Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 2nd edition

Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 2nd edition / The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning

Swain, Philip H

PEDAGOGICALLY DRIVEN INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN AND THE ENGINEERING CLASSROOM Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 2nd edition by Many Perkins Driscoll Allyn & Bacon, 1999, 448 pages, ISBN 0205263216

The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning by James E. Zull Stylus Publishing, 2002, 263 pages, ISBN 1579220541

Of necessity, engineering professors know a lot about designing things; few know much about instructional design and, in particular, how instructional design relates to theories of how people learn.

Returning to full-time faculty duties following a long stretch in university administration, I decided to utilize a semester’s sabbatical leave doing something that engineering faculty members rarely find the opportunity to do. I spent four months studying theories of learning and instruction. I was motivated to do this by the desire to develop a pedagogically driven approach to the design of online courses. But an unexpected result has been a new perspective on how we should approach teaching engineering, even in the face-to-face classroom.

As we know, “instructional technology,” the convergence of computer and communications technologies within the realm of teaching and learning, has already had profound effects on education at all levels, pre-K to post-graduate, and in many disciplines including engineering. Some of these effects are seen in the face-to-face classroom, where diverse media enhance the presentation of instructional content while the World Wide Web enhances access to content from locations far and wide. Through distance education, the Web and other telecommunications modalities are being employed to facilitate access to lifelong learning programs for “anyone” at “anytime” and “anyplace.”

Many studies [1] have demonstrated that the learning outcomes of technology-mediated distance education can be at least as favorable as face-to face education. (In fact, it has been shown rather convincingly that, based on learning outcomes, instructional effectiveness is technology neutral in the sense that equally good results can be obtained whether or not technology is employed and, when it is, regardless of the type(s) of technology used-audio, TV, Internet, etc.) The majority of these studies are based on a model for distance teaching and learning that emulates the traditional teaching format, i.e.,

In-class: lecture; discussion, primarily moderated by the instructor; testing

Out-of-class: literature review (text, publications); drill and practice

Laboratory (when appropriate): simple applications of theory

Only fairly recently have distance learning researchers and practitioners begun seriously to suggest that the constraints imposed by this model are inappropriate, that distance education (or online learning, specifically) “creates a novel instructional environment with its own particular advantages, limitations, and challenges” [2]. If we accept that we really are dealing with a novel environment, it makes sense to examine the theories of learning and instruction and apply these theories explicitly to develop a new, pedagogically driven instructional design approach for online learning.

Theories of Learning and Instruction

Here is a thumbnail history relating how modern learning and instructional theory have evolved [3].

In the 1950s, B. F. Skinner’s programmed instruction, based on principles gleaned from the operant conditioning laboratory, led to a behaviorist model of learning. This model posits a stimulus-reaction-reinforcement (stimulus) cycle through which the learner achieves a successively more accurate approximation of what is intended to be learned. Although this model is well suited to situations involving observable learned behavior, it does not apply well when the aim is to engender skills and knowledge that are not easily observed (certainly the case for engineering).

Since the 1960s, cognitive psychology has had a major impact on instructional design, emphasizing the role of the learner’s cognitive and affective processes in learning. Information processing theory, one branch of cognitive theory, views the learner as computer-like, a system into which information can be input, processed, and stored for later retrieval. Assimilation theory, a second branch of cognitive theory, focuses on the human learner’s ability to integrate new information into the brain’s existing informational structure, organizing information into meaningful units.

There remained the crucial step of translating learning theory into instructional theory. The appearance of Robert Gagne’s book, Conditions of Learning in 1965 [4] was a landmark in this respect. Combining the information-processing model of learning with behaviorist concepts, Gagne produced theories about instruction methods and instructional planning. His nine “instructional events” provided a “robust and influential conceptual schema for lesson design” [3]. Engineering faculty may feel comfortable applying Gagne’s “recipe” for instruction, as shown below (adapted from [5]), whether it be for classroom instruction or online learning.

Some of the most modern thinking about learning and instruction has its roots in the works of Jean Piaget and others who believe that knowledge acquisition is a process of continuous self-construction by the learner. Constructivism, which became prominent in the late 1980s, holds that “knowledge is individually constructed and socially co-constructed by learners based on their interpretations of experiences in the world” [6]. Constructivism makes the learner the center of attention, with the instructor relegated to the role of arranging suitable conditions for learning. From the outset, the constructivist instructor or instructional designer is concerned with the learner’s situation and how to enhance the learner’s interaction with his or her environment to maximize learning. The focus is more on process than product.

Driscoll [5, pp. 382-383] distilled the following instructional principles from the work of numerous researchers attempting to articulate constructivist theory:

* Embed learning in complex, realistic, and relevant environments.

* Provide for social negotiation as an integral part of learning.

* Support multiple perspectives and the use of multiple modes of representation.

* Encourage ownership in learning.

* Nurture self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.

