Module 11: Perspectives on Instruction

Introduction Connect Apply Reflect Extend


As you dive into this module describing apparently competing perspectives on instruction, the most important thing to remember is that they are really not competing at all. Indeed, each one has produced effective methods which have proven useful under specific circumstances. The key to our inquiry will be to identify what those circumstances are, and how the three perspectives together give us a well-rounded approach to teaching and learning.

Throughout this module, refer back at times to the preceding module on instructional analysis. Reflect on how specific techniques from behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist approaches fit into component display theory or Gagné's events of instruction.

Chapter preview

Module 11: Connect

In this module



Several theories about how we humans learn have evolved over the past decades (see Module 2). Those which have most influenced the field of educational technology are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Each are associated with their own unique perspective and a set of prescriptive practices. Together they make up most of what we know about how people learn, and inform how we devise instruction that facilitates learning.

Let's look at each by itself, then see how to synthesize them and apply them in our day-to-day work as educational technologists.


You may recall that the behaviorists got their name because they held that, since we can't directly observe people thinking, the only useful thing to look at is our actions, our behavior. For the most part, behaviorists view the learner as a passive participant in the learning process, adapting his or her behavior to the contingencies of reward and punishment. When a behavior is rewarded, it sticks. When it is punished, it dies out.

Learning is a gradual strengthening of the relationship between a stimulus (cue) and a response (behavior), as shaped by a pattern of consequences (reinforcement). With enough practice, the relationship becomes so strong that the cue reliably elicits the associated behavior.

We all know, of course, that life does not usually present us with a series of simple cues. It is instead a complex array of conflicting, competing, sometimes confusing cues, for which we must sort out a response. Under these circumstances, many relevant cues and their associated behaviors come into play at once, in some sort of proportion to their associational strength. Once a behavior is learned, it is difficult to "unlearn."

For the most part, behaviorists view the learning process as something controlled by the instructor, or the program, or by society as a whole--whoever is in control of the rewards and punishments. The learner is in control only to the extent that they can choose to practice a new behavior, at least until that behavior becomes automatic.

Behaviorists define several types of connections between stimulus and response. An association is a connection between a single, unique cue and a behavior that leads to certain consequences. For example, when someone calls your name, you give them your attention.

A chain, on the other hand, is an association in which one behavior serves as a cue for the next behavior, and so on. Right now, think of the last four digits of your phone number. Chances are you had to go all the way back and remember your entire phone number in order to recall the last four digits.

A discrimination is similar to an association except that multiple cues are involved and all in concert cue the associated behavior. An example of a discrimination is when you receive an injection at the doctor's office. The poke of the needle would normally set you off running, but in conjunction with the presence of the nurse or doctor, you have learned to sit still, or even try to relax, in order to minimize the pain and maximize the benefit of the injection.

What does all this mean for instruction? For behaviorists, instruction means conditioning or shaping learners' behavior. The instructor reinforces selected behavior, thereby reinforcing and gradually modifying it so that it meets the instructional objectives. Our whole notion of rewarding learning, from "Nice job, Jorge," to "That will mean a raise, Ms. Smith," comes from behaviorism, as well as more subtle notions of immediate feedback and remediation.

Behaviorists assume a single, objective reality, which all learners share to one extent or another. Rewards and punishments can be organized around that shared reality. On the other hand, the idea of dividing instruction into small, reinforceable chunks with frequent feedback and opportunities for remediation permits wide latitude for individualizing instruction.

Instruction based on behaviorist principles works best when performance conditions closely resemble learning conditions. In such instances, learners easily recognize cues and respond with the desired behavior. In more complex environments, however, appropriate cues may be hidden or missing, resulting in poor performance. Take, for instance, the student who learned set theory in a behavioral environment. Because the student learned set theory with some rather specific cues, it took awhile before he was able to apply his knowledge to the idea of Boolean logic in computer database searching. It just didn't occur to him that they were related, until someone drew a Venn diagram--that was a specific cue he had been trained to associate with set theory, and then he made the connection.

Indeed, the way he learned set theory was by using a textbook based on the instructional strategy most commonly associated with the behaviorist approach--programmed instruction. Programmed instruction breaks information down into small, easily remembered chunks with frequent feedback and "programmed" remediation. Because the chunks are so small, learners receive frequent rewards by way of their own successful performance. Programmed instruction is particularly useful for learning simple facts, concepts, and even procedures.


Cognitivists, in contrast to behaviorists, are willing to assume that, where we see behavior, there is thought behind it. They adopted the position that even though we can't observe thought directly, we can make some inferences about what happens inside people's heads.

Cognitivists hypothesize that we all develop mental representations or cognitive maps of objective reality. Based on those representations, we make decisions about how to act. Our mental map gets filtered somewhat depending on the kind of environment in which we grew up, but it essentially mirrors external reality.

Learning, or cognitive processing, involves mental manipulation of symbols into a schema or mental map. A person adjusts his or her mental model to account for new experiences and make sense of new information.

We are constantly adjusting our schema. For instance, many of us have a schema about how plants add mass. Think about it for a minute before you read the next paragraph. Where do plants, like giant Redwood trees, get all that mass from? They weigh many tons, and consist of miles of fiber.

