Applying Learning Theories to Online Instructional Design

By Peter J. Patsula, Sookmyung Women's University, Seoul. 1999


The following tutorial consists of five learning modules. Each module describes a learning theory and how that learning theory can be applied to improving online teaching and training materials. Each module features:

  1. a description of a well known learning theory;
  2. a practical example of how the theory and related strategies can be applied to a particular instructional objective or web-design problem; and
  3. a list of related pedagogical and web-design strategies as researched in the literature.

This tutorial has been designed for MDDE 621 students studying in the Masters of Distance Education program at Athabasca University.

System Requirements

This tutorial is best viewed on a SVGA screen (800 by 600 pixels) using Netscape Communicator 4.0, Internet Explorer 4.0, or later versions of these browsers. RealPlayer G2 software and a sound card is also recommended.


The following tutorial was inspired by and borrows heavily from Greg Kearsley’s The Theory Into Practice Database (1994) which is available online at

Learning Theory #1:
Gagne’s Conditions of Learning Theory

A) Description

Although Gagne’s theoretical framework covers many aspects of learning, "the focus of the theory is on intellectual skills" (Kearsley, 1994a). Gagne’s theory is very prescriptive. In its original formulation, special attention was given to military training (Gagne 1962, as cited in Kearsley, 1994a).

In this theory, five major types of learning levels are identified:

The importance behind the above system of classification is that each learning level requires "different internal and external conditions" (Kearsley 1994a) i.e., each learning level requires different types of instruction. Kearsley provides the following example:

for cognitive strategies to be learned, there must be a chance to practice developing new solutions to problems; to learn attitudes, the learner must be exposed to a credible role model or persuasive arguments.

Gagne also contends that learning tasks for intellectual skills can be organized in a hierarchy according to complexity:

The primary significance of this hierarchy is to provide direction for instructors so that they can "identify prerequisites that should be completed to facilitate learning at each level" (Kearsley 1994a). This learning hierarchy also provides a basis for sequencing instruction. Gagne outlines the following nine instructional events and corresponding cognitive processes (as cited in Kearsley 1994a):

  1. gaining attention (reception)
  2. informing learners of the objective (expectancy)
  3. stimulating recall of prior learning (retrieval)
  4. presenting the stimulus (selective perception)
  5. providing learning guidance (semantic encoding)
  6. eliciting performance (responding)
  7. providing feedback (reinforcement)
  8. assessing performance (retrieval)
  9. enhancing retention and transfer (generalization)

B) Practical Application

Gagne’s nine instructional events and corresponding cognitive processes can serve as the basis for designing instruction and selecting appropriate media (Gagne, Briggs & Wager, 1992, as cited in Kearsley 1994a). In applying these instructional events, Kearsley (1994a) suggests keeping the following principles in mind:

  1. Learning hierarchies define a sequence of instruction.
  2. Learning hierarchies define what intellectual skills are to be learned.
  3. Different instruction is required for different learning outcomes.


The following example applies Gagne's nine instructional events:

    1. Gain attention - show a variety of computer generated triangles
    2. Identify objective - pose question: "What is an equilateral triangle?"
    3. Recall prior learning - review definitions of triangles
    4. Present stimulus - give definition of equilateral triangle
    5. Guide learning - show example of how to create equilateral
    6. Elicit performance - ask students to create 5 different examples
    7. Provide feedback - check all examples as correct/incorrect
    8. Assess performance - provide scores and remediation
    9. Enhance retention/transfer - show pictures of objects and ask students to identify equilateral triangles.

C) Related Theories, Pedagogical Practices and Practical Web-Design Strategies

  1. Provide a variety of learning activities. Instructional designers should anticipate and accommodate alternate learning styles by "systematically varying teaching and assessment methods to reach every student" (Sternberg 1994, as cited in Ross-Gordon 1998, 227). They should also provide alternate offline materials and activities, as well as, present "alternate points of view and interpretations" (Fahy 1999, 237) so that the learner is free to "[criss-cross] the intellectual landscape of the content domain by looking at it from multiple perspectives or through multiple themes" (Jonassen et al., 1997, 122).

