How people learn: An instructional designer perspective

The instructional deign field is growing and expanding, and there is more demand for well-trained instructional designers. As technology is advancing rapidly, many training modules and courses are now offered online and trainers are relaying on the use of computers in the learning process. With all these demands, instructional designers need to develop systematic skills to understand how people learn, develop effective instruction and conduct thorough evaluations (Cennamo & Kalk, 2005).

In this series, we will explore the various ways that people learn from an eye of an instructional designer. We will start by exploring the learning theories and discovering the factors that influence learning. In addition, we will look at the role of memory associated with the theory and how to use an appropriate type of technology for learning in higher education.

(1)  How does learning occur?   

Behaviorist Theory

  • Proper response is demonstrated following the presentation of a specific stimulus.
  • The focus is to maintain and strengthen the relationship between the stimulus and response.
  • In a learning environment, “The learner is reactive in the environment”  (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 55).
  • The behavior can be learned, and it can also be unlearned and relearned.
  • Promotion of desirable behavior and discouragement of non desirable behaviors.

Cognitive Theory

  • Learning is about what learners know and how they gain knowledge (Jonassen as cited in Ertmer & Newby, 1993)
  • “Learning is an active process where meaning and understanding built from experiences” (Wildman & Burton, 1981, p. 6)
  • The learner is very active in the learning process (Ertmer & Newby, 1993)

Constructivist Theory

  • Learning happens by creating a meaning from experience (Bednar as cited in Ertmer & Newby, 1993).
  • What the learner knows is based on his/her own experience.
  • Learners strive to know, so the experiences should be examined as it is in constant change (Ertmer & Newby, 1993)

Social Learning Theory

  • Learning is a social process. Learning occur when each learner is engaged in social activities.
  • Knowledge is culturally and socially constructed (Kim, 2001)
  • People learn from one another, using modeling, observation, and imitation (, n.d.)


  •  Through connections in networks (Davis, Edmunds & Kelly-Bateman, 2008)

Adult Learning

  • The learner is involved and takes responsibility of his/her learning process.
  • The learner self-reflect, gathers information, collaborates with others and is self-directed. (Conlan, Grabowski & Smith, 2003)
  • Adopting a multiple perspective in learning; putting the theory into practice (Foely, 2004)
  • The need to create change in skills, knowledge levels and attitudes about things (Russell, 2006)


Cennamo, K., & Kalk, D. (2005). Real world instructional design. Canada: Wadsworth.
Conlan, J., Grabowski, S., & Smith, K. (2003). Adult learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from
Davis, C., Edmunds, E., & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from
Ertmer, P.A. & Newby, T. J.  (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4).
Foley, G. (Ed.). (2004). Dimensions of adult learning: Adult education and training in a global era. McGraw-Hill Education.
Kim, B. (2001). Social constructivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from (n.d.). Social learning theories (Bandura). Retrieved from
Russell, S. S. (2006). An overview of adult learning processes: Adult-learning principles. Retrieved December 18, 2011 from
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