Week 3 – Activity 9: Three learning theories

Indigo indicates my notes.

Timing: 2 hours


Skinner (1968) and Thorndike (1928) were two of the main proponents of behaviourism. Skinner investigated how to shape behaviour with rewards. He invented the operant conditioning chamber where his subjects were pigeons. You can see Skinner describing his work in this YouTube video:

Using pigeons that are rewarded with food when they do either peck or turn. This behaviour of scheduled reinforcement (reward) is likened to pathelogical gambling for humans. Not because they enjoy it per se, but rather as they need the reward. 

Thorndike’s (1932) work includes the original stimulus–response framework within behavioural psychology theories. The main paradigm within this framework was ‘trial and error’. Thorndike worked with cats within a puzzle box. Have a look at this YouTube video, which shows Thorndike’s puzzle box:

He placed cats in a box, which they could only escape from if they hit a latch and pulled a string. Once successful, they had food waiting on the other side. He measured their response time from their first attempt. Smart cats would get faster and faster. He claimed however, they for the first time, no noticeable ‘thought’ was planned by the cat. It was only by trail and error that it was worked out. If an action brings a reward, Thorndike believes that this action becomes ‘stamped‘ in the mind. If consequences changed, so did behaviour. He called this the law of effect.

Summary of behaviourism videos: Both are focused on rewards for actions. If the action is successful, a reward is received. This reward stimulates further actions until their is no reward. 


Cognitivism was the theory that replaced behaviourism and was a prominent psychological theory in the late 20th century. This theory abandoned much of the earlier concerns with external observable behaviour and instead concentrated on the organisation of knowledge, information processing and decision making.

Ausubel (1960) and Bruner (1966) were two of the main proponents of cognitivism. The major difference between Bruner and Ausubel is that Bruner pursued the notion that learners should be given opportunities to discover for themselves relationships that are inherent in the learning material. One of the major teaching strategies Bruner developed was that of scaffolding the learner. You can view more about scaffolding in this YouTube video:

About scaffolding: 

“Instructional scaffolding is the provision of sufficient support to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced to students. These supports include, but are not limited to, resources, a compelling task, templates and guides. So teachers help students master a task or a concept by providing support.”

Two types: “One is hard scaffolding and the other is soft or contingent scaffolding. The major point of difference between the two is that hard scaffolding is predetermined assistance so the educator decides ahead of time as to how he or she will be helping the student. Soft or contingent scaffolding depends on the level of skill as well as the situation at the time of education.”

“It starts off as directive and then moves on to suggestion, encouragement and eventually observation. So optimum scaffolds adapt to the learner’s tempo, moving them from others regulating them to self-regulation. So on the part of the learner progress is at its highest when they are self-regulating.”

“So the scaffolds provided by the educator do not change the nature or the difficulty level of the task, instead the scaffolds provided allow the student to successfully complete the task regardless of their skill level.”

Step by step instructions, as well as demos are used. Demo’s are important in soft scaffolding. The instructor begins to offer less and less assistance as students gain competence

Challenges: Learners at different levels. This is particularly challenging in large classes. 

Advantages: “[M]otivation and efficiency. Because scaffolding is offered on a very step-by-step instruction basis, the students are very clear as to how they need to progress through the task. So the processes need to be very clear from the outset as to how the assessment will be carried out, what the purpose and objectives of the task are and this helps students to stay on track and not to be distracted.

Summary: The objective, purpose, and probably the assessment criteria need to be laid out from the start, and step-by-step instructions/tasks are given to get students to the final stage. Given that students are aware of the criteria, they work towards this goal through the various steps, and are aware when they might be confused or unable to progress. As they progress through the various levels, the assistance from the instructor lessens. 

Ausubel, however, advocated that it is better for the teacher/trainer to organise the material and present it to the student in a relatively final form. His emphasis is on meaningful learning through being taught directly, whereas Bruner promoted discovering learning.

The video I watched would have been more of an Ausubel approach, as it encouraged steady direction and predetermined steps. 

Ausubel’s view of instruction enhances the development of students’ cognitive structure. One of his most popular instructional techniques was that of advance organisers, which offer key concepts to the learner before they read or engage with the learning material. Ausubel theorised that the form of the advanced organiser would help the learner to organise the new material and therefore learn and remember it better. You can explore these ideas in Ausubel’s (1960) article about advanced organisers.


The main proponents of constructivism were Piaget (1957) and Vygotsky (1988). Piaget was interested in how knowledge is constructed by the individual and he was therefore technically an epistemologist. He studied young children and adolescents as only they could be the test beds for any theory of knowledge construction that could account for how knowledge develops from birth to adulthood. You can find out more about Piaget’s theory in this video:

Shows children and youths working through different ‘logic’ problems, i.e. which container has more juice, or which is my left/right hand vs. yours. This shows the large differences in cognitive ability (including motor skills) that are present between the different ages. This was based on Piaget’s theories of discovery learning, as per the quote “are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?”

Vygotsky, however, was more concerned with the social construction of knowledge and how context language has an important role to play in this process. One of the important notions to take from Vygotsky’s work is the zone of proximal development. An overview can be found in this YouTube video:

Learning happens because we interact with the environment. We do not learn because we have develop, rather we develop because we learn. Learning proceeds development. However, in order to learn, we must be presented with tasks that are just out of reach of our learning abilities (balance between boredom and frustration).


Within this Zone of Proximal Develop are tasks we can almost do, but need help to accomplish. Once we can do these tasks, we will eventually be able to do them on our own, and thus shift them out of our ZPD. Think of learning to swim as an example. 

Every student has a different zone of ZPD. Teacher must design lessons for each of the students – or more realistically, balance their lesson to their specific classes ability. 


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