  2. Use Bloom’s "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives for the Cognitive Domain" to increase retention. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives for the Cognitive Domain (1956, as cited in Fahy 1999, 42-43) is similar to Gagne’s hierarchy of intellectual skills. Bloom outlines the following cognitive activities organized from least to greater complexity:

- knowledge
- comprehension
- application
- analysis
- synthesis
- evaluation (making judgements)

In the following example, Bloom’s taxonomy is used to illustrate different objectives related to learning objectives for studying nails (Fahy 1999, 43):

Knowledge – Know enough about nails to be able to explain what they are and what they are used for. Be able to recognize a nail as a fastening device from a non-fastening devices.

Comprehension – Be able to identify a nail and distinguish it from other fastening devices.

Application – Be able to use a nail to fasten something competently, and actually do so.

Analysis – Be able to determine what kind of nail and nailing technique would be required for most effective use of the device for a specific purpose.

Synthesis – Be able to compare nails to other fastening devices, and to compare various types of nails and nailing techniques for their specific qualities and characteristics in specific situations.

Evaluation – Be able to assess examples of the use of nails for fastening, and different nailing techniques, and to pass judgement as to which were more effective, more artistic, more secure, more skillful, more workman like, etc.

Learning Theory #2:
Bruner’s Constructivist Theory

A) Description

Bruner's constructivist theory is based upon the study of cognition. A major theme in this theory is that "learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge" (Kearsely 1994b). Cognitive structures are used to provide meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to go beyond the information given.

According to Bruner, the instructor should try and encourage students to construct hypotheses, makes decisions, and discover principles by themselves (Kearsley 1994b). The instructor's task is to "translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding" and organize it in a spiral manner "so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned."

Bruner (1966, as cited in Kearsley 1994b) states that a theory of instruction should address the following aspects:

  1. the most effective sequences in which to present material
  2. the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner

B) Practical Application

Bruner’s constructivist theory can be applied to instruction, as Kearsley (1994b) surmises, by applying the following principles:

  1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
  2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).
  3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).


The following example is taken from Bruner (1973, as cited in Kearsley 1994b):

The concept of prime numbers appears to be more readily grasped when the child, through construction, discovers that certain handfuls of beans cannot be laid out in completed rows and columns. Such quantities have either to be laid out in a single file or in an incomplete row-column design in which there is always one extra or one too few to fill the pattern. These patterns, the child learns, happen to be called prime. It is easy for the child to go from this step to the recognition that a multiple table, so called, is a record sheet of quantities in completed multiple rows and columns. Here is factoring, multiplication and primes in a construction that can be visualized.

  1. Ask the student to get a handful of pennies, beans, or any other countable object.
  2. Show the students 6 pennies. Show that six pennies can be organized into two groups of three, three groups of two, or one group of six.
  3. Ask the student to count out 8 pennies and organize the pennies into as many EQUAL groups as they can.
  4. Show answer.
  5. Ask the student to count out 18 pennies and organize the pennies into as many EQUAL groups as they can.
  6. Show answer.
  7. Ask the student to count out 7 pennies and organize the pennies into as many EQUAL groups as they can.
  8. Show answer.
  9. Ask the student to count out 13 pennies and organize the pennies into as many EQUAL groups as they can.
  10. Show answer.
  11. State that 7 and 13 are prime numbers, while 6, 8, and 18 are not. Ask the following questions: What is a prime number? What is the rule or principle for determining whether a number is prime or not?
  12. Explain the principle that when a certain number of pennies can only be grouped into one equal row or column, then that number is called a prime number.
  13. Show a selection of numbers or examples of different groups of coins. Ask the student to identify which ones are prime.
  14. Show answer.

