Learning Theory Amy L. Malmedahl

The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.

-Brian Herbert

There are many theories regarding learning and how the learner best engages and uses the new information learned. For me, several theories stand out. The theories that I find most relatable to my education include Cognitivism, Humanism and Problem-Based Learning.


According to Mastrian et al. (2010), cognitivism "focuses on mental processes that operate on stimuli presented to the perceptual and cognitive systems, and which usually contribute to whether or not a response is made" (p.78).

Cognitivism uses the concepts of schema. "A schema is an organized structure consisting of linked concepts that coexist with many other schema" (Mastrian et al, 2010, p. 78). When applying the use of cognitivism to my current studies, it is easy to see how schema fit. While learning new information, a new schema is created. If the new information coordinates with information previously learned, it can fit into an already existing schema. Cognitivism relies on prior knowledge of the learner. As an adult learner, with previous educational experiences, prior knowledge is established and can help with further education.


According to Edwords (as cited by Mastrian et al., 2010) "humanism is not a learning theory but rather a school of thought that humans are unique in capability, and different that other animals" (p. 79). The concept of differing capabilities is ever present in the process of online learning. Discussion boards display an array of strengths and weakness among peers. Furthermore, substantive discussions take place when each individual student expresses their unique and different view of concepts.

One of the five basic objectives of humanism is that of self-direction and independence (Mastrian et al, 2010, p. 79). I have found that these are two of the most crucial qualities to possess in order to successfully complete a college level course via distance/online learning.

Problem Based Learning

Problem Based Learning may be the most applicable to the nursing field.

Many variations on the PBL teaching approach exist. All start by giving the students a problem or set of problems to solve. Problems may be well structured and have a clear answer, or they may be ill structured, having many possible solutions. (Mastrian et al., 2010, p. 83).

Often, patients present with a problem, questions are asked, tests are run and the practitioner comes to a conclusion and bases treatment based on said conclusion.

In Problem Based Learning, the student is responsible for their own education. Much like the learning that takes place while taking online classes. Rhem states (as cited by Mastrian et al., 2010) "this in turn leads to higher levels of comprehension, improved social skills, and the ability to apply knowledge to novel situations" (p. 84)

In conclusion, an individual's way of learning may not fit into just one theory. Higher education via online learning is a unique experience and may not be for everybody. For myself, the theories of Cognitivism, Humanism and Problem Based Learning can be applied to offer the best chance for success.
"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

Mahatma Gandhi


Mastrian, K. G., Mcgonigle, D., & Mahan, W. L. (2010). Overview of learning theories. In Integrating technology in nursing education: Tools for the knowledge era (pp. 75-92). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.


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