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Chapter 14
Theories of Learning





Theory of learning introduces you to a number or various learning styles and techniques. 


I often wonder what happens to students when they finished this Course. Does the information you have learned assist you in understanding how “you” learn best? Will you use the knowledge gained to become more familiar with your particular learning style?


When something you learn in one situation affects how you learn or perform in another situation, “transfer” has occurred.


Sometimes students transfer knowledge and skills from a previous experience to solve a problem: therefore, “problem solving” is a form or transfer.


Theorist have made several distinctions among types of transfer:  Types include



  • Positive versus Negative Transfer


  • Vertical versus Lateral Transfer


  • Specific versus General Transfer



Let’s look at each of these different transfers separately:





When learning in one situation facilitates learning or performance in another situation, we say that positive transfer has occurred.  Can you think of an example of positive transfer?


Learning basics mathematics procedures should facilitate a person’s ability to balance a checkbook



Conversely, when learning in one situation hinders a person’s ability to learn or perform in a second situation, then negative transfer has occurred.  Give an example.


People accustomed to driving a car with a  standard transmission, when behind the wheel of an automatic vehicle, often find themselves stepping on the floorboard seeking  a clutch that is not there




Vertical transfer is where an individual acquires new knowledge or skills by building on more basic information and procedures.   Example:



A student should probably master principles of addition before moving on to multiplications, because multiplication is an extension of addition.




Similarly, a medical student must have expertise in human anatomy before studying surgical techniques because it would be difficult to perform an appendectomy when you can’t find the appendix.



Lateral Transfer When knowledge of the first topic is not essential to learning the second one but is helpful in learning it just the same, we say that Lateral transfer has occurred.  In this situations knowledge of one topic may affect learning a second topic even though the first is not a prerequisite to the second.  Example



Knowledge of French is not essential for learning Spanish, yet knowing French should facilitate one’s learning of Spanish because many words are similar in the two languages.






In Specific transfer, the original task and the transfer task overlap in content.  Example


A student who knows Spanish should easily learn Portuguese, because the two languages have similar vocabulary and syntax



In General Transfer, the original task and the transfer task are different in content.  For example


If knowledge of Latin helps a student learn Physics, or if the study habits a student develops in a Physics course facilitates the learning of Sociology, then general transfer is occurring.



In Concluding Transfer Types, it might be well to remember that as long as two tasks have something in common, the probability of transfer from one task to the other exists.  Yet, commonalities among tasks do not guarantee transfer.  Theorists agree that transfer does not occur nearly as often as it could or should.  Much school learning seems to yield “inert” knowledge that students seldom use outside the classroom.





A number of factors influence the probability that information or skills learned in one situation will transfer to another situation.  Some principles that can help predict when transfer is most likely to occur are:


  • Meaningful learning promotes better transfer than rote learning


  • The more thoroughly something is learned, the more likely it is to be transferred to a new situation.


  • The more similar two situations are, the more likely it is that what is learned in one situation will be applied to the other situation.


  • Principles are more easily transferred than knowledge.


  • The probability of transfer decreases as the time interval between the original task and the transfer task increases.




(Simple Solutions and Complex Solutions


The world presents us with many different kinds of problems.  Techniques for solving them may be simple and straight forward.  Yet, other problems might be complex and difficult with many answers:  Example


What number is obtained when 3354 is divided by 43?  (Simple Solution: all the information necessary for a solution is provided; the solution is a definite right or wrong answer


How can a 49 year old educational psychologist be helped to control her junk food habit (Complex Solution: may necessitate seeking out additional information; there might be more than one answer to the problem





Any problem has at least three components:  Anyone know what they are?  

Givens…pieces of information that are provided when the problem is presented.


Goal……the desired end; what the solution will hopefully accomplish.


Operations… actions that can be performed to approach or reach the goal.



Keep in mind that a well defined problem is much easier to solve than an ill defined problem.   (WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT THE PROBLEM IS….YOU ARE HALF WAY TO THE SOLUTION!)






Trial and error learning:  Seeking to accomplish a solution to a problem by continuously attempting various actions. Children might assemble a jigsaw puzzle by trying every piece with little consideration of the shape until the right piece is found.


Response Hierarchy:  When a problem is presented the individual has several different responses to the problem in mind, and therefore, follows any order of most likely to the least likely solution until one works.






  • Preparation:  Defining the problem and gathering information relevant to the solution.


  • Incubation:    Thinking about the problem at a subconscious level while engaging in other activities.


  • Inspiration:   Having sudden insight into the solution of the problem.


  • Verification:  Checking to be certain that the solution is correct.






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