Learning Theories and Higher Education
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.