Design Matters: How Learning Theories Unlock Learner Potential

We’ve all been there. Pouring our hearts into designing a training program only to see learners disengaged and the desired outcomes fall short. It’s a disheartening experience. We then point fingers, often blaming external factors like a lack of management support or learning culture. However, what if the culprit is closer than we think?

Today, more so than ever, there’s constant pressure to develop learning solutions quickly. Organizations often prioritize speed over quality, pushing for rapid deployment of learning solutions to address immediate business needs. This pressure can lead us to cut corners, sacrifice engagement for speed, and ultimately create learning experiences that fail to connect.

But consider this: while external factors like organizational support and culture are crucial, the root cause of many training failures lies within our own practices. As learning practitioners, we inadvertently neglect the foundational principles of learning design in our rush to meet deadlines. This neglect not only frustrates learners but also undermines our dedication to creating impactful learning solutions.

It’s time for a candid self-assessment: 

  • Are we truly adhering to the core principles that ensure effective learning experiences? 
  • Are we considering how adults learn best and applying those insights to our designs? 
  • Are we continuously developing our own skills and knowledge as instructional designers?
  • Do our learning strategies align with proven learning models?
  • How are we incorporating active learning strategies or learning design theories into our daily work? 

By reflecting on our practices, we can identify areas where we may fall short.

Why Learning Foundations Matter

Think about the architectural wonders designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. Their styles couldn’t be more different. Wright’s designs are known for their harmony with nature and simplicity, while Gehry’s work was known for bold, unconventional forms. Despite these very different approaches, both architects must adhere to fundamental principles of architecture. No matter how innovative or creative the design, structures would start falling on people’s heads without a solid foundation.

The same holds true with learning design. While the engagement elements of our programs can be as varied and creative as the works of Wright and Gehry, the underlying principles must remain strong and consistent. These foundational principles are what ensure the integrity and effectiveness of our learning solutions. Neglecting them, much like ignoring architecture principles, leads to failure.

Building Blocks for Powerful Learning

So where to start? Let’s start at the bottom, by understanding the building blocks of adult learning. Understanding the differences between instructional design theories, principles, and models is crucial for creating effective learning experiences.

Here’s the relationship between theories, principles, and models1:

  • Theories are the WHY: They explain the underlying reasons why certain instructional methods work.
  • Principles are the HOW: They provide practical guidelines on how to implement effective instruction based on the theories.
  • Models are the BLUEPRINT: They offer a structured approach to designing and developing instruction using theories and principles.

The table below summarizes key aspects and their practical applications:

DescriptionRole in L&DExample(s)
Body of Knowledge Learning Theories (Foundational)Overarching principle explaining how people learn (based on research in psychology, cognitive science, and education)Foundation – Understands learner needs & knowledge acquisitionBehaviorism (learning through reinforcement) Constructivism (learning through building knowledge) Cognitivism (focuses on mental processes)
Instructional Design Theories (Applied)More specific applied theories that provide guidance on how to design instructionGuides development – Informs specific instructional strategiesDiscovery-Based Learning
Backward Design
Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction
Social Learning Theory
Situated Cognition Theory
Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding
Instructional Design PrinciplesActionable best practices derived from theoriesGuides development – Creates effective learning experiencesMayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning
Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivation
Instructional Design ModelsStructured frameworks outlining design stepsStructured approach – Organizes & manages instructional projectsADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate)
SAM (Successive Approximation Model)
Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction
Dick and Carey

Understanding and applying these bodies of knowledge ensures that our training programs are engaging, relevant, and based on solid learning foundations (not just because we had a good guess).

Connecting Instructional Design Theories

Now that we can picture the theories – let’s connect the dots between theory, model, and application to see how they can guide our design process. Here I’ve taken a theory and connected it with a design model. This shows you “the why” behind the action.

Cognitive Learning Theory2 (CLT) Combined with Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction

CLT Focus: Attention, memory, information organization  

Merrill’s Principles: Activation (arouse prior knowledge), Demonstration (model the desired skill), Application (provide opportunities for practice), Integration (connect new knowledge to real-world scenarios).