C) Related Theories, Pedagogical Practices and Practical Web-Design Strategies

  1. Attract, hold and focus attention so students can learn principles. Fahy (1999, 59) lists the following ways to attract attention:
  1. Improve retention by sequencing screens and presenting related materials together. In designing materials of all kinds sequence is important. "Material presented together will be associated in the learner’s memory" (Fahy 1999, 79) and more easily recalled especially if repetition is used. Fahy believes that "events ideas, words, concepts and stimuli in general which are not organized in some meaningful way are harder to understand and remember than those which are embedded in some organizational context" (p. 60). Fahy also advises that when sequencing consider that the first and last displays in any sequences are especially important. "Introductions and summaries are key learning opportunities" (p. 61).

  2. Provide structural cues to avoid information vertigo. Jones and Farquhar (1997, 241) recommend arranging information "in a non-threatening manner through techniques such as chunking, overviews, advance organizers, maps, and a fixed-display format." They also advise that "the consistent placement and style of section titles is [an] important cue to the structure of information."

Learning Theory #3:
Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

A) Description

Bandura's social learning theory "emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others" (Kearsley 1994c). It has been applied extensively to the understanding of aggression (Bandura 1973, as cited in Kearsley 1994c) and psychological disorders. Bandura states:

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action (1977, as cited in Kearsley 1994c).

The processes underlying observational learning are as Kearsley (1994c) explains:

  1. attention
  2. retention (including cognitive organization and motor rehearsal)
  3. motor reproduction (including physical capabilities, self-observation of reproduction, and accuracy of feedback)
  4. motivation (including external and self reinforcement)
  5. observer characteristics (such as sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, and past reinforcement).

B) Practical Application

In applying Bandura’s Social Learning theory, Kearsley (1994c) suggests keeping the following principles in mind:

  1. The highest level of observational learning is achieved by first organizing and rehearsing the modeled behavior symbolically and then enacting it overtly. Coding modeled behavior into words, labels, or images results in better retention than simply observing.
  2. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in outcomes they value.
  3. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if the model is similar to the observer and has admired status and the behavior has functional value.

"Strategies consistent with social learning theories include mentoring, apprenticeship, on the job training, and internships" (Ross-Gordon 1998, 217). Each involves learning in a social situation whereby novice learners model more experienced teachers or coworkers. Kearsley (1994c) provides the following example of social learning:

The most common (and pervasive) examples of social learning situations are television commercials. Commercials suggest that drinking a certain beverage or using a particular hair shampoo will make us popular and win the admiration of attractive people. Depending upon the component processes involved (such as attention or motivation), we may model the behavior shown in the commercial and buy the product being advertised.


The following example illustrates how participatory observation can be used to help students learn and apply the Law of Reflection. This example is directed towards students being able to model the cognitive processes of experts (an extension of Bandura's Social Learning theory; see cognitive modeling strategy).

  1. Show a 6' x 12' pool table, a cue ball, an object ball, the cue stroke of an expert pool shark, and three possible points of impact (aim). Ask the learner to guess what point the expert pool shark is hoping to hit the object ball and sink it after four banks. 
  2. Show answer.
  3. Show an irregularly shaped miniature golf putting green, a golf ball, the putting stroke of a world famous golfer (e.g., Tiger Woods, Gary Player), and three possible points of impact (aim). Ask the learner to guess what point the expert golfer is hoping to hit the golf ball to get a hole-in-one.
  4. Show answer.
  5. Show a room consisting of highly polished mirror-like stainless steel walls, a sniper (James Bond) with a laser sight, a direction of aim, and three possible targets (Bandura, Carroll, or Vygotsky). Ask the learner to guess who the sniper is aiming at.
  6. Show answer.
  7. Ask the learner to guess what the pool shark, expert golfer and sniper are thinking when they stroke the cue, putt the ball, or aim the rifle. Provide several possible choices of insights into their cognitive reasoning.
  8. Show an incident light ray hitting a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees. Ask the student to guess what the angle of reflection will be.
  9. Show answer and state the Law of Reflection: "the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection."
  10. Provide another example of this law (define terms).
  11. Discuss the similiarities between the reflection of light rays off mirrors and the reflection or motion of billard balls on billiard tables.
  12. Provide a few quiz questions.

