Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Learning from Training: Learning Theories

Learning is perceived to be both a cognitive construct and a social construct.  Some may argue that learning is predominantly cognitive while others would argue that learning is primarily social.  In either case, regardless of which epistemology you prescribe to, learning from training works best when both cognitive and social activities are incorporated.

Learning as a cognitive construct:

Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) identified the cognitive perspective of learning from the camps of Piaget, Kuhn, and Dewey.  This perspective views learning as: "meaning… by the individual and is dependent on the individual's previous and current knowledge structure. Learning is thus an internal cognitive activity" (p. 291). This stream of learning theories view past experiences, existing knowledge, and interactions with the environment as critical to new learning.

Learning as a social construct:

Merriam et al. (2007) identified the social perspective of learning from the campus of Vygotsky and Driver. This perspective views culture and social interaction as being critical to learning.  "This approach involves learning the culturally shared ways of understanding and talking about the world and reality (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 292).  From this perspective culture, artifacts, and social interaction with others is critical to new learning.

The learning spectrum:

Merriam et al. (2007) describe these two learning theories as a type of spectrum, with cognitive theories on one end of the spectrum and social theories on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Realistically, the location one is on this learning spectrum is situational. In some situations the learning could be more cognitive, while in other situations this learning could be mostly social.  

Training and Learning:

Viewing the composite of learning from the middle of the learning spectrum one would view learning as both cognitive and social.  Situationally, this would be the optimal position to maximize learning from training.  Specific learning activities have been identified that would take advantage of both the cognitive and social theories of learning.  Listed below are a few activities / theories that could be used during training to optimize learning.

  • Activity Theory (AT): Activity theory 'conceptualizes learning as involving a subject (the learner), and object (the task or activity) and mediating artifacts…. Activity theory… combines the individual and the social (including culture and history) in understanding an activity such as learning' (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 292).
  • Action-Based Learning: Action-Based Learning is "a dynamic, real-time method of training that brings a group of individuals together to identify the cause of real problems and arrive at possible solutions…. requiring those solutions to be put into action and the results fed back to the group" (Kirkpatrick, & Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 116).
  • Evaluative Research: Evaluative research can be used in a training environment as a means to combine both a groups knowledge and experience through social interactions.  Evaluative research "involves statements about cause-and-effect relationships" (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2010, p. 12). One example of an evaluative research model is a needs assessment where "a set of procedures for identifying and prioritizing needs related to societal, organizational, and human performance" (McKillip, as cited in Gall et al., 2010, p. 515) is conducted.  Another type of evaluative research would be responsive evaluation, responsive evaluation "focuses on identifying and describing stakeholders' issues… and concerns" (Gall et al. 2010, p. 516).
  • Action Research: Action Research is research conducted in the workplace, where the problem exists.  Gall et al. (2010) identified seven steps to an action research project:
    • Selection of a Focus for the Study (or training)
    • Data Collection
    • Analysis and Interpretation of the Data
    • Taking Action
    • Reflection
    • Continuation or Modification of Practices
    • Preparing a Report of the Findings (or group presentation)
    • *parenthesis include items added, not in original referenced material*


Effective training could maximize learning by focusing activities along the middle of the learning spectrum. Various activities are available from the education and research literature that could be used in training situations that provide learning opportunities for participants.  The above activities are only a few of those available that could be used in a training exercise.  Those listed are identified to maximize learning as viewed from the middle of the learning spectrum.


Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. (2010). Applying Educational Research (6th ed.). Boston, MS: Pearson.

Kirkpatrick, J. D., & Kirkpatrick, W. K. (2010). Training on Trial: How Workplace Learning Must Reinvent Itself to Remain Relevant. New York, NY: American Management Association (AMACOM).

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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