Constructivism as a modern perspective on learning is consistent with modern expectations of education [7]. Early in the 20th Century, education consisted mainly of teaching the basic skills-“the three Rs.” In the 21st Century, educational systems must teach people to think and read critically, to express themselves clearly and persuasively, to solve complex problems in science and mathematics. As further described in [7],

More than ever, the sheer magnitude of human knowledge renders its coverage by education an impossibility; rather, the goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about history, science and technology, social phenomena, mathematics and the arts. Fundamental understanding about subjects, including how to frame and ask meaningful questions about various subject areas, contributes to individuals’ more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners.

The learner-centered and learner-engaging approach to instruction represented by Constructivism facilitates instruction that can accomplish these demands.

While theorists tend to “contrast” Gagnes Nine Events and the constructivist philosophy of instruction, I find them best exploited as blended. To see this, one can adopt a learner-centered, constructivist orientation and still apply Gagne’s nine events to implement the instructional design.

1. Gaining attention: Precipitate a discussion with the aim of assisting the learners to appreciate that achieving the course or program goals will benefit the learner. Such an activity may produce the additional benefit of enhancing the learners’ motivation to take charge of their own learning.

2. Inform the learner of the objective: Providing general direction consistent with the course goals, allow the learners to discuss and define the learning objective(s) for the course. The learners will then have a heightened expectancy for the learning activity they are about to experience and feel enhanced ownership in achieving the objectives they have defined.

3. Stimulating recall of prior learning: Refer to prerequisite learning specified for this course or program and/or stimulate discussion of the backgrounds (perhaps both assumed and actual) of the learners who have selected this program. This instructional event is totally aligned with the constructivist philosophy: prior learning is where new learning must begin.

4. Presenting the content: It has already been prescribed that problem-based learning, a constructivist strategy, will be used in this program to convey the content. Assuming the learners actually become suitably involved, a high level of intellectual activity, including critical thinking, will result.

5. Providing “learning guidance”: Depending on the assumed backgrounds of the learners, a tutorial on problem-based learning or a lesson on critical thinking skills applicable to the problem at hand may be appropriate. Examples will also be helpful.

6. Eliciting performance: Since the approach to presenting the content has been specified as problem-based learning, “performance” may be a natural consequence of the instructional method. A team-based process would be especially consistent with a constructivist approach.

7. Providing feedback: Prompt feedback should be provided, from the instructor, peers, or serf-assessment by the learners. Peer feedback would be most consistent with a constructivist approach and would be a natural consequence of a team-oriented process.

8. Assessing performance: Whatever learning assessment approach is used, it should be remembered that development of critical thinking is an implicit or explicit course goal. Therefore, the assessment must include an opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking.

9. Enhancing retention and transfer: Retention is enhanced by providing as many opportunities as possible to review and apply what has been learned. One way to do this is to provide a mechanism for team members to continue to be in contact after the conclusion of the program.

A Very Different But Supporting Perspective: The Biology of Learning

The biology of the brain yields especially interesting insights into how people learn. Although we don’t usually think of it in such stark terms, the aim of education is, after all, to change learners’ brains! Now, teachers don’t change brains, at least not directly-only learners can change their own brains. The teacher’s job is to create conditions under which the learners’ brains can be changed in the specific ways intended by the associated educational activity. In The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice ofTeaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning [8], biologist James Zull brings together neuroscience and his considerable experience as a teacher to relate how the human brain and body receive and process stimuli to effect learning. (For a more thorough review of this book, see [9].)

In the end, effective learning involves seating information as thoroughly as possible in the brain, i.e., establishing neuronal networks in the brain that are extensive and strongly reinforced. Understanding the biology of the brain-its structure, chemistry, and interconnection with the rest of the body-provides clues as to how to bring this about. Recast as the biology of learning, Zull’s work provides insights for teachers on how to assist the learner to make learning happen, in the process strongly supporting the conclusions of the instructional theorists.

Sensing comes not only from the familiar five senses-vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell-but also from the sense of body position (e.g., seated or standing, relaxed or tense) and from our feelings (e.g., afraid, confident, excited, calm). Specific regions of the brain integrate the various sensory inputs with information already stored in its neuronal networks to create new information that usually is held first in working (or short-term) memory. When it is acted upon, this new information is then routed to and stored in parts of the brain that generally depend on the nature of the information as well as other conditions of the body and its environment. The action phase can be physical action such as motion or it can be mental action such as reasoning and reflection. The cycle is closed when the brain senses the result of the action and the cycle repeats. The cycle does not necessarily begin with sensing; it can begin at any point in the cycle.

Each cycle produces changes in the brain. These changes may consist of adding new neurons, modifying existing interconnection patterns among neurons, or changing the strength or polarity (excitatory or inhibitory) of the interconnections.

