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Comparing Learning Theories

Are you a hospital preceptor or a Subject Matter Expert who needs to choose the most effective learning theory for developing your course?

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Here is a brief overview of your learning theory choices, from the oldest style to the most recent. (View a more detailed comparison of learning theories in a table format at It provides bibliography links, so you can prove your course follows best practice.)
  • Behaviourism is suitable for teaching psychomotor skills in a tight time frame, like driving a car or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). It is appropriate for standardized testing and sequenced subject matter. Behaviourism was most popular from the late 1800's until the mid-1970's, and there is a lot of scientific evidence to back up its effectiveness. Its focus is on objectively observable behaviour changes in the student, and not motivation or emotion. Behaviourism posits that students are passive, giving a response to the teacher's stimulus. The teacher alone designs the learning environment. The teacher presents information and the students demonstrate they understand it by passing a test. The teacher shapes (conditions) the students' behaviour with positive and negative reinforcements. 
  • Constructivism is best for independent study courses, kinesthetic learners, Special Ed, or a very diverse classroom. It is appropriate for a custom-made, critical thinking curriculum that tackles real-world problems. Constructivism was most popular from the 1920's until about 2000. It requires very active, independent learners. The teacher is only a guide or facilitator, who models behaviour, then gradually withdraws support from the students. The approach is hands-on and learners construct their own meaning by solving case studies. 
  • Cognitivism is best for social and cultural classes, such as Health Promotion, second language learning, and Rhetoric. It is for self-motivated students with insight and self-discipline, who seek self-actualization. Cognitivism has been popular since 1912 to present and is associated with Gestalt. It focuses on information processing from short-term to long-term memory, and its retrieval. Cognitivism should be avoided for standardized testing, tight time constraints, autistics, or Special Ed students.
  • Andragogy is best for teaching experienced adults. It is task-oriented and appropriate for role playing and job reskilling. The facilitator guides self-motivated participants through problem-solving exercises. Andragogy has been popular since the 1940's and is routinely used for training by the Canadian Red Cross Society and the YMCA.  
  • Connectivism is touted as "a learning theory for the digital age". Connectivism is suitable for studying big ideas that affect us all, like climate change. It assumes that you will have a reliable Internet connection and up-to-date technology for every member of the class. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) where thousands of students interact (form connections) with each other worldwide are Connectivist. You will require help from tutors, an Audio/Visual technician, and the IT Department to conduct a Connectivist course.

Get a glimpse of the more detailed table version, below:

Full document at