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Learning Theories College Professors May Already Be Using in Online Classes - Without Knowing It!

Updated on October 2, 2014

As an online composition professor, I was always searching for ways to help my students. Understanding how online students work and think is key to your success and theirs. Online students are very often non-traditional students. Non-traditional students are generally older and have returned to school after already experiencing life. In some cases, they may be more motivated than their traditional counterparts because they may be changing their career or going through another major life change. Online students can be more challenging to teach in some ways, but having a knowledge base of learning theories and methods can help any teacher improve their techniques.

Margin Theory

Margin theory addresses some of the challenges that these students may face. McClusky’s Margin theory states that adults exist in a state of flux (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). This flux can be calculated by comparing the load they can carry versus the power they have to fulfill the needs of that load. The load includes both internal and external forces; it is everything that exists in the learner’s life, both responsibilities and assistance. If a student works full time and has children, that may make for a big load, but the student may also receive help from a parent or sibling taking care of the children after school and on the weekend. That may help to achieve a balance in the load, helping the student to succeed. On the flip side, the student may receive no help, making it even more difficult for success. I often see this issue with my students. While some students are able to fight this overload and lack of assistance, other students struggle with the difficulties they encounter. If you can use this knowledge of margin theory in order to know when to help and flex with your students, you can offer extra time or, at the very least, understand why it is difficult for them to complete their tasks. While not all students rise to the challenge in quite the same way, if a teacher is prepared, she can be ready to help.

Dimensions of Learning

Illeris’ dimensions of learning can also help make a teacher more prepared to deal with students’ problems. According to Illeris, there are three “dimensions” that make up the adult learning process: cognition, emotion, and society. These dimensions are present in all learning situations and are affected by the stimuli (perception, transmission, and activity) that learners receive (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). While students are normally capable of learning (the dimension of “cognition”), they are affected by their emotions and society around them. Students may be deployed while attending college, and they will have different levels of emotions and a very different society that they interact with; these dimensions can make their learning more difficult, and being aware of these issues means that it’s possible to be more proactive in noticing when their motivation flags because of these dimensions. Similarly, displaced learners who have just started to attempt school often need a boost to their emotions because, up until that time, they have been conditioned by society to believe that they are not cognitively capable of learning. They may come into your class already beaten down, and so by incorporating Brookfield’s (1995) concept of early praise and tasks that they cannot fail within their first project, possibly by having it be a simple pass/fail assignment that is difficult to fail. This success helps to elevate their emotional dimension, hopefully leading to changes that will affect their other dimensions.


Experiential Learning

Understanding your students’ current situation and background can be further enhanced through the concept of experiential learning. Experiential learning believes that “learners have a vast array of experiences that can be used for learning” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 159). In John Dewey’s 1938 book Experience and Education, Dewey observes that “all genuine education comes about through experience,” even though not all experience is “genuinely or equally educative” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 162). After all, what else is school but organized and guided experience? Many non-traditional online students come into college with knowledge from learning that they achieved without the benefit of a formal setting. They often have the knowledge of how to do something, but they may not understand why they do it that way. Drawing on their background can allow them to learn more and gain an understanding at a higher level. Leslie Hickcox cites Grasha, stating that the “instructional processes need to be grounded in a conceptual base. Otherwise, they become the instructional equivalent of magic tricks that entertain and capture the audience but…are conceptually empty” (2002, p. 123). As instructors, we must make sure to not fall into this trap. Instead, we need to support the knowledge that our students bring to us and use it to take them further. If we only look at their formal education, they may feel that they’ve “wasted” their time having experiences. If we instead let them reflect on those experiences, they may determine that they’ve learned more than they knew, which can help motivate them to succeed.

Transformational Learning

In many cases, part of the learning that they’ve had before deciding to come to college falls into the concept of transformational learning. Transformational learning “is about change – dramatic, fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 130). Judi Apte believes that transformative learning “involves changes in the frames of reference that we use to make sense in our lives” (2009, p. 170). This change includes stages that move the learner from one position to another, starting with a “disorienting dilemma” and ending with a new perspective on the part of the learner (Apte, 2009, p. 171).