C) Related Theories, Pedagogical Practices and Practical Web-Design Strategies

  1. Teach students how to model cognitive processes as well as behaviors using real-world problems. Jonassen (1998) defines two types of modeling: behavioral modeling of the overt performance and cognitive modeling of the covert cognitive processes. Behavioral modeling "demonstrates how to perform the activities" while cognitive modeling "articulates the reasoning that learners should use while engaged in performing the activity" (p. 12). Jonassen reasons that "conventional teaching focuses on answers, which are often artificially 'tidy,' lacking the complexity and messiness of the real world" (Fahy 1999, 54, citing Jonassen 1998). He suggests using "authentic problems" to make student learning experiences "more appealing, engaging, and meaningful."

  2. Provide similar examples and comparisons to aid perception and recall. "Objects, ideas, or events displayed together in space and time are often stored together in memory and grouped together in recall. This is the Law of proximity in perception and contiguity in memory" (Fahy 1999, 60).

  3. Use show me buttons. When learners need help, provide them with a "Show Me" or a "How Do I Do This?" button (Jonassen 1998, 12). Hyperlink to this button a visual or animated example of the desired performance.

  4. Use worked examples as a method for modeling problem solving. "Worked examples include a description of how problems are solved by an experienced problem solver. Worked examples enhance the development of problem schemas and the recognition of different types of problems based on them" (Jonassen 1998, 12, citing Sweller & Cooper 1985).

  5. Use repetition with variety. Repeating a variety of examples or problems with solutions is more effective for long-term retention than rote or verbatim reproduction. Paraphrasing, rephrasing, and reworking is more useful than the repetition or regurgitation of information (Fahy 1999, 62).

Learning Theory #4:
Carroll’s Minimalist Theory

A) Description

The Minimalist theory of J.M. Carroll focuses on the instructional design of training materials for computer users and has been "extensively applied to the design of computer documentation" (e.g., Nowaczyk & James, 1993, van der Meij, & Carroll, 1995, as cited in Kearsley 1994d). It is based upon studies of people learning a wide range of computer applications including word processors and databases.

As Kearsley (1994d) explains, this theory suggests that:

  1. All learning activities should be meaningful and self-contained.
  2. Activities should exploit the learner's prior experience and knowledge.
  3. Learners should be given realistic projects as quickly as possible.
  4. Instruction should permit self-directed reasoning and improvising.
  5. Training materials and activities should provide for error recognition and use errors as learning opportunities.
  6. There should be a close linkage between training and the actual system because "new users are always learning computer methods in the context of specific preexisting goals and expectations" (Carroll 1990, as cited in Kearsley 1994d).

The critical idea behind Carroll's Minimalist theory is that course designers must "minimize the extent to which instructional materials obstruct learning and focus the design on activities that support learner-directed activity and accomplishment" (Kearsley 1994d).

B) Practical Application

In applying Carroll’s Minimalist theory, Kearsley (1994d) recommends the following:

  1. Allow learners to start immediately on meaningful tasks.
  2. Minimize the amount of reading and other passive forms of training by allowing users to fill in the gaps themselves
  3. Include error recognition and recovery activities in the instruction
  4. Make all learning activities self-contained and independent of sequence.


The following is an example of a guided exploration approach to learning how to use a word processor (Carroll 1990, chapter 5, as cited in Kearsley 1994d).

Applying the principles of Carroll's Minimalist theory, a 94-page training manual is replaced by 25 cards. Each card is self contained and includes a meaningful task and error recognition information. The cards do not provide complete step-by-step specifications but only key ideas or hints about what to do. Kearsley reports that "in an experiment that compared the use of the cards versus the manual, users learned the task in about half the time with the cards."


