspection, the self-reporting of one’s own mental states. He established the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig in 1879 to study conscious experience. Using trained individuals he would get them to describe all the sensations they felt in relation to a stimulus. He trained many psychologists one of whom was Edward Titchner. Titchner tried to discover laws of thought combination, which he called structuralism. They both believed in Reductionism, which could break down consciousness into basic elements. William James disagreed with Reductionism and proposed Functionalism instead. He viewed consciousness as something that changed continuously and could not be reduced to elements. He was interested in the function that consciousness serves.

Gestalt psychology came to prominence in Germany about 1910 when there was social turmoil in Europe. Gestalt was essentially the study of perceptions and sensations, and a holistic approach to consciousness, rather than just considering one point of interest. By the 1930s the Gestaltists had moved to the USA to avoid persecution.

The views of all these psychologists differed, but they all believed that consciousness should be the focus of study. Consciousness is essentially very difficult to study because of its subjective nature, and this fact allowed behaviourism to become the focus of psychology and the practice of psychology to prefer behaviour that could be studied under scientific conditions.

The term ‘Behaviourism’ was formulated by Watson’s 1913 paper “Psychology as a behaviourist views it”. Two classical aspecets of behaviourism which emerged were classical conditioning (Pavlov) and instrumental conditioning (B.F. Skinner).

Eventually behaviourism began to falter because aspects of learning such as memory, language and other mental abilities could not be considered within its core logic. As an illustration, Noam Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s ideas on verbal behaviour is regarded as one of the turning points of the rise of counter-behaviourist, cognitive psychology. Chomsky pointed out that creativity in language could not be accounted for by behaviourist theories, and maintained that people have an innate ability to learn languages.

World War II also brought about a shift away from behaviourism, when human performance and propaganda were given a great deal of critical attention by academics. Additionally, the growth in technology, especially computers and electronics, brought a new focus on mental processes for psychologists. Languages were also the focus of studies about communication structures and socially situated learning.

The rise of cognitivist psychology has had a profound effect on education. For third-level education it meant a shift away from teacher-centred methods of course delivery and more freedom for students to choose the type of learning the suits them best. Curriculum design became more flexible with ideas of continuous assessment, group-based learning and applied practice being integrated into the learning experience. The emphasis moved from reproduction of learning to meta-cognition.

Other areas where cognitivism has had an impact on education include attention theories, memory techniques (short and long term), mental imagery, language acquisition, problem solving, and decision making.


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