A live brain is always active and therefore always learning something. However, a student in a classroom (or other learning situation) may not necessarily be learning what the teacher intends. Rather than learning the subject matter, the student may be learning that the teacher is boring, the room is too hot, or the student two seats away has a new significant other! The teacher’s success depends on gaining the student’s attention (for example by convincing the student that the subject matter is important), providing opportunities and support for the student to be exposed to the content, and arranging for the content to be stored as firmly and ubiquitously in the student’s brain as possible.

Some of Zull’s specific pointers about the use of prior knowledge include [8]:

* Although they may not necessarily be aware of it, all learners have prior knowledge that affects how they respond to our teaching.

* Since new neuronal networks are always the result of changes in existing networks, new knowledge must always start from prior knowledge.

* The prior knowledge of learners is not an “ether;” it is physical, real and persistent.

* If we ignore or avoid prior knowledge, it will hinder teaching.

* Care must be exercised in correcting erroneous prior knowledge, lest instead of correcting it, the effect is to reinforce it.

* Writing assignments can be helpful in discovering prior knowledge of learners.

* Prior knowledge is likely to be concrete; teachers should begin with the concrete.

* Concepts and broad principles should be developed from specific examples.

* Prior knowledge is a gift to the teacher; it tells us where and how to start.

To engage extensive parts of the brain, instruction should involve a richness of delivery strategies: multi-sensory, language-spoken and written, big picture and details, concrete and abstract, reflection, to cite just a few. Emotional involvement of the learner is especially important. It may be surprising to learn that, “Plasticity [structural change] in the brain probably depends more on signals from the emotional centers than it does on sensory input” [8, p. 225]. Driven by “self-interest,” the brain learns best when it is experiencing positive feelings-pleasure, feeling in control, success or achievement, security, and confidence. Negative feelings-boredom, pain, insecurity-tend to detract from learning. Learning is best when the learners recognize that it truly matters in their lives.

Reflection integrates information, leading to comprehension and “deep learning.” Reflection requires time, so it is understandable that the results of cramming for exams or the typical timed examination experience do not produce the kind of learning that is likely to persist once the learning experience has concluded-perhaps not even to the final exam! However, it is useful to encourage learners to review exam results and spend time reflecting on how they could have improved their performance.

Awareness of the use and limitations of working memory is very important for effective instruction. Remember that this is the usual route from the outside world to long-term memory. Working memory is limited in capacity, tenacity and time [8, p. 183]. It can hold only about seven discrete items, such as unrelated words, at a time. And even a slight distraction can result in the loss of information from working memory. Therefore, a useful strategy is to break large blocks of material into smaller chunks, and with each chunk include activities that require some intellectual activity that will promote transfer of the material into long-term memory.

The action part of the cycle also calls for a richness of strategies. Although the notion of “drill and practice” is a familiar strategy, the range of possibilities is virtually limitless. For instance, there are many ways for the learner to be given a chance to express a new concept in language, written or oral. Small group discussions, hypothesis formulation, writing assignments, devising metaphors or similes, and describing implied actions-all require activities on the part of the learner that will help to transform new information into remembered content, sensory information into neuronal networks.


In summary, only the learner can learn. The role of the engineering professor should be two-fold: as an instructional designer, to create materials and activities through which the learner can experience what is to be learned, integrate the new information with prior knowledge, and take action on the new knowledge; and as a teacher, to assure that the learner has opportunities to use these materials and activities and to provide incentives and a supportive environment that will encourage and facilitate their use. In-depth, formal exposure to theories of instruction and how people learn, perhaps a luxury few engineering professors can afford, can potentially pay huge dividends in terms of their effectiveness in the classroom.


[1] Russell, T.L., “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: A Comparative Research Annotated Bibliography on Technology for Distance Education,” Office of Instructional Telecommunications, North Carolina State Univ., Raleigh, 1999. Also, see examples online at

[2] McDonald, J., “Is ‘As Good As Face-to-Face’ As Good As It Gets?” J. Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 6, Issue 2, pp. 10-23, August 2002.

[3] Molenda, M., “A New Framework for Teaching in the Cognitive Domain,” ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology, at Syracuse University, EDO-IR-2002-09, December 2002. Available online at

[4] Gagne, R.M., The Conditions of Learning, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1965 (3rd edition, 1977).

[5] Driscoll, M.P., Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 2nd edition, Allyn & Bacon, 1999.

[6] Jonassen, D., “Designing Constructivist Learning Environments,” in Reigeluth, C.M., Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, Vol. 2, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 1999, pp. 215-239.

[7] How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School [Expanded Edition], Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2000. Available online at

[8] Zull, J.E., The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, Stylus Publishing, 2002.

[9] Swain, P.H., “Book Review: The Art of Changing the Brain,” The Interface (newsletter), Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, August 2003, p. 11.

Note: Diane Rover, the Academic Bookshelf Editor, invited Dr. Swain to serve as Guest Editor for this Academic Bookshelf. His address is the following. Dr. Philip H. Swain, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2035, telephone: (765) 494-3443, email:


School of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Purdue University

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Oct 2003

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