The following example illustrates the redesign of a Web page using Carroll’s Minimalist theory and other related web design strategies:

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

C) Related Theories, Pedagogical Practices and Practical Web-Design Strategies

  1. Keep important information at the top of the page. When learners come to a page, they immediately scan for interesting and important information. Good web-design demands that you give your learners the information they want right away and in a hurry. Large graphics at the top of a page may be aesthetically pleasing, but take up too much of the immediate viewable space to be considered instructionally useful (Jones and Farquhar 1997).

  2. Keep frames simple and be consistent in design of text, graphics and sound to limit cognitive overload. Guay advises that "cognitive bandwidth should be minimized to ensure users easily and accurately grasp the message" (as cited in Fahy 1999, 191). He also recommends that graphics and other enhancements should "never obscure the central message of the page" (p. 191). Jones and Farquhar (1997) advise that background to a display should not compete with or obscure the text. Simiarly Gillani & Relan 1997, 236 maintain that "simplicity and consistency eliminates cognitive overload." Thus, multimedia components should be used "to reinforce rather than distract from learning."

  3. Keep pages short so learners don’t have to scroll. Research on the Web suggests that "users do not like to scroll" (Nielsen 1996, as cited in Jones & Farquhar 1997, 243). Guay (1995, as cited in Fahy 1999, 191) agrees with this and advises that "each page should fit on the screen without scrolling." West (1998, as cited in Fahy 1999, 192) similarly advises that "the requirement for the user to scroll down in Web-based documents should be kept to a minimum, as many users will not scroll more than 3 times before abandoning a site." West also estimates that readers give only between 7 and 15 seconds to assess the probable usefulness of a site before leaving it. It should be noted that "the problem with making pages short is that people may choose to print out certain pieces of information, or download the entire contents of a group of pages. This [problem can be solved] by combining all of the pages into a single document that is labeled as such" (Jones and Farquar, 1997, 243). A print button can be provided so that users can eaisly print longer material for off-screen reading.

  4. Keep pages uncluttered by extracting unnecessary elements. Broadbents’ theory of single-channel processing states that "humans are capable of processing information through only one channel at a time and that it is not possible to process two channels simultaneously"(Hsia 1968, as cited in Szabo 1998, 32). If this were to happen, audio and visual stimuli would arrive at the central nervous system simultaneously, causing the information to jam, and lead to poorer retention of material (Broadbent 1958, as cited in Szabo 1998, 32). Guay (1995 as cited in Fahy 1999, 192) recommends that "each page should be uncluttered, readable, and balanced."

  5. Pages should download in 30 seconds or less with 14.4 modem. Guay advises that "physical bandwidth should be minimized to ensure acceptable access and response times" (1995 as cited in Fahy 1999, 191). Special consideration should be given to logos, banners, .pdf files, audio, and video to make sure that these files do not slow down the site too much. Guay also suggests that tagging graphics (in HTML) with vertical and horizontal size can speed download. Commercial graphics tools such as Adobe ImageReady 2.0 can also reduce graphics size by among other things reducing the color pallet.

  6. Screen excess information. Good design, as Carroll recommends, must reduce excess information and allow learners to fill in the gaps. In support of this, Dede (1996, 13) maintains that the curriculum is "overcrowded with low-level information" and as a result, "teachers [must] frantically race through required material, helping students memorize factual data to be regurgitated on mandated, standardized tests." Dede also advises that "the core skill for today’s workplace is not foraging for date, but filtering a plethora of incoming information." He adds that as we increasingly are required to dive into a sea of information we must master the ability to immerse ourselves in data "to harvest patterns of knowledge just as fish extract oxygen from water via their gills" (p. 6).

  7. Structure materials as topical modules. This "simplifies selective reuse of course materials" (Butler 1997, 422).

  8. Strive for quality not quantity. Rockley (1997, as cited in Fahy 1999, 196-197) gives the following advice for the planning and management of Web-based resources:

Learning Theory #5:
Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Cognitive Development

A) Description

Vygotsky's theory of social cognitive development is complementary to Bandura's social learning theory. Its major thematic thrust is that "social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition" (Kearsley 1994e). Most of the original work of this theory was done in the context of language learning in children.