We know they take in water and minerals from the soil and we have connected that in our mental maps with the growth of tissue. When we discover that water and minerals have little to do with plant mass, and that, surprisingly for most of us, the bulk of plant material is made up of carbon which the plant obtains from the air, we have to rearrange our schema. We retain the notion that plants construct new mass from material they take in, but we disconnect the erroneous association with water and soil and connect instead the new association with air and carbon dioxide.

Cognitivists like to think about instruction in terms of novices gradually building mental maps that are consistent with an expert's schema. The instructor, or the instruction, as the case may be, offers the expert's mental model along with practice and feedback to help the novice literally "think like" the expert with respect to the topic. For instance, to learn how to diagnose a patient's problem, an intern would try to follow and replicate what the experienced General Practitioner is doing and thinking.

The cognitivist approach lends itself to learning complex problems with well-defined goals. Task analysis relies heavily on cognitive task analysis, or analysis of the thinking process behind the task. Like the behaviorists, cognitivists evaluate individual performance based on mastery of instructional objectives. Instructional presentations often reflect complex, real life contexts, using strategies such as a simulations.

In the cognitivist approach to instruction, learners are still adopting a single, best way to do something, based on one or more expert's mental model. On the other hand, in those situations where consistent performance is important, the cognitivist approach tends to create uniformity of thinking, and as a result, consistency in behavior. For example, many organizations adopt initiatives such as Total Quality Management (TQM). Part of their task is to get everyone in the organization thinking and making decisions in the same way, at least with respect to quality. Otherwise, it wouldn't be "total!"


Constructivism is often viewed as an extension of cognitivism. Constructivists point out that each of us construct our own individual organization of reality, our schema, based on our unique experiences. A constructivist approach to instruction emphasizes preparing learners to develop problem-solving skills to tackle new, complex, ambiguous situations.

As we experience and learn new things, we are forever trying to make sense of the world, thereby continually building and refining our schema, or mental map. Since we all have somewhat different experiences, we each construct a somewhat unique schema. Our behavior automatically reflects this new mental schema. This constant adjustment in our schema and the behavior that flows from it is what constructivists call learning.

Since reality depends on the learner's schema, learning is, to a large extent, individual and internally controlled. For instance, someone with a background in engineering will approach instructional design in one way, while an English major or a historian might approach it entirely differently.

For constructivists, instruction is aimed at helping learners construct and modify their own individual schema. Instruction, or the instructor, as the case may be, must take into account learners' existing cognitive structures and provide learning activities appropriate to each individual.

Constructivist approaches encourage learners to develop their own unique approaches to situations, instead of adopting a single expert's mental map of the problem landscape. This may mean negotiating instructional objectives and methods, as well as assessment, with learners themselves.

One constructivist approach to instruction is problem based learning (PBL), used in most medical schools. Learners analyze and make decisions about complex situations, embedded in real world contexts, using a variety of problem solving strategies. Instructors act as tutors or facilitators while learners hypothesize solutions, learn basic skills, research information, and test their hypotheses.

Constructivist instruction is typically embedded in authentic, real-world environments. Another example of constructivist instruction is anchored instruction. Anchored instruction presents a narrative, or story with all the information needed to solve the problem embedded in the story itself. The learner first subdivides the main problem of the story into its sub-problems, then goes about trying to solve each of the sub-problems.

Another constructivist approach to instruction is case based learning, such as that used in law schools, involving actual cases. The instructor (or the instruction) presents the case with all relevant information. The learner attempts to relate this and other cases to new cases.

Constructivist methods are particularly appropriate where learners need mental tools to interpret and act responsibly in complex, ambiguous situations. That probably applies to all of us at one time or another.

Each of these three theoretical approaches and their associated instructional strategies has a great deal of merit. How do we decide which approach or which instructional strategies to use in a given situation? Consider the level of prior knowledge and experience of your learners and the cognitive demands of a given strategy. Some strategies overlap, others compliment each other at times. Incorporate strategies from different theoretical perspectives as appropriate to your needs.

  Module 11: Apply

Here are five scenarios. Given the theoretical information you just read, determine which theoretical perspective pertains to each situation. Choose either Behaviorism, Cognitivism, or Constructivism.




A doctor is examining a patient. She asks the patient questions about his condition, completes a thorough physical examination and runs a few medical tests. She will then determine what is wrong with the patient and what kind of treatment should be prescribed.

Chuck is driving down Canyon Road at 45 mph. He comes to an intersection where the traffic light is yellow. He slows the car down and comes to a complete stop.

The instructional designer listens to the client's complaints of the intended product. The instructional designer will need to discuss possible design changes with the production crew, all of whom worked many long hours to create the product the client does not like.

Running Bear has just moved to the U.S. and is not used to recycling. His new neighbor shows him how to recycle, including where the recycling bins are located and the categories by which the items to be recycled are separated. The neighbor tells Running Bear that eventually he will recycle without thinking about it.

