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Chapter 5
Theories of Learning




In the 1947 report, The Presidents Commission on Higher Education described the primary goal of the education system as the full, rounding and continuing development of the person.


This might seem to be worthwhile and appropriate goal for education, but on closer inspection, the statement provides little specific information regarding what an educated person should be like. (What would you say is the Goal of Education)  Teach to Think, Reason, Problem Solve.


The Presidents Commission report is a good example of Word Magic.  It sounds nice, but we eventually realize that we dont have a clue as to what the words really mean.


When and if we dont know exactly what our educational goals are, we dont know what or how to teach, nor do we know whether instruction is effectively accomplishing its goal. This is why specific educational or behavioral objectives are necessary.




Ideally, behavioral objectives have three components:


  • Stated Outcomes:  outcomes that are observable and measure behavior
  • Specific Conditions: conditions under which the behavior should be exhibited
  • Criteria for judging:  the acceptable performance of the behavior.




Some verbs such understand, appreciate, know, be award of, and remember should not be used in behavioral objectives because they tell us little, if anything, about what a student should actually be able to do.


Other verbs such as write, compute, list, describe, and select clearly communicate observable responses.  They should be used in writing behavioral objectives.


An example of a properly stated outcomes objective might be as follows:


Stated Outcomes   The student will describe the major causes of Political unrest in

                                 South Africa.


An example of specifying conditions in behavioral objectives might be as follows:


Specifying Conditions  Given the formula for a computing time and distance,

                                 the student will correctly compute the travel time and distance

                                 from New York to San Diego.                          

In Many cases, behavior is not strictly Right or Wrong. In cases where right and wrong behaviors are not obvious, a behavioral objective should specify the criterion for acceptable performance, perhaps in terms of a certain percentage of correct answers, a certain time limit, or the degree of acceptable deviation from the correct answer.


An example of a behavioral objective that properly states the Criteria for Judging performance might be as follows:


Criteria For Judging   On weekly written spelling tests, the student will correctly spell

                                       at least 85% of the years 500 spelling words.




                                       Given a sheet of 100 addition problems involving the addition

                                       of two single digits numbers, including all possible combinations

                                       of the digits 0 through 9, the student will correctly write the

                                       answers to these problems within five minutes.





Much criticism has been aimed at current behavioral objectives because they focus on lower-level skills (rote memory, facts) rather than higher-level skills (complex synthesizing information).   Cause or Effect. Why Civil War?     Black Labor!


This occurs because writing behavioral objectives that cover every goal can be difficult, if not impossible.  Consequently, many educators have decided that writing a smaller number of general, non-behavioral objectives provide an acceptable alternative.


There are times when objectives reflecting basic knowledge and skills are appropriate, but objectives reflecting sophisticated levels of learning are desired, especially as student get older.


In such situations, taxonomies of objectives are useful.  A taxonomy is a way of noting behaviors we might want to see the student demonstrate, often listed in order of increasing complexity.  For example Blooms Taxonomy of Educational Objectives describe six levels of knowing and using information. These six levels are listed below.


Knowledge: rote memorizing of information in basically word for word fashion


Comprehension: translating information into ones own words; for example, paraphrasing a rule.


Application: using information in a new situation; for example, applying psychological theories of learning to educational practice.


Analysis: breaking information down into its constituent parts; for example, discovering the assumptions underlying a philosophical essay or identifying fallacies in a logical argument.


Synthesis: constructing something new by integrating several pieces of information; for example, developing a theory or presenting a logical defense for a particular point of view.


Evaluate: placing a value judgment on data; for example, critiquing a theory or determining the appropriateness of conclusions drawn from a research study.




As you might recall, from the perspective of Operant Conditioning, reinforcement must occur immediately after a response to have a significant impact on behavior.


Yet many reinforcers of classroom learning are delayed by hours, days, or, in the case of high school diploma or college degree, even years.





To provide a means by which responses can be reinforced immediately, Skinner developed Program instruction.


Program instruction or PI:  consist of several standard features two of which are:


  • material to be learned is presented in frames


  • Instruction is self-paced allowing for individual difference in learning rate

      and permitting students to progress through an instructional unit at their own



The earliest form of programmed instruction was a linear program: All student proceeded through the same sequence of frames in exactly the same order.


