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‘Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow’. - Anthony J. D'Angelo

‘A good teacher must be able to put himself in the place of those who find learning hard’. - Eliphas Levi

Theories of learning Learning theories attempt to explain the various ways in which knowledge can be generated, processed and recalled [1,2]. Having an understanding of these dynamic and multi-dimensional processes can assist with the design and implementation of training activities that not only take the principles of learning into account but are more likely to be effective for the development of skill. To assist with the understanding of these complex processes this section provides an overview of the three basic theories of learning and examples of how each of these concepts could be successfully adapted and applied to ModBox training settings. Features




View of knowledge

Knowledge is developed through behavioural responses to environmental stimuli.

Knowledge consists of cognitive structures developed by the learners and not simply due to external stimuli.

Knowledge is socially constructed through interactions with a community or group.

View of learning

Learning occurs through the passive absorption of a predefined body of knowledge.

Learning is an ongoing process whereby new information is linked to existing knowledge.

Learners create their own interpretation of reality.

Approach to coaching

Information for the successful completion of a task is passed on by the coach and absorbed by the athletes.

Coaches use a guided discovery approach in an attempt to positively influence the learning process.

Coaches encourage and promote selfdirected learning.

An overview of the three basic theories of learning and the coaching methods that would be promoted by the use of each approach. (The information contained in the above table was adapted from comparison learning theories and learning

Classical conditioning - Behaviourism Classical conditioning is an automatic type of learning in which a stimulus from the environment evokes a behavioural response from the learner [3]. Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov accidentally discovered this stimulus-response approach to learning through his Nobel prize-winning research on digestion [4]. At the time, Pavlov was working with dogs and developed a procedure that enabled him to measure saliva levels outside of the dog’s body. Over time Pavlov began to notice that the dogs would start to salivate whenever they saw their handler, even when these interactions occurred outside of feeding times. Keen to learn more, Pavlov introduced a neutral stimulus (a bell) that was rung shortly before the dogs were fed. After a few repetitions, the bell was used alone and the dogs responded by salivating at the sound of the ringing bell in the absence of any food. Pavlov concluded that the dogs had learnt an association existed between the ringing of the bell and the issuing of the food, which developed into a new behaviour. Although limited to the response of dogs, Pavlov’s research [4] demonstrated how stimulus– response bonds are formed and are able to produce involuntary responses through the repeated use of the following process [5]. •

• •

The Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) is the object or event that originally produces a natural response. In Pavlov’s experiment the UCS would have been the food. The response to this is called the Unconditioned Response (UCR). In Pavlov’s experiment the UCR would have been the salivation. The Neutral Stimulus (NS) is a new stimulus that does not produce a response. In Pavlov’s experiment the NS would have been the bell. Once the neutral stimulus (the bell) becomes associated with the unconditioned stimulus (the food), it becomes a Conditioned Stimulus (CS) - The sound of the bell = Getting fed. The Conditioned Response (CR) is the response to the conditioned stimulus. – Salivation in response to hearing the bell.

Applying classical conditioning to ModBox The table below provides an example of how a classical conditioning approach could be adopted and applied to a ModBox training situation. In this example, the association between the neutral stimulus (a positive and supportive training environment) and attending a ModBox training session (the unconditioned stimulus) results in a positive shift in thinking (the conditioned response). The conditioned response, in this case feeling excited and confident about attending training sessions increases the probability that participation in the program is sustained enabling the time required for not only the development of sport skills but critical life skills. Element

Pavlov’s example

ModBox example

Unconditioned Stimulus. (UCS)


Attending a ModBox training session. A young person attending his/her first week of training.

Unconditioned Response. (UCR)


Feelings. Feeling apprehensive, anxious and daunted as a result of a previous negative sporting experience.

Neutral Stimulus. (NS)

Ringing the bell.

Training environment. A positive, fun and nonjudgmental training environment with kind, considerate and caring athletes and coaches.

Conditioned Stimulus. (CS)

Sound of the bell. Over time an association is made between the sound of the bell and being fed.

Attending a ModBox training session. Over time an association is made between attending the training sessions and feeling good, having fun and being accepted.

Conditioned Response. (CR)

Salivation. In response to hearing the bell.

Positive feelings. Feeling excited, happy and confident about attending training sessions.