Five year old Tommy cries when his mother won't buy him an ice cream cone. She buys him the cone. The next day Tommy plays at Lori's house. Lori's mother will not buy him an ice cream cone even when he cries and cries. He realizes that crying will not result in Lori's mother buying him a cone.


Module 11: Reflect

Whether you are basing your instruction on behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, or some combination of the three, the purpose of instructional techniques is to help individuals place skills or knowledge in long term memory. Unfortunately, this is usually an expensive proposition, not only to create the instructional materials, but also to deliver the training.

Can you think of a situation you've encountered where the type of instruction you received (or designed) could have been replaced by some other strategy? How might you have used behaviorist and/or cognitivist and/or constructivist approaches instead? Post your responses to this week's Discussion Board topic.

We'll continue to explore these questions in next week's module.


Module 11: Extend

Overview of this section

People in action

When we left Roberto, he had just outlined his material for an instructional product using both Gagné's events of instruction and Merrill's Component Display Theory to help his managers learn how to implement a performance evaluation. Was his instruction, he wondered, leaning toward behaviorism, cognitivism, or constructivism?

Looking back at the objective, he concluded that since he had been concerned with motivation, reminded the learners of their previous mental knowledge (activated their schema), presented an overall diagram (brought up a new schema), explained how the points related to each other (reinforced the new schema), gave examples of three scenarios with ratings by experts (showing an expert's schema), worked in teams, gave feedback, and provided remediation and enrichment (a shared mental schema), that the instruction most closely resembled cognitivism.

Cognitivism appeared best for two reasons. First, he wanted managers to be flexible in their use of the procedures due to the variety of situations and workers with which they would be dealing (this reduced the potential for behaviorism). Second, he wanted a standardization in the procedures, one that could be used throughout the system (which reduced the potential for cognitivism). Here is how he might have designed the material relying more heavily toward these two other theories.


1. Write a step-by-step procedure for implementing a performance evaluation.

2. Provide a mnemonic to help managers memorize the steps.

3. Provide an opportunity to practice saying and doing the steps in order.

4. Provide rewards when the learners can say the steps in order, and additional rewards when the form is filled out correctly.


1. Present a scenario in which learners assume the role of a manager who needs to evaluate a variety of employees.

2. Present a disruptive employee and showcase his actions.

3. Have the managers evaluate the employee, documenting their decisions.

4. Meet with the managers individually and have them justify their decisions. If weaknesses in their logic exist, probe their thinking until they can come to a justifiable conclusion.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 with various employees until the manager is able to create a workable system for employee evaluation.

Main points of Module 11

  • The three theories of instruction, behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, can be viewed as complementary, not competing, theories.


  • Behaviorism is based on the idea that because we can't see what people are thinking, we need to look at their behaviors to infer their thoughts.
  • True behaviorists think that learning is simply a strengthening of a behavior to a stimulus (cue), shaped by reinforcement.
  • A person's reaction to a cue can be viewed as either an association, chain, or discrimination.
  • An association is a connection between a single, unique cue and a specific behavior.
  • A chain is a series of cue/behaviors that trigger one another.
  • A discrimination is when a series of cues work together to trigger a specific behavior.
  • Behaviorist feel that learning conditions are established by creating specific cues to result in specific behaviors.
  • Dividing instruction into small chunks, creating a teaching environment to provide cues for the information chunks, and then providing frequent feedback, is an example of behaviorism.
  • Behaviorism works best when performance conditions resemble learning conditions, instruction can be chunked, and tasks are fairly simple.


  • Cognitivists believe that learning is more than seeing behaviors, and that we need to be concerned with what people think.
  • Cognitivists think that we each form mental representations of our world, called schema, that direct our behaviors.
  • It is during the construction and manipulation of these schema, from the mental maps of a novice to those of an expert, that learning occurs.
  • To facilitate learning, cognitivists model an expert's schema, then help the learner think like an expert through practice and feedback, often through simulations.
  • Cognitivism works well for complex tasks with well defined goals in which there is a single, best way to complete the task.


  • Constructivism and cognitivism are similar in that they both believe that learners develop mental schemes of the world, and that learning occurs through the advancement of their schema.
  • Constructivists, however, believe that there is no one, objective reality, and that reality exists independently in the mind of each learner, based upon their own, unique experiences.
  • Instructors help learners develop flexible, problem solving skills by providing experiences that help the learners construct and modify their individual schema.
  • Problem based learning, anchored instruction, and case based learning are techniques used by constructivists that provide real life, complex, contexts in which learners develop their skills and knowledge.

For more information

Burton, J. K., Moore, D. M., & Magliaro, S. G. (1997). Behaviorism and instructional technology. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communication and technology (pp. 46-73). New York: Macmillan.

Duffy, T. M., & Cunningham, D. J. (1997). Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communication and technology (pp. 170-198). New York: Macmillan.

Winn, W., & Snyder, D. (1997). Cognitive perspectives in psychology. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communication and technology (pp. 112-142). New York: Macmillan.

Introduction Connect Apply Reflect Extend


Page authors: Donn Ritchie, Bob Hoffman, Chris Volkl & James Marshall. Last updated by James Marshall: Spring, 2006