Learning Theories For Instructional Designers: Which Works Best For You?

Learning Theories For Instructional Designers
Summary: This article will discuss three theories that play a significant role in how lessons are designed. It will include who is responsible for incorporating the insights offered by the theories and when each theory should be used.

Which Theory Fits Best?

Instructional Designers have a unique job designing lessons. Instructional Design (ID) is a planning process. Those lessons could be either eLearning lessons or classroom-based learning. Richey et al. (2011, as cited by Smith and Ragan, 2005, p. 4) identify ID as “the systematic and reflective process of translating principles of learning and instruction into plans for instructional materials, activities, information resources, and evaluation”. Learning theories for Instructional Designers are sets of proposals to predict events that lead to designing lessons (Richey et al., 2011, p. 6). This article will discuss three essential theories that are important to Instructional Designers.

Essential Learning Theories For Instructional Designers

Behaviorism Theory

Behaviorism is a psychological theory that originated with B.F. Skinner in the early twentieth century. He believed that behaviors are learned from a learner’s environment. As an Instructional Designer, the concept of behaviorism relies on the understanding that learners will develop learning based on observations of their surroundings. For instance, if a learner observes another student receiving a reward or praise for a job well done, then the student doing the observation will likely want to replicate that action to receive the same praise or reward. The rewards presented are used to lead learners along the path of reaching the learning outcome. According to Keraminda (2015), “…the aim of a behavioristic-oriented Instructional Design strategy for eLearning must be to provide learners with the appropriate stimuli, that is, with opportunities that help them demonstrate that they can express desired behaviors that prove that learning has taken place.” A behavioristic approach focuses on guiding learners to reach preestablished learning outcomes. Once learners have attained the learning outcome, the Instructional Designer can observe that learning has taken place.

Positive reinforcements are not the only way behaviorism can be utilized. Behaviorism can also be used for negative reinforcement. If a learner observes a student answering a question wrong, then the learner conducting the observation will learn what the answer is not. This negative action creates a positive reinforcement the learner observes from their environment. Regardless of the positive or negative reinforcement, the instructor is responsible for the stimulus-response received from the learner.

Social Constructivism

Lev Vygotsky originated social constructivism. The premise for his theory is that learners learn from social interaction and not from individual learning. An example would be a group of K-12 students working together on a project. The theory states that learners in the group will learn from each other. Each learner has something to contribute to the project. As the group collaborates, learning is enforced. The instructor for the class would only be required to mediate the groups. Compared to behaviorism, social constructivism depends on both an intrinsic and an extrinsic motivation for learning. Motivation to learn is enforced through peer interaction. Berkeley Graduate Division (2019) further states, “... because knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, learning also depends to a significant extent on the learner’s internal drive to understand and promote the learning process.”

As an Instructional Designer, the focus on social interaction is the way to incorporate this theory into a lesson design. Because learners have different levels of intrinsic motivation, a lesson has to challenge the learner and not be too easy. Depending on the level of learning, the designer must create the learning to challenge the learner, but not to the extent that instructional overload occurs.

Next, the Instructional Designer needs to look at curiosity. How can the Instructional Designer present the lesson to spark curiosity in the learner? Curiosity will naturally spark motivation for the learner to learn. Williams (2009) states, “Curiosity is the response to any kind of new or different idea that drives a student to want to discover more about that idea.” Motivation can be exercised through technology. As an Instructional Designer, consider using technological devices, such as computers, mobile devices, and games, to impose motivation.

Cognitive Load Theory

John Sweller created the phrase cognitive load theory (CLT) in 1988. This theory investigates the way the mind processes information. The basis for CLT focuses on three phases of memory: working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. As information is received, the working memory processes the information. From there, the information moves to the short-term memory, temporarily remembering the learning context. As the learning context is visited more often, it is moved to long-term memory. Schema is used to transition learning into long-term memory. Schema is used to chunk information together. Tying learning steps to a picture is an example of schema. As an Instructional Designer, it is important to focus on the layout of the design. The design needs to concentrate on intrinsic, extraneous, and germane loads. Intrinsic load is usually not considered by the Instructional Designer because it depends on the material and the learner’s ability to understand it (Waude, 2017).

Extraneous load relates to outside forces related to the learning that affect the outcome. For instance, unrelated pictures or videos would hinder understanding of the context. Germane load is the use of schema. As mentioned earlier, a schema is the chucking of information into segments as it is moved into the long-term memory. All these need to be considered when creating learning. Cognitive overload can occur if the design is too complicated and contains too many extraneous items.


In summary, there are many learning theories for Instructional Designers that they can use to design lessons. The three listed in this article are used frequently among the ID community. Each theory has its advantages and disadvantages. It is up to the Instructional Designer to figure out which theory works best for them. Regardless of which theory is used, the goal is to ensure that learning happens.