Skip to content

Other ways to search: Events Calendar | UTHSC News

Learning Theory and Research


  • A relatively permanent change in the capacity for behavior
  • Learning is individualized and contextual
  • All learners bring to the learning experience, different:
      • knowledge, skills and capabilities
      • motivations and interests
      • ways to engage in learning in any given context
  • These provide a unique lens through which learners engage, interpret and act on new learning experiences. “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing,” (Rich, 1994, p.199)

A Goal for All Educators - Identifying ways to maximize each student’s opportunity to learn.

Strategies for Designing Learning Experiences


  • Chunks are pieces of learning; as small as a letter and as large as a concept
  • Learners are, at best, able to remember 5-9 chunks (Miller, 1956
  • The more meaningful the information, the larger the chunk
  • Possible strategies
    • Frame the learning (provide context)
    • Relate to a meaningful learning experience (create more connections
    • Keep it simple (KIS) by removing distractors (unnecessary information)
    • Build on previous chunks
    • Review regularly throughout learning experience
    • Ask specific questions and seek mini-summaries
    • Use meaningful acronyms, rhymes, concept maps and verbal labels

Variability of Practice

  • Varying the application and environmental factors during learning experiences (Schmidt, 1975)
  • In comparison to constant practice formats
    • Produces higher error rates during practice and learning
    • Lower error rates during performance and transfer (see below) to novel situations (Goode and Magill, 1986)
    • Greater skill or memory retention (Carson and Weigand, 1979)
  • Utilize Gentile’s Taxonomy of Motor Skills
    • Even skills/capabilities with no apparent variability (closed environments) benefit from variability of practice (Carson and Weigand, 1979)
    • Skill complexity is determined by the degree of variability in factors such as body movement, object manipulation and environmental context

Contextual Interference

  • Created by increasing the randomness of practice schedule/order and variability of practice conditions
  • In comparison to blocked or serial practice schedules
    • Causes the solution-generation process which benefits learning (Lee and Magill, 1983)
  • Elaboration hypothesis (Shea and Morgan, 1979; Shea and Zimny, 1983)
    • More durable memories as a result of increased meaningfulness and distinctiveness
    • Increased strategy use
    • More adaptation and modification
  • Reconstruction hypothesis (Lee and Magill, 1983)
    • Need to reconstruct a movement for next practice attempt
    • Greater attention demands (more focused and aware)
    • Blocked and constant practice participants overestimate learning/capability

Distributed Practice

  • Practice which is distributed over time in shorter sessions
  • In comparison to massed practice (e.g. cramming for an exam)
    • Research indicates greater learning and retention in less practice time
  • Possible reasons for massed practice to be less successful include fatigue, diminished cognitive effort and lack of time for memory consolidation (to reflect on learning and make meaningful memory connections)

Learning Transfer

  • Previous experiences which impact performance of a new capability or in a new context
  • Such transfer, based on context, can have to varying degrees a:
    • positive (enhances) impact
    • negative (interferes) impact

Verbal Labels of Movement

  • Verbal cues/prompts
    • Short and concise phrases to direct attention and prompt thought and action
  •  Feedback
    • Knowledge of results
    • Prompts and cues (self and others)
    • Debriefs and reflections

Modifying Practice Experiences

  • There are an infinite number of ways to modify learning and practice experiences
  • Organization and complexity of the skill or capability needs to be analyzed to determine appropriate strategies
    • Whole practice
      • Simplification (reducing difficulty initially)
        • Simulations, role plays, progressions, scaffolding, offering prompts, etc.
        • Larger targets, reducing the speed, limiting environmental factors, etc.
      • Adding complexity to further refine skills and capabilities
        • Smaller targets, decreasing time, adding environmental variables, etc.
    • Part practice
      • Fractionization (asymmetrical tasks) e.g. practicing each hand separately while learning piano
      • Segmentation (progressive parts) progressively adding parts towards the whole
        • Typically want to either start from the beginning or the end of the skill 

Pertinent Theories


  • Bruner (1966)
  • “first… to understand man you must understand how his experiences and his acts are shaped by his intentional states and the second is that the form of these intentional states is realized only through participation in the symbolic systems of the culture,” (Bruner, 1990, p. 33).
  • Learners actively construct new information based on past and current learning
  • Mental models (constructs) empower learning beyond what has been shared in the course
    • Active and meaningful engagement
    • Language is important as a symbolic representation (meaningful internalization)
  • Identified scaffolding as an effective teaching approach for enhancing learning
  • Incorporate Discovery Learning approach to teaching; creating a problem-solving framework for exploration, experimentation and questioning
  • Experiential Learning, Case/Problem-based Learning are two key constructivist approaches to course design

Dynamic Systems/Patterns

  • Bernstein (1967); Kugler, Kelso and Turvey (1980)
  • It is a multi-disciplinary perspective and focuses on the interaction between the dynamic properties (constraints) of the body and the environment (Magill, 2004)
  • The body consists of multiple systems which interact and self-organize
  • Behavior and learning are considered non-linear
  • This has implications for how we learn and unlearn
    • Keys to what and how we learn are determined by the constraints present and the perception of those constraints
    • To unlearn or transition from a behavior, the constraints need to be manipulated to no longer make the current stable state attractive

