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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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Social Learning (click here for summary diagram)

Merriam and Caffarella (1999) classify social learning theory as a theory on a par with constructivism, humanism, behaviourism, and cognitivism. However, many other writers do not. Tennant (1997) points out that social learning theory encompasses a diverse range of theories and approaches. He calls this theory the ‘social environment’ perspective. Two opprosing perspectives have emerged, centred on the active or passive involvement of the learner in the learning process.

First, the person can be seen as a passive receiver of behaviour, roles, attitudes, and values which are shaped and maintained by the social environment. Skinner’s stimulus-response psychology is the most influential of these behaviourist approaches (Tennant, 1997). Its impact on third-level education is evident in the setting of behavioural objectives and the provision of regular feedback and reinforcement to students (Stapleton, 2001).

The second approach provides for an active role for the person. This approach is essentially humanistic. It sees the process as a dialectical one whereby the person and social environment are both active in the process. This approach can be demonstrated by the writings of Freire who looked at social processes as they shape individual identity. He stressed the need for adult learners to resist forms of enculturation which are alienating and oppressive (Tennant, 1997).

Jarvis (2003) also sees the relationship between the individual and society as one involving interaction and mutual influence. Mead, one of the most influential social psychologists, sees learning as social in the sense that mind and self are themselves socially constructed (Jarvis et al., 2003). Bandura stressed that individuals are capable of self-regulation and self-direction. He regards learning as involving a reciprocal determinism between interdependent individuals and environmental influences (Jarvis et al., 2003). This approach impacts on third-level learning in the spheres of lifelong learning, informal learning, experiential learning and collaborative learning.


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