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Learning Theories

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Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development OCSLD

Learning and Teaching Briefing Papers Series

Theories of learning
There are many different theories of how people learn. What follows is a variety of them, and it is useful to consider their application to how your students learn and also how you teach in educational programmes. It is interesting to think about your own particular way of learning and to recognise that everyone does not learn the way you do. Burns (1995, p 99) ‘conceives of learning as a relatively permanent change in behaviour with behaviour including both observable activity and internal processes such as thinking, attitudes and emotions.’ It is clear that Burns includes motivation in this definition of learning. Burns considers that learning might not manifest itself in observable behaviour until some time after the educational program has taken place. Sensory stimulation theory Traditional sensory stimulation theory has as its basic premise that effective learning occurs when the senses are stimulated (Laird, 1985). Laird quotes research that found that the vast majority of knowledge held by adults (75%) is learned through seeing. Hearing is the next most effective (about 13%) and the other senses — touch, smell and taste — account for 12% of what we know. By stimulating the senses, especially the visual sense, learning can be enhanced. However, this theory says that if multi-senses are stimulated, greater learning takes place. Stimulation through the senses is achieved through a greater variety of colours, volume levels, strong statements, facts presented visually, use of a variety of techniques and media. Reinforcement theory This theory was developed by the behaviourist school of psychology, notably by B.F. Skinner (Laird 1985, Burns 1995). Skinner believed that behaviour is a function of its consequences. The learner will repeat the...

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