Levels of Learning

  • Gagne (1965)
  • Identifies 9 Events of Instruction, ‘conditions’ necessary for learning to occur
    • Gain attention; clarify objectives; stimulate recall; chunk content in meaningful ways; provide learning guidance; elicit performance/practice; provide feedback; assess performance; enhance retention and transfer
  • Different learning outcomes require different forms of instruction
  • How to use this model (Khadjooi, et al., 2011)
  • Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction – Georgia Southern university

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  • Maslow (1943) identified 5 needs by which people are motivated
  • Deficit or deprivation of these needs is motivating
  • Everyone has a desire to move toward self-actualization
  • Basic Needs
    •  Physiological
    • Safety
  • Psychological Needs
    • Love and belongingness
    • Esteem
  •  Self-fulfillment
    •  Self-actualization
  • More on Maslow’s hierarchy
  • Maslow’s Human Needs - TED Radio Hour

Monroe’s Motivation Sequence

  • Monroe (1943)
  • Attention
    • Arouse interest; Relevance; Involve audience; Statistics; Question
  •  Need
    • Change; Existing problem; Personalize/localize; Potential consequences
  •  Satisfaction
    • Facts; Background; Examples; Potential solutions/plan;
  •  Visualization
    • Benefits; Personalize/localize; Improvement; Contrast with alternatives
  •  Action
    • What to do to solve the issues; Keep it simple and attainable; Specific to do’s

Social Learning Theory

  • Bandura (1977)
  • Learning occurs via observation, imitation and modeling
  • “…most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Bandura, 1977, p. 22)
  • Key components of learning from modeling:
    • Attention (novel, unique, pertinent)
    • Retention (what is retained or forgotten; highly impacted by what the observed attended to)
    • Reproduction (of what was observed; requires practice to refine)
    • Motivation (to perform behavior; rewards and punishments impact motivation, e.g. attention from others)

Zone of Proximal Development

  • Vygotsky identified the Zone of Proximal Development as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers" (1978, p. 86)
  • Key strategies:
    • Scaffolding
    • Using developmental progressions
    • Ecological Task Analysis (Davis and Burton, 1991)
    • Reciprocal teaching (Palincsar and Brown, 1984)
      • Predicting
      • Questioning
      • Clarifying
      • Summarizing
    • Cooperative learning – Vanderbilt University
      • Modifying environmental variables
        • Number, degree of authenticity, time, etc.
        • Gentile’s Taxonomy of Motor Skills
          • Skill complexity is determined by the degree of variability in body movement, object manipulation and environmental context
    • Metacognition


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. NY: W.H. Freeman

Bernstein, N. (1967). The coordination and regulation of movement. London, UK: Pergamon Press

Brown, J., Collins, A. and Duguid, S. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carson, L. and Weigand R. (1979). Motor schema formation and retention in young children: A test of Schmidt’s schema theory. Journal of Motor Behavior, 11(4), 247-251

Davis, W. and Burton, A. (April, 1991). Ecological task analysis: Translating movement behavior theory into practice. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 8,  154-177

Dreyfus S. and Dreyfus H. (February, 1980). A five stage model of the mental activities involved in directed skill acquisition. California University Berkeley Operations Research Center [monograph on the Internet]

Gagne, R. (1965). The Conditions of Learning. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Goode, S. and Magill, R. (1986). Contextual interference effects in learning three badminton serves. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 57(4), 308-314

Khadjooi, K., Rostami, K. and Ishaq, S. (2011). How to use Gagne's model of instructional design in teaching psychomotor skills. Gastroenterology and Hepatology from Bed to Bench, 4(3), 116-119

Kugler, P., Kelso, J. and Turvey, M. (1980). On the concept of coordinative structures as dissipative structures: I. Theoretical lines of convergence. In G. Stelmach J. Requin (Eds.), Tutorials in motor behavior (pp. 3-47). NY: New Holland

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Lee, T. and Magill, R. (1983). A locus of contextual interference in motor skill acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 9, 730-746

Magill, R. (2004). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications. (7th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396

McDonald, P., Oliver, S. and Newell, K. (1995). Perceptual-motor exploration as a function of biomechanical and task constraints. Acta Psychologica, 88(2), 127-165

Miller, G.A. (1956), The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97

Monroe, A.H.  (1943). Monroe’s principles of speech (military edition). Chicago, IL: Scott Foresman and Company

Palincsar, A. and Brown, A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 2, 117-175

Pena, A. (2010). The Dreyfus model of clinical problem-solving skills acquisition: A critical perspective. Medical Education Online, 15

Rich, A. (1994). Invisibility in academe. In Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985, 199. NY: W.W. Norton

Schmidt, R. (1975). A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning theory. Psychological Review, 82, 255-260

Shea, J. and Morgan, R. (1979). Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5, 179-187

Shea, J. and Zimny, S. (1983). Context effects in memory and learning movement information. In R. A. Magill (Ed.), Memory and control of action, (pp. 345-366). Amsterdam: North Holland.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

May 26, 2022