Theories of Learning for Instructional Design in the Online Classroom

It is important that instructional design be informed by sound educational theory. Online courses are no exception. Online learning courses must uphold the same academic standards as their face-to-face counterparts, and yet, they embody distinct learning environments. Below I outline several dominant theories of teaching and learning and investigate their application for the online environment. I will argue that online instructional designers can benefit from all of the theories discussed.


Behaviorist theory, dating back to Thorndike, Pavlov, and Skinner, argues that learning is observable behavior changes resulting from external stimuli presented in the learning environment. With a focus on measurable behavioral change, behaviorists believe that the proper learning environment will result in identical learning across all learners. The learning environment is the mecca of knowledge and the learner is seen as a passive agent in the learning process. Online learners may benefit from instructional design informed by behaviorist theory in the following modes:

  • Clear learning outcomes
  • Linear sequencing of learning objectives
  • Use of rubrics to communicate details of expectations


Cognitivists theory, dates back to early cognitive psychology, and focuses on memory, motivation, thinking, and reflection in the learning process. The aim of learning from a cognitivist perspective is to promote long-term memory. The information processing occurs when the brain is exposed to external stimuli that trigger sensory information storage, which can then be stored in short-term memory and eventually in long-term memory. Learners can be seen as both passive and active in the learning process. Online learners may benefit from instructional design informed by cognitivist theory in the following modes:

  • Promote maximum sensation while avoiding over stimulation
  • Direct learners attention to the critical information
  • Promote the use of existing long-term memories into the learning process of new information
  • Chunk information in a meaningful way (linear, hierarchal, circular, or spider)
  • Motivate learners to engage in metacognition


Constructivist theory argues that learning results from interpretation of personal individual experiences. Spearheaded by Piaget, learners are not just active agents in the learning process; they are also the source of knowledge. Focusing on observation, processing, interpretation, and the personalization of knowledge, constructivists aim to provide information in a manner that promotes personal connections to content. Online learners may benefit from instructional design informed by constructivist theory in the following modes:

  • Create situated learning activities
  • Allow for the learning agenda to be partially student directed
  • Provide an opportunity for reflection
  • Make activities personally meaningful

Social Constructivist:

Similar to constructivists, social constructivist argue that learning functions as a process of interpreting everyday reality. Vygotshy’s focus on social networks, interaction, and collaborative learning distinguishes social constructivism. According to social constructivist theory, learning occurs as a result of social interactions with others. Therefore social interaction is, not just vital, but necessary for learning to occur. Instructors who adopt the social constructivist theory argue that learners must engage with one another in order to construct meaning and gain knowledge. Online learners may benefit from instructional design informed by social constructivist theory in the following modes:

  • Create a positive social learning environment
  • Promote collaborative learning
  • Integrate student created course content
  • Promote application within the broader social context
  • Promote practical problem solving


Emerging in the early 2000s, connectivist theory was first proposed by Downes and Siemens. According to connectivists, learners are no longer in control of learning as the vast complex and chaotic networks where learning occurs are controlled by an array of community members. Due to the global network, acceptable learning modes have diversified and become more multidisciplinary. As such, learners are members of multidimensional learning communities that constantly evolve. Online learners may benefit from instructional design informed by connectivist theory in the following modes:

  • Promote outside research and integration
  • Promote active participation in the evolving learning network
  • Transnational dialogue and networking
  • Experiential and authentic learning activities
  • Willingness to change prior knowledge and challenge past assumptions


According to Weegar, the development of instructional technology has resulted in a shift from the behaviorist to the constructivist approach. Yet a blended approach seems to be the most popular technique. Ally notes, “The three schools of thought can, in fact, be used as a taxonomy of learning. Behaviorists’ strategies can be used to teach the what (facts); cognitive strategies can be used to teach the how (process and principles); and constructivist strategies can be used to teach the why (higher-level thinking that promotes personal meaning, and situated and contextual learning).” In addition, connectivist theories may place learning in the international context and promote global citizenship. Therefore, all five theories of teaching and learning may provide beneficial insight for instructional design in the online classroom. Instructional design informed by a variety of learning theories may provide the most fruitful mode of instruction for our diverse learners. Courses that integrate a variety of the modes presented above will assist learners as they work their way up Bloom’s Taxonomy and make lasting connections to course content.