Make the Connection: Let’s take an example most of us are familiar with (but perhaps didn’t have the vocabulary for): Cognitive Learning Theory is all about how our brains handle information—how we take it in, store it, and remember it. It focuses on key mental processes like paying attention and remembering things. By using the principles of CLT, we can follow Merrill’s framework to create engaging training. For instance, we can start with activities that tap into what learners already know, then move on to clear demonstrations and hands-on practice. Finally, by connecting what they’ve learned to real-world situations, we can help ensure they remember and use the skills long-term.

Constructivist Learning Theory Combined with Backward Design

Constructivist Focus: Active learning, building upon existing knowledge  

Backward Design: Start with desired outcomes, assessments, and design learning activities. Concentrate on content last.

Make the Connection: Constructivist Learning Theory is all about learners building their own understanding of the world through hands-on experiences and reflecting on those experiences. It focuses on active learning, where learners build on what they already know. Backward Design fits perfectly with this approach because it flips the usual process. Instead of starting with content, we start by designing activities that connect with learners’ experiences and desired outcomes. Then, we fill in the blanks with the relevant content. This way, the activities lead to deeper understanding and knowledge ownership, making learning more meaningful and engaging.

Behavioral Learning Theory (BLT) Combined with Social Learning Theory and Scaffolding

BLT Focus: Reinforcement, positive feedback  

Social Learning Theory: Learning through observation and interaction  

Scaffolding: Providing temporary support to help learners complete tasks within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)3.

Make the Connection: Behavioral Learning Theory is all about the actions we can see and how those actions are influenced by what’s happening around us. It focuses on using reinforcement and feedback to guide and shape behavior.

Social Learning Theory takes it a step further by showing that we learn by watching others and interacting with others. Think about how much we pick up just by observing colleagues or working in groups.

Now, let’s connect this with the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). ZPD is the sweet spot between what learners can do on their own and what they can achieve with a bit of help. This is where scaffolding comes in—providing temporary support to help learners bridge that gap. 

By combining Behavioral Learning Theory, Social Learning Theory, and the concept of ZPD with scaffolding, we create powerful learning experiences. Learners stay motivated and engaged through reinforcement and feedback, learn by observing and interacting with others, and get the support they need to tackle more challenging tasks. Some of you may be using this technique – and now you know why it works!

Why Should We Care?

Why should we care about these foundational principles and theories? The job gets done, right? Do I have to understand the Maillard Reaction before searing a piece of meat? No. But through understanding the science between heat, moisture and time, you might find better ways of making food more delicious.

The same reasoning applies to creating learning programs. Neglecting these principles can result in learning initiatives that fail to engage and help people retain knowledge effectively. Understanding and applying these theories helps ensure that what we create are not just quick fixes but meaningful experiences that lead to real learning and skill development.

Julie Dirksen, in her book “Design for How People Learn4,” introduces us to the science of learning. She stresses the need to consider factors like motivation, context, and cognitive load, ensuring that learning experiences are tailored to how people actually learn. Her work underscores the value of using learning theories and principles to guide the design process, making learning solutions not only efficient but also memorable and effective.

It’s not enough to know the basics. We need to understand “the why” behind our methods. This deep knowledge enables us to design engaging, relevant, and impactful learning experiences5, ultimately leading to greater success in our solutions and create more meaningful outcomes for our learners.

To Wrap This Up

In the end, just as a strong foundation is crucial for a stable house, our commitment to learning principles ensures that our solutions are not just quick fixes with no hope of success. Here’s the good news – building on these solid foundations doesn’t necessarily take more time, because understanding and applying the appropriate learning theories can streamline your design process. This is because we aren’t stumbling around in the dark, hoping and guessing that what we created will work.

By aligning our programs with these principles, we create learning environments that stand the test of time, benefiting both our learners and our organizations (all without the roof crashing down on their heads 😀). 

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  1. ↩︎
  2. ELM Learning: ↩︎
  3. Simply Psychology ↩︎
  4. Dirksen, Julie. Design for How People Learn. 2nd ed., New Riders, 2016. ↩︎
  5. Leslie, Heather. (2020). Facilitation fundamentals: redesigning an online course using adult learning principles and trifecta of student engagement framework. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching & Learning. ahead-of-print. 10.1108/JRIT-09-2019-0068. ↩︎
Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

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