An important concept in Vygotsky's theory is that "the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span which he calls the 'zone of proximal development' (Kearsley 1994e). He defines the 'zone of proximal development' as having four learning stages. These stages "range between the lower limit of what the student knows and the upper limits of what the student has the potential of accomplishing" (Gillani and Relan 1997, 231). The stages can be further broken down as follows (Tharp & Gallimore 1988, 35):

Another notable aspect of Vygotsky's theory is that it claims "that instruction is most efficient when students engage in activities within a supportive learning environment and when they receive appropriate guidance that is mediated by tools" (Vygotsky 1978, as cited in Gillani & Relan 1997, 231). These instructional tools can be defined as "cognitive strategies, a mentor, peers, computers, printed materials, or any instrument that organizes and provides information for the learner." Their role is "to organize dynamic support to help [learners] complete a task near the upper end of their zone of proximal development [ZPD] and then to systematically withdraw this support as the [learner] move to higher levels of confidence."

B) Practical Application

In applying Vygotsky's theory of social cognitive development, Kearsley (1994e) suggests keeping the following principles in mind:

  1. Full cognitive development requires social interaction.
  2. Cognitive development is limited to a certain range at any given age.


Gillani and Relan (1997, 232) contend that "the interactive nature of frames in interdisciplinary instructional design has the potential of implementing cognitive theories as its theoretical foundation."

Based on David Ausubel's idea of advance organizers "as a cognitive strategy that links prior knowledge structure with new information" (1968 as cited in Gillani and Relan 1997, 232), as well as, Vygotsky's idea of instructional tools and the four learning stages as defined by his 'zone of proximal development', Gillani and Relan proposed an instructional design model having four phases:

Gillani and Relan argue that it was not until the introduction of frame technology introduced with Netscape Navigator 2.0 that these four phases could realistically be applied to instructional design. They say:

Basically, frames enable the Web designer to create multiple, distinct, and independent viewing areas within the browser’s window . . . each frame then becomes a window that can have its own URL (Uniform Resource Locator), scrollbar, and links to frames in the same document or other documents. Such internal connections among the frames of a browser enable the designer to create interactive links that can update and control the content of other frames (p. 232).

Gilanni and Relan proposed the following model made up of four distinct frames, with the Instructional Model Frame having four distinct phases:


Instructional Model Frame
[Advance Organizer] [Model] [Explore] [Generate]

Navigation Frame




Two examples which illustrate design features of Gillani and Relan's instructional model are shown in the following links to screen shots, one of Sookmyung Women's University Continuing Cyber Education Program, and the other of the home page of this tutorial:

C) Related Theories, Pedagogical Practices and Practical Web-Design Strategies

  1. Simplify navigation. Szabo (1998) defines navigation as "the process of acquiring information from a rich multimedia data base that has no obvious organizational pattern" (p. 6). Guay (as cited in Fahy 1999, 191-192) advises that navigation should be intuitive, clear, flowing. "Poorly thought out hypertext is a navigational nightmare of tangled mazes, infinite loops, cul-de-sacs, and dead links. So don’t start linking without thinking." Similarly Dede (1996, 13) argues that "without skilled facilitation, many learners who access current knowledge webs will flounder in a morass of unstructured data."

  2. Create effective menus. Well-designed menus help learners develop an accurate mental model of the structure being searched. To design more effective menus, Szabo (1996, 55) advises: (a) avoid using conflicting or confusing orienting devices, as disorientation interferes with the learning task; (b) develop organizational systems that are highly visual, interactive, and intuitive; (c) use embedded menus as a search aid, but make sure these menus actually meet learning needs and do not create disorientation; and (d) keep menus shallow but meaningful; use icons supplemented by text.