Operant conditioning – Behaviourism Developed by influential behaviourist B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning is a theory of learning based on the idea that behaviour can be modified through the use of positive and negative reinforcement and/or punishment [6]. Unlike Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory [4] that demonstrated associative learning, operant conditioning helps to explain how the consequences of people's actions influences their behaviour [1]. The key concepts of this reinforcement approach to learning are summarised below. Different types of behaviours According to Skinner [6], there are two different types of behaviours: • •

Respondent behaviours (those that occur automatically) and, Operant behaviours (those that are consciously controlled)

Skinner [6] maintains that regardless of how the behaviour occurs it is the consequences of those actions that determine whether or not the same behaviour is repeated. Reinforcement In the context of operant conditioning reinforcement can be both positive and negative. Nevertheless, in both cases its use increases the likelihood that a behaviour will continue [6] . •

Positive reinforcement involves the use of rewards and is usually given after a demonstration of the desired behaviour to increase the probability that the same behaviour will be repeated in the future [6]. In a ModBox setting this may include giving praise to athletes for trying hard and being considerate of others.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of something that is perceived to be unappealing after a demonstration of the desired behaviour [6]. For example, if athletes have performed well at the first part of a hard fitness training session a coach could announce that the remainder of the session will be allocated to the playing of games. In this situation the appropriate response is strengthened as something that is considered negative is removed.

Punishment In operant conditioning punishments are used in an attempt to decrease the probability that undesirable or inappropriate behaviour reoccuring [6]. •

Positive punishment involves the use of a negative consequence delivered immediately after the display of the undesirable behaviour [6]. Reprimanding an athlete for being late for training or for behaving aggressively are examples of positive punishment.

Negative punishment is the removal of something that is valued after an undesired behaviour is exhibited [6]. For example, if an athlete who really enjoys training acts inappropriately, negative punishment can be applied by making that person sit out the remainder of the session.

Issues and concerns Although it has been repeatedly demonstrated that punishment can be an effective tool for controlling behaviour [7,8] its use has raised a number of concerns, as evident from the list below. •

Punished behaviour is not forgotten, it is suppressed and often the original behaviour returns when the punishment is no longer present [9]. Punishment can create fear that can be generalised to other undesirable patterns of behaviours. For example, fear of the coach, aggressiveness toward others, decreased levels of motivation, lack of confidence and feelings of social exclusion may result [9]. Punishment does not necessarily lead toward positive behavioural changes [9].

Conclusion Taking the above into account and remembering that reinforcement increases the likelihood that the behaviour will continue and punishment is only effective for telling someone what not to do [9], perhaps the best approach for the promotion of positive behaviour is for coaches to model the type of behaviour they wish to see displayed. The use of this approach is discussed next.

Bandura’s social learning theory – Behaviourism/Cognitivism Underpinned by the three core concepts below, Bandura’s social learning theory [10] is helpful for explaining how individuals are able to learn and develop new behaviours through the observation of others and the interpretation of those actions. 1. People can learn through observation The first concept of Bandura’s theory [10] is the view that observational learning is dependent on information processing, which occurs between observing the behaviour (stimulus) and deciding to imitate it or not (response). Bandura and his colleagues demonstrated this point with their famous bobo doll experiment [11]. The study involved 72 pre-school aged children (36 males/36 females) observing an adult acting aggressively toward a bobo doll (a soft inflatable doll) and included the following conditions: 1. The model-reward condition: children observed a second adult give the aggressive model praise and a treat for a ‘great performance’. 2. The model-punished condition: children observe a second adult reprimand the model for the aggressive behaviour. 3. The no-consequence condition: children simply saw the model behave aggressively. Later when each child was left alone in a room with the bobo doll and the props used by the adult, the subjects imitated the actions that they had witnessed. For example, the children who witnessed the model-reward and no-consequence conditions were more willing to imitate the aggressive acts than those who witnessed the model-punished condition. From this study Bandura [10], concluded that the motivational factors were responsible for the different behaviours and noted three different forms of observational learning can occur: • • •

Live modeling: An individual actually observes a particular type of behavior. Verbal instructional modeling: An individual is verbally supplied with a description or explanation about behavior. Symbolic modeling: An individual observes the behavior displayed by real or fictional characters in books and films.

2. Internal mental states are important to learning Described by Bandura [10] as ‘intrinsic reinforcement’, the second concept of his social learning theory implies that an internal reward such as satisfaction or pride must be present for learning to be effective. 3. Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behavior The final concept of Bandura’s theory proposes that not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. According to Bandura [10], certain factors influence the success of social learning and a number of requirements must be followed to ensure new learning is achieved. These requirements are described in the table below, along with examples of how they could be applied to a ModBox training situation. Requirements

Bandura’s Description

ModBox example


The individual notices something in the environment.

A new athlete observes the behaviour and attitude of other more experienced athletes and the coach.


The individual remembers what was noticed.

Confidence Determination Passion


The individual produces an action that is a copy of what was noticed.

The new athlete adopts these values and attempts to apply them at future training sessions.


The environment delivers a consequence that enhances the probability the behaviour will occur again.

Positive reinforcement and encouragement from coaches and athletes.

Kolb's experiential learning cycle – Constructivism Kolb's experiential learning model [12] proposes a four-stage learning cycle that is grounded in reflection and continuously modified by new experiences [12]. According to Kolb [12], new knowledge is generated when a learner successfully transitions through the four stages below and although learning can begin at any stage of the cycle, no single stage can be considered as an effective learning experience on its own. Concrete Experience (CE) Experiencing

Active Experimentation (AE) Testing/Acting

Reflective Observation (RO) Reflecting

Abstract Conceptualisation (AC) Thinking

Concrete Experience: New learning is experienced.

