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Who can forget the above saying uttered by Mrs. Gump and then repeated by her son Forrest throughout the 1994 movie Forrest Gump.  Okay it was life and not learning theories.  The next part of the axiom was ‘you never know what you’re gonna get’ and I would like to change it to ‘you never know what you are gonna need’.

So, my approach to instruction and instructional design is likening it to a box of chocolates.  There are different flavours which address different needs and which one you need depends on what and with whom you are trying to achieve the prescribed learning outcome.  Also, like chocolate you cannot just pick one.

Behaviorism and the Junior Officer:  Ertmer and Newby state that in behaviorism the key elements are the stimulus, the response and association between the two (2002).  This instructional design works exceptionally well when the subject matter calls for a predictive, instinctive, repeatable behaviour from the Junior Officer.  This type of reaction is required for example in reaction to an emergency situation onboard a warship.  The instructional design places emphasis ‘on producing observable and measurable outcomes’; ‘on mastering early steps before progressing to more complex levels of performance and the ‘use of reinforcement to impact performance’ (Ertmer & Newby, 2002, p.49).  Behaviorism is used outside the classroom as well and it allows for the indoctrination of our organizational culture.  Here Ertmer and Newby glaze over the role of memory and for those interested it is more akin to the habitual behaviour engrained through a cue, response and reward system (see Charles Duggit and ‘The Power of Habit’).  The weakness of this type of instructional design is that it does not serve ‘acquisition of higher-level skills or those that require a greater depth of processing’ (Ertmer & Newby, 2002, pg. 49).

Cognitivism and the Junior Officer: Some material taught increases in complexity and requires ‘an emphasis on promoting mental processing’ (Ertmer & Newby, 2002, pg. 51).  Cognitivism focuses on the mental activities of the Junior Officer and how he/she receives information, organizations information, stores information and then retrieves it when required.  One example is applying the regulations for the prevention of collisions at sea (read traffic laws of the sea).  When the design of the material is constructed it is based on a students existing mental structures and ensures that linkage can be made to new material.  The flow of material in the various courses builds in complexity from basic, to foundational, and to the advanced.  Using an analogy to driving a car, the first area (basic) might be learning traffic signs such as the stop sign, and the foundational might be actions surrounding what one must do when you come to a stop sign – coming to a complete stop prior to proceeding.  Lastly, the advanced area of knowledge might be a four way stop where ‘the creation of learning environments that allow and encourage students to make connections with previously learned material’ (Ertmer & Newby, 2002, pg. 53).

Constructivism and the Junior Officer: As the Junior Officer gains experience, he-she begins ‘to create meaning as opposed to acquiring it’ (Ertmer & Newby, 2002, pg. 55). Behaviour is situationally determined.  Again, using the application of regulations for prevention of collisions at sea as an example the Junior Officer is ready to move beyond just regurgitating or knowing particular facts of the rules and now can interpret information based on his-her experience. The instructional design of these lessons or simulations places on emphasis on learner control, allowing the learner to go ‘beyond the information given’ (Ertmer & Newby, 2002, pg. 58)

Merrill discusses principles of instructions that are applicable regardless of the learning theory applied.  Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems (Merrill, 2002, p.44).  I have found that if the instructional design demonstrates or explains the why -you have immediate buy-in as they see the application of material being learned.  For example, relative velocity is the study of how two objects interact with each other.  There are complex principles of speed, angle, time etc.  The design here starts with showing the Junior Officer a helicopter approaching a ship steaming at sea and seeing the helicopter land on a moving platform.  Demonstrating the freedom of the movement of the deck of a ship influenced by sea and waves, the helicopter influenced by wind and controlling speed and course to create an appropriate wind envelop to safely land at day, night and restricted visibility – you have immediate buy in to learn the concepts around relative velocity.  To master a complex problem such as that described the Junior Officer start with a less complex problem and when that first problem is mastered students are given a more complex problem (Merrill, 2002, p.46).  Support from experienced Officers is given but as the learning progresses this support is gradually taken away.  Scaffolding involves performing parts of the task that the students cannot perform and gradually reducing the amount of guidance and shifting control to the student (Merrill, 2002, p.46).

This exercise reinforced that there are many learning theories to choose from and it is equally important to consider the instructional design associated with a particular learning theory.



Ertmer, P., & Newby, T. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly26(2), 43-71.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development50(3), 43-59.