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Learner-Centric Content: 4 Research-Based Tactics

Add Research-Based Gravitas To Learning Content

Learning has evolved exponentially during the past two years with the impact of the pandemic and is expected to continue to evolve as Generation Alpha, which includes those born in 2010 and thereafter, grows into the next generation of talent and leaders. To be able to navigate the volume, velocity, and complexity of change as a learning and development leader, you and your team need to observe and understand the changing needs of the learners, explore and harness technologies, and ultimately make sound business decisions about how you will meet those learning needs given limited resources.

Knowing the underlying foundational learning theories is important not only from a general Learning & Development knowledge perspective, but also to ensure that the new learning apps or technologies your team is creating are research-based. While there are more than thirty research-based learning theories and models, there are four foundational schools of thought you need to know: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism. In their book “Design for Learning” authors Beth Oyarzun and Sheri Conklin, describe behaviorism and cognitivism as instructor-centered, whereas they discuss constructivism and connectivism as student-centered. This article offers the basic elements you need to know for each theory.

4 Theories For Learner-Centric Content


This school of thought evolved in the early 20th century and asserts that learning is the result of external stimuli emanating mainly from positive reinforcement and reiteration from the instructor. B.F. Skinner, one of the leading behaviorists, asserted that the behaviors resulting from external stimuli will define future behaviors. His famous operant conditioning experiment [1] with pigeons placed in the Skinner box was tested by the US military to train pigeons to guide missiles. Another renowned behaviorist is Pavlov, whose experiment trained dogs to salivate every time a bell rang by making food available each time the bell rang. The way we apply behaviorism today is by focusing on the tasks a learner has to complete to reach the learning outcome. Behaviorism has been criticized as limited as it only focuses on external stimuli and disregards the student themselves and their needs, abilities, and motivation.


This school of thought focuses on the learner’s brain and how it functions during learning including processing, retaining, and recalling information. Cognitivism is also instructor-centered as it focuses on how the instructor can impact the learning process. A famous cognitivist is Bloom, whose taxonomy of six levels published in 1956 focuses on how learners remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create meaning. In 2001, Anderson and Kathwohl revised the taxonomy to focus on how the learners remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create meaning. Each level has several verbs associated with it and instructional designers use the taxonomy to create the learning objectives and related assessments for the module they are designing. Cognitivism has been criticized in that it focuses heavily on models and learning schemas while not allowing much latitude to the learner.


This school of thought posits that learning comes from how learners perceive how the world is constructed and it is learner-centric. A renowned constructivist is Piaget who defined that learning takes place once the learner passes through four consecutive phases: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. His approach has been applied in child learning development from infancy to adulthood. Additionally, Vygotsky, another renowned constructivist asserted that learning takes place when the learner interacts with tools, language, and organizational structures. Today, we apply constructivist approaches when we scaffold learning and create shadowing and mentoring programs where learners engage with the module, have opportunities to shadow their mentor, and benefit from a personalized coaching and mentoring experience.


In 2004, Siemens published his seminal paper [2] introducing connectivism as the school of thought where learning is completely learner-centered and learner-driven by new technologies, networks, and constant change. In 2011, Siemens and Downes distilled the eight key elements of connectivity, which include: learning results from diverse opinions; learning is about connecting with experiences, technologies, and other people; capacity to learn is vital; fostering and cultivating connections is important in continuous learning; the ability to connect the dots is critical to learning, and making decisions is a way to learn. Connectivism has been hailed as the digital age learning theory because it acknowledges the power of technology as an enabler in learning whereby learners can quickly search for an instructional YouTube video, connect with others through a community of learning, chat live, and together find solutions to their common problems on the job. In many ways, connectivism highlights and combines elements of the previous three learning theories into a learning ecosystem.


Congratulations! Now that you have reviewed the basic elements of each of the four broader learning theories, you probably recognize several elements that you and your team use to design and deliver impactful learning experiences based on learner needs, wants, and preferences. Defining a list of tasks for the learner to follow is behaviorist; using verbs from Bloom’s updated taxonomy to write learning objectives is cognitivist; scaffolding a course, and complementing it with a mentoring program is constructivist, and incorporating social media to connect learners to their peers to exchange ideas and find new solutions to old problems is connectivist.

Today, we combine elements from all the learning theories to create more well-rounded, engaging, learner-centric content. Understanding the basic elements of the four learning schools of thought provides you with a solid foundation and four lenses in the evolution of learning and development so that you can make better learning design decisions. As learners’ needs continue to change and new learning theories will likely emerge from research being conducted now to account for the impact and aftermath of the global pandemic. Today, as a learning and development leader armed with the basic knowledge of the main four learning schools of thought, you are able to discern and guide your team on new ways to conceptualize, design, and deliver learning that meets the needs of your learners at the right time and modality that they chose. And that is the key to developing and delivering learner-centric learning that continuously adapts to the learner.



[1] B.F. Skinner: The Man Who Taught Pigeons to Play Ping-Pong and Rats to Pull Levers

[2] Connectivism – George Siemens


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Andy Neal

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