An understanding of the main theories of learning and the key factors that influence individual learning

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It is paramount that teachers have an understanding of the main theories of learning and the key factors that influence individual learning, to gain optimum results. Gagne (1974) defines learning as “the occurrence of behavioural change and also the persistence of this change” persistent changes are know as “maturation changes resulting from the growth of internal structure” which is not learning. (p5)

This assignment requires two pupils’ case studies, observing their learning strategies, individual needs, and teaching strategies that are adopted. I will be evaluating a range of learning theories, analysing and reflecting upon effective learning by extensive use of relevant literature. Also, I will discuss environmental factors that could influence learning.

I am currently working in a village lower school as an LSA, and as an occasional supply teacher. The school opened in 1969 and has grown considerably since. It currently has 280 children on roll, with 5 children receiving free school meals. Most of the children live in the village, but the catchments area takes children from two other villages. There is an autistic unit which has 5 children. The school’s ethos is to celebrate the achievements of each child regardless of ability, race, gender, beliefs or personal circumstances. The school’s aim is to provide a happy secure stimulating and enriching environment through its attitude and curriculum policies. The behaviour and attitude of pupils are important within the school, which are:

* Honesty, unselfishness and fair play;

* To observe simple rules;

* To follow codes of conduct;

* Review behaviour issues within the school council.

The school policies are available at the school for parents to read.

An OFSTED report was carried out on 17th January 2003. They commented that the school had very good management and, leadership was good. The Head Teacher has a clear educational direction, and has successfully raised standards, within the school, since the last OFSTED report. The quality of teaching was generally good, with a few lessons that were satisfactory. Links with parents, and the ranges of extra-curricula activities were good.

The areas that needed to be improved are:

* Standards in ICT;

* The curriculum needs to be more broad and well balanced;

* Systematic procedures for the assessment of science and foundation subjects;

* The role of the curriculum co-ordinator needs to be improved and strengthened.

All names within this report will be changed to protect the identities of the pupil for confidentiality reasons.

Rationale for the choice of pupils.

The pupils were selected from a year two class, where I currently work. This made it easier for me to observe the pupils without any disruption to their normal learning environment. I also have background information about the pupils in this class, and this is an important factor when analysing their needs. After careful consideration, I decided to choose a child from each end of the ability spectrum, so that there would be a contrast of their needs. The two pupils make interesting case studies, as they both have areas of difficulty and areas that they excel in.

Although I considered choosing a pupil from each gender, I felt these two pupils would enhance my knowledge of individual learning needs as they were unusual cases.

Classroom context

I observed both pupils in Literacy and Numeracy. David was observed in art, as well as he excelled in this area; I wanted to see if his behaviour differed in different subject areas. Jeremy was observed in design and technology, as this is his area of weakness. All observations were carried out in their normal classroom.

After extensive research, I have discovered that there are many theories about how children learn, and their preference to difference learning styles. Therefore, I have incorporated the theories that I feel are the most appropriate for the two pupils in the case studies.

Case Study One


David is a year two pupil, who has a chronological age of 6 years and7 months.

David is a friendly and likable member of the class. He tries hard to please the teacher but appears to have difficulty understanding many concepts, and lacks the ability to concentrate. He has a reading age of 5 yrs 9months. His speech defect makes spelling and communication difficult and has an impact on his ability to learn. He lives with his mother and stepfather. His three brothers and two sisters, all had IEP’s when attending the school. He has great difficulty concentrating and keeping ‘on task’. He currently has an IEP (individual education plan) which shows areas of concern with; reading, spelling, numeracy and independent work. He participates in an ELS (Early Learning Support) programme within in a small group. His targets are to:

* Improve strategies for reading;

* Increase phonic knowledge;

* Read and write and order to 100;

* To write the date in his book, quickly and quietly without adult intervention.

He was assessed by The Learning Support Services (LSS) at Bedfordshire County Council, using the Ravens Coloured Matrices. The test indicates the degree of development of pupils’ capacity for observation and clear thinking and to reason. It does not test for visual perception and spatial awareness. He had a raw score of 23, and his percentile rank was 90th. As the average score is 50%, David scored very high, and would be considered to be above average. His score indicates that he has the potential to work as well as a child with a chronological age of 8yr.03mths . The LSS advised the school that David should undertake the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS) Assessment of Receptive Vocabulary to ascertain David’s level of received language. This assessment assesses the understanding of spoken English, which does not require reading, speaking or writing, only simple response to picture cards. This assessment would be appropriate for David, as he has difficulty in reading and some difficulty in speaking.

Analysis of David’s learning

Honey and Mumford (1989) suggest that characteristics that David displays, to be mainly an activist learner as he enjoys doing practical work. This I noted in observation three. David was making a ‘get well card’ for another pupil and his behaviour and attitude to learning was much better than during literacy and numeracy. The other groups that Honey and Mumford recognise are:

* Reflectors;

* Theorists;

* Pragmatists.