  3. Include indexes, table of contents, and search capabilities. Fahy (1999, 188) advises that navigation, for instructional purposes, can be aided substantially if the following functions and capabilities are designed into WebPages:

    index - of contents of the site;
    glossary - of terms, vocabulary, etc., with pronunciation;
    related links page - to enable further study, but to avoid unnecessary browsing;
    searching - using an efficient engine;
    online help - to ensure no user is left without assistance;
    bookmarking - to simplify return to specific parts of the site; and
    notebook - to allow recording of notes, including cut-and-paste from on-line materials.

  4. Clearly identify content with appropriate headings and titles. The title of the site should reflect its purpose and audience.

  5. Place most important information on the top-left. Important information should go to the top-left. The lower-left is the least noticed area of the page/screen (Rockley 1997 as cited in Fahy 1999, 145).


To make online teaching and training materials more effective, an agency should first establish suitable learning goals and objectives. Since the priority of instruction is to "benefit" or "instruct" the learner, instructional designers should then strive to facilitate the learning process i.e., make learning easier. This can be accomplished by applying proven learning theories and pedagogical practices, as well as, practical web-design strategies and guidelines, to their instructional design:

However, "program planners need to exercise caution in assuming that adult development theories apply [equally] to females, racial, ethnic minority adults, individuals with disabilities, or others" (Ross-Gordon 1998, 225). They must also bear in mind that the limitations of the Web as a teaching and training vehicle and that it can potentially be a major cause of wasted time. To its disadvantage, the Web is (Fahy 1999, 181-182):

To sum up the future of the Web as an educational tool, McDonald (1996 as cited in Fahy 1999, 182) provides us with the following insights. He claims that the Web will only become a useful educational tool when it exhibits the following characteristics:

And solves the following three problems:

Summary of Five Learning Theories

  1. Gagne’s Conditions of Learning Theory is based on a hierarchy of intellectual skills organized according to complexity that can be used to identify prerequisites necessary to facilitate learning at each level. Instruction can be made more efficient by following a sequence of nine instructional events defined by the intellectual skills that the learner is required to learn for the specific task at hand.

  2. Bruner’s Constructivist Theory asserts that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas based upon their current knowledge. Instruction can be made more efficient by providing a careful sequencing of materials to allow learners to build upon what they already know and go beyond the information they have been given to discover the key principles by themselves.

  3. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors and attitudes of others. Instruction can be made more efficient by modeling desired behaviors of functional value to learners and by providing situations which allow learners to use or practice that behavior to improve retention.

  4. Carroll’s Minimalist Theory advises that course designers must minimize instructional materials that obstruct learning and focus the design on activities that support learner-directed activity. Instruction can be made more efficient when the amount of reading is minimized and learners are allowed to fill in the gaps themselves.

  5. Vygostky’s Theory of Social Cognitive Development reasons that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Instruction can be made more efficient when learners engage in activities within a supportive environment and receive guidance mediated by appropriate tools.



  1. Which theorist does the following statement apply to: "nine instructional events can serve as the basis for designing instruction"?

    a) Bandura
    b) Bruner
    c) Carroll
    d) Gagne
    e) Vygotsky

  2. Which theory uses the concept of spiral organization?

    a) Conditions of Learning Theory
    b) Constructivist Theory
    c) Minimalist Theory
    d) Social Learning Theory
    e) Theory of Social Cognitive Development

  3. Which theorists originated the Minimalist theory and the Social Learning theory?

    a) Bandura and Bruner
    b) Bruner and Gagne
    c) Carroll and Bandura
    d) Gagne and Carroll
    e) Vygotsky and Caroll

  4. Which theory is most applicable to computers and online instruction?

    a) Conditions of Learning Theory
    b) Constructivist Theory
    c) Minimalist Theory
    d) Social Learning Theory
    e) Theory of Social Cognitive Development

