Carolina RN to BSN Online
Conceptual Bases of Professional Nursing Practice
Teacher Variables:  Preferred Learning Theory
Part 1:  Variables Influencing Teaching and Learning

System Variables

Teacher Variables

Learner Variables

Part 2:  The Seven Steps of Planning --Plus One

Weekly Assignment 1
Evaluating Learning

Weekly Assignment 2
Analyzing Experiences



Most learning theory comes from the field of educational psychology. Learning theories usually define learning and address how learning occurs. They may also describe structure and process involved in learning, as well as ways to facilitate learning. Principles used to guide teaching are derived from various learning theories, and the teacher's understanding and use of these theories and principles is another variable that affects the character and effectiveness of the teaching-learning interaction.

There are a number of learning theories. If you read about learning theory, you will find that groupings and labels differ, depending on the source. Very few teachers use one theory or group of theories exclusively. Most of us use a combination of theories, often determined, at least in part by other variables affecting a particular situation. However, we may have a preferred theory or group of theories that seem to be the best fit with our assumptions, values, beliefs, and style.

Now we'll look briefly at three groups or categories of learning theory, summarizing the following for each group:

  • Key points about theories
  • Major theorists
  • Information useful in application

Learning Theories

You're all familiar with behaviorist theory because it's taught in general psychology courses, and it's very popular in nursing. Key points in behaviorist theory include:
  • Learning is defined as observable change in behavior
  • There is emphasis on the product or outcome, and measurement of that outcome
  • Theories focus on reinforcement of behavior elicited by stimuli
  • Major theorists in this group include: Pavlov; Thorndike; Skinner; and Bandura
Teaching "Tools" from behaviorist theory
Behaviorist theories provide information about how the teacher can best manipulate the environment to bring about learning. ( Note: "manipulate" does not have a negative connotation in this context). Examples of "tools" derived from behaviorist theory include:
  • Strategies like behavior modification
  • Widespread use of behavioral objectives
  • Focus on outcomes of the teaching-learning interaction
Cognitive theories deal with structure in learning. Key points in cognitive theories include:
  • Define learning in terms of internal structuring and processing of information.
  • Theories address both structuring the material to be learned and the structure of cognitive processes involved in learning
  • Theorists have developed hierarchies for structuring content and processes
  • Major theorists include: Bloom; Gagne; Ausubel

Teaching "Tools" from cognitive theory
 Cognitive theories provide information about organizing and structuring activities; matching learning activities to the level of cognitive processing needed (recall, application, evaluation, etc.). Examples of "tools" derived from cognitive theory include:
  • Use of advance organizers.  These are structures or frameworks, provided prior to presenting content,  that help organize that content and/or provide a structure on which to "hang" it.  Study questions, content outlines, and conceptual frameworks are examples of advance organizers.
  • Heirarchies or taxonomies identifying , describing, and ordering cognitive processes involved in learning.
  • Information matching teaching strategies with levels of learning
Most of you know something about humanist learning theory, because it is the home of adult learning theory. You may be familiar with the work of Malcolm Knowles (sometimes called the father of adult learning) who was on the faculty at NCSU for many years. Key points about theories in this group include:
  • Description of learning as a function of the whole person
  • Emphasis on the learner and the learning environment
  • View the teacher as a facilitator
  • Major theorists: Dewey, Rogers, Knowles
    Some of you may be familiar with the work of Carl Rogers in the context of psych-mental health. While much of his work dealt with person-centered therapy, he wrote a very interesting book Freedom to Learn, in which he applies his ideas to formal education at levels ranging from elementary school to college

Teaching "Tools" from humanist theory
Humanist theories provide information about learner characteristics , facilitative teacher roles, and psychological climate. Examples of teaching "tools" derived from humanist theory include:
  • Principles of adult learning
  • Teaching strategies focused on learner self-direction and active learner participation
  • Identification of a variety of learning styles


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