5R Adult Learning Assignment 4: Learning Theories

Synopsis/Reflection – Why all traditional learning theories fail to describe the entire experience of learning

Merriam and Bierema (2014, p. 25) state that a learning theory is an explanation “of what happens when learning takes place”. While this definition is simple, it doesn’t really effectively capture what learning theories should entail. Illeris (2018, p. 86) explains that this definition really states the fundamental question of learning theory – “how various kinds of learning take place in the human brain and body” – not what a learning theory should entail. Illeris further expands upon this definition (as exemplified in Gary’s video) to state that learning has structure, types, and barriers as well as a basis that connects internal and external conditions with application. All of these aspects and contexts should be addressed in a learning theory if it is to provide a comprehensive view of learning. Figure 1 shows Illeris’ model for understanding learning.

Knud Illeris' Model for Understanding Learning

Figure 1. Illeris’ Model for Understanding Learning as summarized by Gary A. Smith’s video on Illeris’ work for OILS 543: Adult Learning. Based on Illeris, K. (2009/2018). A comprehensive understanding of human learning. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning (pp. 7-20). Oxon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Merriam & Bierema (2014) detail five general/traditional learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, social cognitive theory, and constructivism. Table 1 details these learning theories while situating them within the framework of teaching and learning.

How Learning Theories and Teaching Contexts Align (found on pg. 39 of Merriam and Bierema, 2014.

Table 1. Relationships between dimensions of teaching and their respective orientations to learning (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 39).

Table 1 also shows, however, the incomplete nature of each of these theories. One’s orientation to learning is predominantly behaviorist, cognitivist, humanist, constructivist, or social learning oriented given the teaching and learning contexts in the left column of Table 1. We cannot be oriented to all of the learning theories simultaneously. To paraphrase a popular quote from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is no one theory to rule them all.

Illeris again tries to unite the theories in a way that bridges acquisition-based theories (behaviorism, cognitivism, and humanism) with interaction-based theories (social cognitive and constructivism). The triangle shown in Figure 2 tries to bridge these many learning theories by showing that

“all learning comprises three dimensions: the content dimension, which is usually, but not always, cognitive; the incentive dimension, which includes engagement, interest and motivation and is mainly emotional; and the interaction dimension, which is social (also when it is a text, a picture, a film or the like) and may have many layers, ranging from the immediate situation, the local, institutional, environmental, national and other conditions to the global context in general.” (Illeris, 2018, p. 96)

Illeris Triangle of Learning

Figure 2. Illeris’ three dimensions of learning and competence development. Found in Illeris, 2009/2018, p. 10)

What I found interesting this week in the reading was Illeris’ models for understanding learning and for uniting the learning theories. I had not been acquainted with Illeris’ work previously, and I found that his work made a great deal of sense to me, given my own experiences teaching and learning. My scores on the Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (PAEI) show that I need a larger model for understanding learning: one that integrates and connects all of the learning theories, much like the one Illeris proposes. My scores in the PAEI, shown in Figure 3 below, had a standard deviation of 13.3, which means that I had a preference for no one philosophy more significantly than another.

PAEI Analysis

Figure 3. My PAEI score analysis: my scores did not show a significant preference for one philosophy than another. PAEI Test available here: https://www.labr.net/apps/paei/ 

Upon noticing the note under the analysis that states “if your scores are closer together, you should consider retaking the questionnaire”, I took the questionnaire again but this time faster to try to eliminate any bias towards preference rather than reality and pretty much obtained the same results. I am apparently a “Jill of All Trades” as it were – I use different learning theories in different learning and teaching contexts and mostly interweave all of them in some way, shape or form. While I had previously thought of myself as a constructionist (which I’ll explain further in the next section) and a connected learning advocate, I’m currently realizing that I use some of each learning theory in my teaching on a regular basis.

My research questions this week are:

  1. What is constructionism and how does it apply to the other learning theories?
  2. How do we apply learning theories or models to the practice of teaching?


Research – Constructionism, the Design Alchemy Framework, and why evidence-based practices aren’t always widely adopted “naturally”

Papert & Harel (1991) define constructionism as sharing

“constructivism’s view of learning as ‘building knowledge structures’ through progressive internalization of actions…[and] It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.” (Papert & Harel, 1991, p. 1)

When I first learned of constructionism, the theory gave voice to a lingering theme of thought I’d had on how far instruction needs to move to become the kind of instruction that helps students become metacognitive, self-directed and self-regulated learners. Constructionism focuses on making meaning of learning within public spaces, and it seemed perfect for my work as a digitally connected and influenced pedagogue. Yet, this theory does not alone fully explain how I design my time as a teacher, researcher, or a learner in the classroom. I think Illeris’ model might provide a more complete understanding of the experience of learning, but I need to sit with that possibility for awhile longer before I fully subscribe to his model of understanding learning.

