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Which Learning Theories are Right for Your Organization?

Creating a comprehensive learning and development program in your organization is crucial. It helps to maintain your employees’ motivation, supports their continued improvement, and retains them as valuable contributors to your business. But, how does your organization discover the best way to educate your employees?

There are lots of learning theories out there, but they’re not a one size fits all thing. Your learning & development team should investigate the different theories and decide which ones suit the type of training you need to deliver, and the company culture you’re creating

Once you’ve nailed down the learning theory you’re basing your training off, you can implement it with your LMS. This list outlines some of the most dominant learning theories in educational psychology. We also have full posts on many of them linked to below if you’re looking for a bit more detail.

7 popular corporate training learning theories to try

1. Behaviorist Learning Theory

Behaviorism is one of the classic learning theories; it predates cognitivism and most of the other theories we’ll explore in this post. Behaviorism suggests that the learner is a ‘blank slate’ and that all human behavior can be caused or explained by external stimuli. Using this theory, you would motivate your learners by offering positive reinforcement for individuals modeling the right behavior, and negative reinforcement for the behavior you want to discourage.

In behaviorist training environments, the learner is passive. You, the instructor, are tasked with imparting information to them. Think traditional classroom settings, the learners sit quietly while you lecture them on a given topic and then take a test to see what has been retained. This draws heavily from the Behaviorist Learning Theory.

2. Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive Learning Theory suggests that learners are active agents in the learning process and that they bring all their prior knowledge, memories, and interests to the table when they’re learning. Learners are active participants, questions and comments are encouraged, and you facilitate their learning by regularly relating it to real-world scenarios where they would apply this knowledge.

This theory also suggests that if learners find their training meaningful, they’re more likely to retain it. You might make the session interactive by pairing the learners up to role-play a common scenario or divide them into groups to solve a real problem the company is facing. Since learners draw from their previous knowledge and experience, proponents of Cognitive Learning Theory would suggest that you sequence your material carefully, with each session building on the last.

3. Constructivist Learning Theory

With a Constructivist approach, you take on the role of guide or coach rather than a traditional instructor. Constructivism has a lot in common with Cognitive Learning Theory.  It suggests that learners are active agents who learn best when discovering things for themselves rather than simply being lectured to.

Learning occurs through role-play, debate, and collaborative problem-solving. Instead of staying at the top of the classroom or just enrolling learners in straight-forward courses as you might with other training styles, you move from group to group, guiding learners in the right direction and pointing out potential obstacles and opportunities.

4. Information Processing Theory

Information Processing Theory delves into how the human brain creates and encodes memory. We take in information from the world through our senses, especially sight and sound. Then some of that information is stored in our short-term memory for just a few seconds, while a smaller amount filters through to our long-term memory.

We can increase the probability that information will be stored in our long-term memory by breaking it up into smaller parts, sequencing it carefully, connecting the dots to where this information is used in real life, and by repeating the most important points more than once.

5. Adult Learning Theory

Many learning theories were developed with children in mind. But Malcolm Shepherd Knowles developed Adult Learning Theory to recognize the unique differences between adults and children when it comes to learning, and how they could be exploited in adult education.

Knowles pointed out that adults tend to be more self-motivated, mature, and often have practical reasons why they’re seeking knowledge. Adults also have a wealth of life experience to draw from, whereas children are still building experiences. For Knowles, this meant that adults should have a greater say in the process of their learning and that much of it could be self-directed.

He proposed that curriculums should be focused on solving problems adults are likely to encounter rather than just memorizing facts.

6. Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative Learning Theory is an offshoot of Constructivist Learning Theory. Both learning theories emphasize dialogue and learners’ ability to construct a point of view by engaging with each others’ ideas and opinions. Transformative Learning Theory, however, specifically focuses on improving critical thinking by putting forward disorienting dilemmas to prompt a change in their world view.

The goal is to create a transformation that leaves the group more open to change, inclusive, open and reflective. In a corporate learning environment, Transformative Learning Theory can be used in Diversity and Inclusion training to help people understand and overcome their unconscious biases.

7. Connectivist Learning Theory

Connectivism is a learning theory developed by George Siemens for the digital age. The central thesis is that the web has created a world of new opportunities for learning, much of it open and peer-based. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a good example of this. The idea is that knowledge resides in nodes and can sit outside the learner; on websites, social media channels, YouTube, discussion forums or anywhere where people can come together to learn and share knowledge.

Siemens claimed the ability to access new forms of knowledge was more critical than how much knowledge had already been acquired. However, there hasn’t been a lot of academic studies on the theory, and some critics say it is a pedagogical view rather than a learning theory.

What learning theories is your organization using when you develop learning materials and deliver training? Do you follow one school of thought primarily, or do you blend a variety of theories to get the results you want? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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