A more recent trend is to use a branching program.  Branching programs typically progress in larger steps than linear programs and allows students to move through the program at different rates.  Slower students who might have to do remedial work will not impede progress of better student want to move on to new information.





Computer-assisted instruction or CAI: is programmed instruction presented by means of a computer.



No pen or pencil needed


Branching is automatic:  Present correct frames based on response


Graphic:  Complex moving visuals can be displayed


Record / Maintain on going data: indicates who needs help, and how you are doing.


Continuous delivery: Can provide instruction when the teacher is not available and

                                     be delivered to rural and distances otherwise unable to reach.


As one might expect, PI and CAI is shown to be superior to traditional based instruction in terms of academic achievement and improved student attitudes toward schoolwork.




Mastery Learning: is an approach to instruction in which student must learn one lesson well before proceeding to the next lesson.


Mastery Learning include the following components:


Small, discrete units: Course content is broken up into a number of separate units

                                     or lessons, with each unit covering a small amount of material.


A logical sequence: Units are sequenced such that basic concepts and procedures are

                                  learned first.  More complex procedures are learned later.  The

                                  process through which the component parts of course content

                                  are identified and sequences, going from simple to complex, is

                                  called task analysis.


Demonstration of mastery at the completion of each unit: Before graduating from

                                  from one unit to the next, students must show that they have

                                  mastered the current unit, for example, by taking test on the

                                  content of that unit.


A concrete, observable criterion for mastery of each unit: Mastery of a unit is

                                  defined in specific concrete terms.  For example, to pass a

                                  unit on adding fraction with at least 90% of the items correct.


Additional remedial activities for students needing extra help of practice:

                                  Students do not always demonstrate mastery on the first try.

                                  Additional support and resources, perhaps alternative

                                  approaches to instruction, different materials, workbooks,

                                    study groups, and individual tutoring are provided for students

                                    where needed.





Personalized System of instruction (PSI) or the Keller Plan was developed to remedy the weakness of college instruction which does not immediately reinforce

student achievement.


PSI encompasses the following features:


Emphasis on individual study

Unit exams


Supplementary instructional techniques

Use of proctors




Research findings indicate that mastery learning and PSI facilitates student learning  and often leads to higher achievement than more traditional approaches.  Furthermore, students in mastery learning programs often retain the things they have learned for longer periods of time.


However, mastery learning and PSI are not without their problems.  In many cases, students who learn quickly receive less instruction than their classmates, raising a concern about possibly inequitable treatment of these students. Furthermore, for logistical reasons, faster-learning students must sometimes wait until their slower classmates have also mastered the material before they can proceed to the next unit, as a result, they learn less than they might otherwise. 




Program instruction and Mastery Learning applies to education for large groups.  When learning or behavior of a single student is of concern, a contingency contract is often more practical.


A contingency contract is an agreement (usually written) between a student and a teacher that specifies certain expectations for the student and the consequences of the student meeting those expectations.




Applied behavioral Analysis (ABA) sometimes known as behavior modification,

assumes that behavior problems are the results of past and present environmental circumstances.


ABA encompasses a number of procedures whereby an individuals present environment is modified to promote the reinforcement of acceptable behavior and to ignore inappropriate ones.





  • Both the present behavior and the desired behaviors are specified in observable, measurable terms.
  • An effective reinforcer is identified
  • A specific intervention or treatment plan is developed
  • Behavior is measured before and during treatment
  • The treatment is monitored for effectiveness as it progresses and modified if necessary
  • Measures are taken to promote generalization of newly acquired behavior
  • Treatment is phased out after the desired behavior is acquired





Even though instructional techniques (i.e. PI, CAI, Mastery Learning, PSI) based on operant conditioning principles are clearly effective, such techniques are not without critics.  Some criticisms are probably ill founded, while others should be taken more seriously.




Some of the ill-founded complaints are as follows:


  • Reinforcement is bribery
  • reinforcement develops dependence on concrete, external reward for appropriate behavior.
  • Reinforcing one student for being good teaches other student to be bad.
  • Changing a problem behavior does not change the underlying cause of that behavior; other behavioral manifestations of the underlying cause will appear.




  • Attempts to change behavior ignores cognitive factors that may be interfering with learning
  • Reinforcement of particular predetermined behaviors sometimes interferes with maximal learning and performance over the long run.


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