In terms of application, Sims (2014) proposed the Design Alchemy framework to merge the learning theories that learning might be designed from, only to then separate that theoretical construct into five elements of pedagogy. Sims described this framework as a layering of theoretical pedagogy over everyday practice. The Design Alchemy framework is meant to provide the basis for a learner-centered approach to course design as well as an evidence-based strategy by which the learning theories together are enmeshed with pedagogy. Sims summarized the pedagogical elements on which Design Alchemy was based below:

  1. “Experience is the foundation of, and the stimulus for, learning.
  2. Learners actively construct their own experience.
  3. Learning is a holistic process.
  4. Learning is socially and culturally constructed.
  5. Learning is influenced by the socio-emotional context in which it occurs.” (Sims, pg. 59-60)

Figure 4 shows the interaction of the learning theories and pedagogies within the framework of design alchemy.

Design Alchemy Graphic found on page 60 of Sims, 2014

Figure 4. The Design Alchemy framework: the learning theories feed directly into the pedagogical elements. (Sims, 2014, p. 60)

The Design Alchemy framework’s pedagogical elements are ones I can completely buy into, but yet, again, the framework itself seems too simple to explain the entirety of the learning experience. I wonder if there is any uniting learning theory, model, or framework that can explain the experience of learning fully because, while learning has some unifying themes for everyone, the experience itself seems to be slightly different for each individual.

Even without a unified learning theory or model, much work has been done in educational research to develop a series of evidence-based teaching practices – ones that are undergirded by extensive research and that have been shown (often repeatedly) to improve student learning outcomes. These evidence-based practices, however, are rarely adopted by practitioners with the same levels of success as those reported by educational researchers. That differential only applies if those evidence-based practices are adopted at all! Smith (2015) elucidates that the reason why this differential may exist is due to the adopter’s lack of tacit knowledge of the teaching innovation (i.e. evidence-based practice). While explicit knowledge transfers expertise through spoken and written language (including pictures), tacit knowledge transfers information through “sensed experiences, intuition, and implicit rules of thumb” (Smith, 2015, p. 11). Smith argues that teaching is a profession that requires immense amounts of tacit knowledge, especially when applying a teaching innovation, and the current way we transfer the knowledge of evidence-based practices is almost exclusively explicit. Hence, we basically set up teachers to fail when they use evidence-based practices for the first time.


Relate – My experience in implementing evidence-based practices

When I first met Gary, he was “selling” faculty on the use of evidence-based practices as the head of UNM’s OSET (Office of Support for Effective Teaching; it’s now the Center for Teaching and Learning). As a main PI on the “Project for Inclusive Undergraduate STEM Success”, Gary ran the Gateway to Science and Math Course Reform project, which I participated in as a CNM faculty, although I had already joined the UNM Chemistry faculty as an adjunct professor. My sole intention in taking this adjunct “side gig” was to build bridges between the UNM and CNM Chemistry Departments and the Gateway project gave me a golden opportunity to do so. So, I basically twisted the arm of my friend (and in many ways peer-mentor for evidence-based active learning techniques), Sushilla Knottenbelt, to try to encourage the chemistry department to participate.

In heart of teaching hearts, I am a pedagogical experimentalist. I will try any evidence-based practice in my classroom at least three times to see if my students learn more effectively using it. So, Gary didn’t need to sell me on evidence-based practices too much to get me to “buy-in”.

Enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily equal skill, and, while I was game to try new things, the dive into evidence-based teaching practices, specifically active learning techniques, was a tough experience, although I wonder if anyone I was in regular contact with other than Sushilla actually knew of my difficulty. My biggest sadness was that I was fairly popular and well-liked as a conversational lecturer. My student evaluations took a deep plunge when I embraced active learning. I knew, though, that active learning was worth working with as an instructor from the ways in which my students could retain information differently than they had previously. I stuck with the active learning pedagogies while slowly building into my curriculum assessments that called for reflection on student learning and integration of previous material to understand better real-world problems. I became better at asking questions instead of just giving answers. I became a better teacher in the end.

I recognize that joining UNM’s faculty instigated a transformative learning process for me, one that has culminated in returning to graduate school to better understand how to assess and evaluate my students more effectively. I have detailed my pedagogical learning experience further in previous writing (found here). I still wonder, though, now having read Gary’s editorial, if I was the first or second kind of baker in his eyes.



Illeris, K. (2009/2018). A comprehensive understanding of human learning. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Illeris, K. (2018). An overview of the history of learning theory. European Journal of Education, 53(1), 86–101. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejed.12265

Sims, R. (2014). Which Learning Theories? In: Design Alchemy. Educational Communications and Technology: Issues and Innovations, Vol. 8, pp. 49-61. Switzerland: Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02423-3_4

Papert, S. & Harel, I. (1991). Situating Constructionism. Constructionism. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing. 

Smith, G. A. (2015). Why college faculty need to know the research about learning. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 10, 9-18. Retrieved from http://insightjournal.park.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Why-College-Faculty-Need-to-Know-the-Research-about-Learning.pdf

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