  5. Which theory advocates mentoring, apprenticeship, on the job training, and internships?

    a) Conditions of Learning Theory
    b) Constructivist Theory
    c) Minimalist Theory
    d) Social Learning Theory
    e) Theory of Social Cognitive Development

  6. Which theorist offers advice similar to infomercial motivational speaker Anthony Robbins?

    a) Bandura
    b) Bruner
    c) Carroll
    d) Gagne
    e) Vygotsky

  7. Which theorist is closely connected to the ideas of Bandura?

    a) Broadbent
    b) Gillani and Relan
    c) Jonassen
    d) Bloom
    e) Dede

  8. Which theorist advises allowing learners to fill in the gaps themselves?

    a) Bandura
    b) Bruner
    c) Carroll
    d) Gagne
    e) Vygotsky

  9. What is the most important principle of the Theory of Social Cognitive Development?

    a) Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in outcomes they value.
    b) Activities should exploit the learner's prior experience and knowledge.
    c) Advance organizers help link prior knowledge.
    d) Full cognitive development requires social interaction.
    e) Instructional events and corresponding cognitive processes can serve as the basis for designing instruction and selecting appropriate media.

  10. Allowing students to discover principles by themselves is most  important to which theorist?

    a) Bandura
    b) Bruner
    c) Carroll
    d) Gagne
    e) Vygotsky


The following is a screen shot of Sandy's Business Assistance and Training home page located at Sandy is an MDDE 621 student and requested feedback on her site. Her site has been designed reasonably well but can be improved. How would you improve the design of this site?

Answer: By applying the principles of Vygotsky's mediated tools, Gillani and Relan's (1997) Interactive Web-based Instructional Model, Carroll's Minimalist theory, and other related web design strategies emphasizing the importance of ease of navigation and simplicity of design, the following suggestions can be made:


Here are some helpful sites that offer information on learning theories, instructional design, and organizations offering web-based online courses.

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Dede, C. (1996). The evolution of distance education: Emerging technologies and distributed learning. The American Journal of Distance Education, 10(2), 4-36.

Fahy, P. J. (1999). On-line teaching in distance education and training, MDDE 621, Study Guide. Athabasca, Canada: Athabasca University.

Gillani, B.B. & Relan, A. (1997). Incorporating interactivity and multimedia into web-based instruction. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based instruction, (pp. 231-237). Educational Technology Publications: New Jersey.

Jonassen, D. (1998). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional theories and models, 2nd edition, pp. 1-21. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Available: [December 1, 1999].

Jonassen, D. H, Dyer, D., Peters, K., Robinson, T., Harvey, D. King, M., & Loughner, P. (1997). Cognitive flexibility hypertexts on the Web: Engaging learners in meaning making. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based instruction, (pp. 119-133). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Jones, M.G., & Farquhar, J. D. (1997). User interface design for web-based instruction. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based instruction, (pp. 239-244). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Kearsley, G. (1994). Explorations in learning & instruction: The theory into practice database. [Online]. Available: [December 1, 1999].

Kearsley, G. (1994a). Conditions of learning (R. Gagne). [Online]. Available: [December 1, 1999].

Kearsley, G. (1994b). Constructivist theory (J. Bruner). [Online]. Available: [December 1, 1999].

Kearsley, G. (1994c). Social learning theory (A. Bandura). [Online]. Available: [December 1, 1999].

Kearsley, G. (1994d). Minimalism (J. M. Carroll). [Online]. Available: [December 1, 1999].

Kearsley, G. (1994e). Social development theory (L. Vygotsky). [Online]. Available: [December 1, 1999].

Ross-Gordon, J. M. (1998). What we need to know about adult learners. In P. S. Cookson (Ed.), Program planning for the training and continuing education of adults: North American perspectives, (pp. 207–248). Malabar, Florida: Kreiger Publishing Company.

Szabo, M. (1998). Survey of educational technology research. Edmonton: Grant MacEwan Community College and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. New York: Cambridge University Press. Available: [December 1, 1999].