David does not show characteristics of a reflective learner, but could be with encouragement and motivation. My belief is that motivation is a key element in encouraging pupils like David, who have the ability to learn, but lack purpose. Rae and McPhillimy (1985) agree; “Although it has been shown that learning can take place without motivation, pupils’ appropriate executive controls are more likely to be exerted if the pupil is keen to learn” (p17)Theorists, plan and think things through, David has not the maturity to do either of these yet. Pragmatist, take a practical view to tasks, getting straight to the point, giving proof for their ideas, David shows tendencies towards this area on rare occasions. Cotton (1995) believes that “All four areas are needed if the learner is to reach the aim of autononomy in learning”… and a mature learner should “be able to function in all four models” (p113). I agree with this argument; the teacher should aim for this so children work efficiently in a harmonious atmosphere.

Applying Bishop and Denley (1997) theory of learning, it would appear that David is a dynamic, imaginative learner. He likes to experiment, and is not concerned by failure. He likes exciting and varied tasks, when he is in the mood, and sometimes takes control, involving others. He does not manage his time very well, without planning. He does not feel that checking his work plays an important part to his learning. He is quite imaginative and enjoys brainstorming. He is easily distracted and works in fits and starts, which leads to important details being omitted. He is easily distracted and often indecisive.

David prefers experience and practice; Flemming and Mills (1992) learning styles, VARK (March 2003) (visual, aural, read/write kinaesthetic) shows preferences to learning styles and how to improve them. David shows tendencies towards being a kinaesthetic learner; this can be seen in observation three during an Art lesson, where he excels in making a card for another pupil. He shows enthusiasm for the task in hand, and is engrossed in the activity.

As David’s home life is unsettled, I feel that this contributes to his learning difficulties, especially as he has shown through his assessment that he has the ability to achieve higher results. Gagne (1985) insists that learning occurs over a period of time and is not a process of growth. “Learning is not simply an event that happens naturally; it is also an event that happens under certain observable conditions.” (p2) Although I agree with this statement, I feel that some children find it easier to learn than others and home environment plays a big part in the way that children learn.

David needs to be motivated. Ausubel, Gagne and Bruner, recognise two types of motivation: (cited in Kyriacou 1997)

* Extrinsic – some kind of reward at the end

* Intrinsic – biological drive of curiosity, being interested in the subject.

From my observations, I noted that David responds to extrinsic motivation, where he would receive some kind of reward. When David has finished his work, he is allowed to go on to the computer. Ball, (1977) theorises, “students will involve themselves in an uninteresting activity if it gives them a chance to do something that does interest them” (p142). I feel that it would be best to try to motivate the pupil by finding and interesting way to present the learning objective rather than resorting to bribery. In my experience, this only causes the pupil to rush their work, without thought, to move onto the desired activity; this does not result in any learning. Kyriacou (1997) suspects “Although intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are contrasted with each other, it is important to note that most tasks involve a mixture of the two”. (p 26 Kyriacou 1997). David is aware that he is in a lower ability group and I feel that this has an impact upon his desire to learn; Kyriacou (1997) stresses “Pupils who constantly feel they are doing less well academically that their peers will often make lest effort to succeed” (p35).

Recommendations For David

David’s lack of concentration should primarily be addressed. This could be done in several ways:

* Avoid seating near distractions such as windows or doors;

* Try to keep his working environment quiet and calm;

* Work in a group of pupils that will encourage David to work;

* Give clear and concise instructions;

* Give him one target a day, to keep him on task;

* Make sure he is aware of what is expected of him;

* Provide rewards and encouragement for positive behaviour;

* Ensure David is aware of the behaviour changes that are required;

* Always be consistent with the strategies used.

David should be encouraged to use all of his senses. He would benefit from practical activity rather than reading and writing exercises. Where reading and writing is inevitable, David would benefit from examples of work being modelled by the teaching, and using a writing frame could help to complete the task. David could draw pictures to illustrate his learning. The BPVS assessment could be carried out, as advised by the Learning Support Services. It is quite obvious that David needs speech therapy to overcome his learning difficulties. However, he has been referred to a speech therapist but failed to keep most of the appointments. If the parents could be persuaded to return to the speech therapy sessions, I feel that David would benefit enormously. David could benefit from metacognitive awareness; to learn how to think about how he learns. Reid, (2003) suggests the following questions that pupils could ask themselves;

* Have I done this before?

* How did I tackle it?

* What did I find easy or difficult?

* What did I learn?

* What do I have to do to accomplish this task?

* How should I tackle it?

This could prove difficult for David, as he often does little work to analyse. I would suggest that he was set a task with little writing, and then use the questions as a tick list to get him to think about how he has tackled the task.

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