Which is the latest learning theory

Learning theories

How do students learn best?

Dipl.-Psych. Christoph Lindner
Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN), Kiel

In this text, the question of what is hidden behind the term “learning” in general and what implications can be derived for learners and teachers in the school context should first be investigated. Then prominent theories from learning psychology are presented, which provide different explanations for the topic of "learning". Design principles for teaching and learning environments are derived based on the findings of the currently dominant research currents. This introduction gives an initial overview, whereby readers who want to study the topic of knowledge acquisition in more detail are recommended to read the textbooks in the final literature list and, for example, the work of Alexander Renkl.

What is learning

In educational psychology, the term “learning” is understood to mean the acquisition of knowledge in the sense of absorbing new information. The learning process itself cannot be observed directly, only the learning performance in the retrieval of knowledge. For example, in order to reproduce vocabulary successfully, it is essential that the relevant information has been saved while learning. The basic prerequisite for learning and calling up learning is therefore the memory, which processes and interprets all incoming sensory stimuli, integrates them into memory networks that have already been set up, stores them in the long term and retrieves them.

The knowledge acquired through the learning process can be divided into factual knowledge (declarative knowledge) and application knowledge (procedural knowledge). The former is verbalized knowledge of, for example, vocabulary, grammar rules or solutions to math problems, whereas the latter means the ability to calculate a math problem or to write an essay. Furthermore, learning processes are supported by so-called metacognitive knowledge. This is understood to mean the knowledge about the acquisition of knowledge itself. The development of networked knowledge structures is favored according to this approach if students know exactly how to proceed, for example in order to solve mathematical problems independently.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the success of knowledge acquisition depends heavily on individual personal characteristics, such as personality traits, motivational factors or intelligence. Accordingly, the question of how pupils learn best cannot be answered across the board, but teaching-learning research provides empirically sound theories that explain how and under what circumstances learning processes are favored in learners.

Theoretical foundations of learning and implications for the school context

One of the historically oldest currents of learning psychology goes back to behaviorism. According to this approach, the learner basically assumes a passive role from within, with learning being initiated solely by reacting to external factors. Mental processes such as perception, thinking, attention or emotions are completely ignored for the explanation of learning, whereas the focus is on observable behavior. Here, learning is triggered by so-called stimulus-reaction chains, with the learning material packaged in small steps in tasks to provide an incentive to deal with the learning content. A complementary component in this approach is instrumental learning, according to which positive learning behavior should be rewarded and unfavorable learning behavior should be punished. The frequency of the learning behavior shown in the future is therefore dependent on the behavioral consequences experienced. If a successful examination of the subject matter is rewarded, the probability increases that the learner will show the desired learning behavior more frequently in the future. The teacher plays the central role in the behaviorist approach, as it is his or her task to set appropriate learning incentives and to give appropriate feedback on the reactions of the students. According to the current state of knowledge, the behavioristic view is considered to be limited and inadequate, since the acquisition of knowledge cannot be explained by the reaction to learning stimuli alone, but rather represents a process that also takes place in the learner's brain.

Learning theories of cognitivism place the active absorption, processing and storage of information at the center of the learning process. As a counterpoint to behaviorism, learning is not viewed as an internally passive process, but as the ability to develop solutions to problems by actively processing new information, taking into account already stored memory contents. According to this approach, the instructor has the task of conveying knowledge in a didactic manner in which the relevant information on a problem can be processed in the best possible way and integrated into existing knowledge networks. In this way, the teacher determines the “correct” learning path to be followed by the learner in order to achieve the given learning objective. However, elements of independent and self-directed learning are too badly neglected in the cognitivistic learning approach.

The currently most influential learning theories are based on the basic idea of ​​(cognitive) constructivism. According to this approach, the newly recorded content can only be interpreted and integrated into meaningful information on the basis of the existing prior knowledge during learning. The more the learning content is linked with other relevant knowledge elements during knowledge acquisition, the more likely it is to be able to successfully retrieve information from long-term memory in the long term. The learning process is understood here as an active construction of knowledge, whereby learning content can have a different meaning for each person. For example, pupils only process relevant information from the lesson when they are able to speak the language used by the teacher on the one hand and have subject-related prior knowledge on the other. Acoustic signals sent out by the teacher's voice are interpreted by the listener as a “foreign language” or as “unknown words” when the learning content cannot be ascribed any meaning due to the lack of prior knowledge. According to this approach, the teacher takes on the role of a “coach” who is supposed to stimulate and support individual construction processes, for example by encouraging the activation of previous knowledge for the assignment of meaning to new learning content. The creation of conducive learning atmospheres and learning opportunities is therefore just as important as taking into account the students' individual ideas when learning. The theory of focused information processing also indicates that the focus on central concepts and principles of the learning material is essential for active knowledge acquisition and should be encouraged by the teacher. Accordingly, the quality of the knowledge acquisition depends crucially on the extent to which the focus of attention is placed on the relevant terms or regularities during active material processing. From the theoretical perspectives presented, general information on the optimal design of teaching-learning environments can be derived.

What forms of learning are there and how should teaching-learning environments be designed?

Learning from texts is of particular importance, as this form of learning plays an important role in almost all teaching-learning environments. How well learning from texts succeeds depends on the one hand on the prior knowledge and mental activation (e.g. focus of attention) of the learner, and on the other hand on the quality of the text. Accordingly, sentences should neither be too long nor too complex, whereby the highlighting of central terms and the enrichment of complex facts with image information (figures and tables) is recommended. In addition, it is particularly beneficial for readers without prior knowledge if relevant chains of arguments in the text are stringently built on one another.

Another form of learning is what is known as example-based learning. Here, individual problems and their solution steps are shown repeatedly in different examples. This form of learning is particularly effective for students with no prior knowledge, as the examples should be worked through and understood until the underlying task principles have been understood. By enriching the learning situation with key questions, it can be ensured that the learners understand the logic of the solution more profoundly by means of self-explanations and thus acquire knowledge about how content-related tasks can be successfully processed.

When learning through task processing, the teacher should help to ensure that there is a focus on the basic principles of a task (e.g. on the laws of arithmetic). Once the basic principles have been mastered, the new skills should be strengthened and automated through repeated practice.

When learning by exploring, learners generate central concepts and principles independently through exploratory experimentation, whereby the teacher should also support the learner here in "focusing on the essentials". In this way, individual misconceptions become aware and the testing of hypotheses makes it possible to acquire systematic knowledge about relevant content areas.

Group work also has a beneficial effect on learning under certain circumstances, whereby the concrete composition of a cooperative learning group is decisive for the quality of the knowledge acquisition. In cooperative learning, an active processing of the learning material should be encouraged, for example through contradicting perspectives of the students, whereby the learning of each individual group member is favored. Active problem solving in groups also leads to the fact that existing knowledge structures are better organized and reorganized due to mutual explanations, whereby individual areas of knowledge complement each other better to form an overall picture.

Further reading:

Renkl, A. (2006). Knowledge acquisition. In Wild, E., & Möller, J. (Eds.), Pedagogical Psychology (pp. 3-26). Heidelberg: Springer.
Renkl, A., & Atkinson, R. K. (2007). Interactive learning environments: Contemporary issues and trends. An introduction to the special issue. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 235-238.
Woolfolk, A., & Schönpflug (2008). Learning and motivation. In Woolfolk, A., & Schönpflug (Eds.), Educational Psychology (pp. 253-398). Munich: Pearson Germany GmbH.