While many of us would like to help encourage our students in this transformation, “the educator who supports personal and social transformation as the goal of adult education is confronted by a more practical issue: how exactly to facilitate such learning” (Merriam, Caffarelle &Baumgartner, 2007, p. 155). Apte suggests working with the students in several different stages, but the most relevant one to most online students is the second one: “working with triggers” (2009, p. 172). Within these focuses, the instructor can find questions to help develop transformative learning within the classroom environment. During this focus, instructors can help their students move forward by helping the students learn to recognize their assumptions and challenge them, then provide support for the student to act on the new concepts and assumptions (Apte, 2009).


Disorienting Dilemmas

Very often our students are in the midst of a “disorienting dilemma” when they decide to come back to school, whether it’s their own children going to college, sudden disability, loss of a job, or loss of a spouse. Using Apte’s steps and focuses, we can provide help to our students through discussion and reflection. The reflection they do often makes them move past the original assumptions that they entered the class with and see that there’s more to their future than they had expected. Once they make that realization, they begin to look for more connections. Each of these steps helps them to challenge their assumptions and reform their ideas about themselves and their education. To me, this is the very essence of transformative learning – change that is brought about through reflection and experience.

For students!

Do you think that you would benefit from your instructors and professors being aware of these theories?

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Self-Directed Learning

While the students’ transformative learning experience may have brought them back to school, they can still fail if they don’t learn how to be a self-directed learner. Brockett and Hiemstra believe that there are two types of self-direction in learning: self-directing learning and learner self-direction. For the students’ self-directing learning, they “assume primary responsibility for planning, implementing and evaluating their learning experiences” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 113). In their learner self-direction, the students are taking responsibility for learning. The students must meet both criteria and master both skills in order to be successful. Dynan, Cate, and Rhee (2008) studied how to apply self directed learning (SDL) to help students achieve success. In their study, they began with the basis that “at its best, teaching aims to achieve at least two essential goals…increase knowledge…develop skills that will serve students well, even beyond the content of a specific course” (Dynan, Cate & Rhee, 2008, p. 96). Using Knowles’s concept of the process of SDL, they attempted to determine if teachers could actually help to impact the level of SDL that students achieve. Their study showed that it was possible to take students with low SDL levels and, though the use of structured courses, teach the students to become more independent. Students at low levels of SDL who took unstructured courses did not have the same growth levels.

This means that we, as the teachers, can not only teach our students knowledge to help them learn about the class we teach but also to help them develop skills that they can take with them to help them complete their degree and continue their education beyond their degrees since “nowadays, formal training is only a beginning; knowledge is accumulating at such a fast rate that one must continue to learn to be effective” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 125).

Narrative Learning

While many of the things I’ve discussed are simply theories and may seem difficult to work into your classes, there is a simple way to make them part of your daily teaching routine. Narrative learning. Narrative learning is a “way of knowing” all about story telling. It can be in written or non-written form, and it can be the telling or re-telling of fictional or non-fictional accounts. Sit in on any literature class, and the students will be learning about life through fictional narratives. Sit in on a business class, and the students will be learning about conducting business through both fictional and non-fictional narratives. We live our lives as storytellers or listeners. The 6 o’clock news, the radio morning shows, the tweets. These are all ways to gain knowledge through a narrative. In the Hindu way of thinking, “…items do not necessarily need to be written down in order to carry significance” (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 229). As we move forward and our lives become more involved in multi-media and we learn to be visually and digitally literate, we move away from written items and go back to storytelling in its original form. We can help our students achieve all their objectives – academic learning, self-directed learning, transformative learning, and experiential learning – through narratives. Whether we’re the storytellers or our students are, we can share information through a narrative.

For Teachers!

Have you ever heard of and knowingly used these theories?

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You may have already been doing many of these things in your teaching, as I was, but maybe you weren’t sure what to call them yet. There is something to be said for the power of naming what we use. Being able to attach our thoughts to existing theories is important because it can help us when we want to share our methods and theories with others. We don’t just need to teach our students; we need to learn from them, and then we need to share that knowledge with our peers.


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