Reflective Observation: Critical reflection occurs.

Abstract Conceptualisation: Reflection enables a new idea to emerge, or the modification of an existing concept.

Active Experimentation: New knowledge is applied to subsequent tasks. When participation in active experimentation creates a new concrete experience the learning process enters new cycles [12].

Applying Kolb’s learning model to ModBox The table below provides an example of how Kolb’s experiential learning model could be applied to a ModBox skill-specific training drill. Coaches could use this example to design and implement additional training activities that ensure athletes transition through the whole learning process in the preferred sequence. Mode of learning


ModBox example

Additional details

Concrete Experience

New experience, or reinterpretation of a previous one.

Athletes participate in a modified game that has a number of constraints.

Athletes can only use their non-dominate hand when making their attacking actions and must use leg defence for their defensive manoeuvres.

Reflective Observation

Critical reflection of own experience and/or observation of others.

At the end of the game the coach and athletes discuss the experience and time is allocated for personal reflection.

To aid the learning process, athletes are also shown video footage of the game.

Abstract Conceptualisation

Development of a new idea, or the modification of an exiting concept.

Sufficient time is provided so that new ideas can be developed.

Positive encouragement from coach to try out new ideas.

Active Experimentation

New knowledge is tested.

Opportunities to apply new concept through further involvement in playful games.

Additional coach/athlete discussions with video footage are held to develop a deeper understanding of the situation.

Cognitive apprenticeship – Cognitive/Constructivism Cognitive apprenticeship [13,14] is a social and collaborative learning process whereby knowledge is acquired and contextually tied to the settings and situations in which it is learnt [15,16]. Learning in this context is guided by the expertise of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) [17], who encourages and challenges learners to solve problems with critical thinking and kinesthetic ability - similar to the way in which an apprentice learns a trade under the supervision of a master trades person [18,19]. The model below illustrates the four dimensions that underpin this approach to learning, while the six teaching methods that are considered necessary for the development of domain-specific expertise are summarised on the following page.

•  Modelling •  Coaching •  Scaffolding •  Articulation •  Reflection •  Exploration

• Situated learning • Intrinstic motivation • Collabration

• Incresing complexity • Increasing diversity Method


The approach used to develop expertise

The order in which activities are introduced



The social characteristics of the environment

The knowledge required for the development of expertise

• Domain knowledge • Learning strategies

Model adapted from: Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1987). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics (Technical Report No. 403). BBN Laboratories, Cambridge, MA. Centre for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois.

Teaching/Coaching methods The methods summarised below are an integral part of the cognitive apprenticeship model and are used to develop the critical thinking skills required for the successful completion of complex tasks [13,14]. Modelling Modelling is the process whereby learners build a conceptual model of the task after observing an expert demonstration [10]. For example, a coach using explicit instructions while demonstrating how to make a ModBox stance and guard would be confirming his/her domain knowledge to the learners. Coaching Coaching refers to the provision of instructions, suggestions, hints and prompts on how a task should be correctly completed [20]. Scaffolding Under the cognitive apprenticeship model, scaffolding is the level of support offered to learners when they are developing their skills [21]. For example, coaches may need to provide additional assistance with a particular aspect of a task during the early stages of development. Articulation Articulation is the process of having athletes verbalise their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving skills [22]. The process should include coaches and peers asking questions, which enables athletes to refine their thinking while facilitating opportunities for collaborative learning [23]. Reflection Reflection is an integral part of the learning process and provides an opportunity for learners to analyse their own performance and identify areas of improvement that models the behaviour of the expert [24]. Exploration Exploration is an advanced stage of the learning process and occurs when athletes are able to correctly identify problems for themselves [22]. However to be effective, coaches need to withdraw their support gradually, while still assisting where needed.

Information processing theory - Cognitivism In contrast to the behaviourist approach to learning, information processing is concerned with understanding the mechanisms through which learning occurs [25-27]. This perception of learning supports the idea that the human mind operates in a similar way to a computer, in as much as they both receive input, have mechanisms for the processing of information and are both capable of delivering an output. A demonstration of how the information processing system works can be viewed here while the key features that underpin this system are illustrated below and summarised in the subsequent text.

Sensory input

Sensory memory

Discarded or forgotten information

Maintenance Rehearsal

Information transfer

Working memory

Information transfer and retrieval

Longterm memory

Discarded or forgotten information

An illustration of the information processing theory that demonstrates how information gathered from the senses (input), is stored and (processed) by the brain for the purpose of producing a behavioural response (output).

Key features of information processing • Information processing is a highly sophisticated process that is responsible for the development of such important cognitive functions as decision-making, reasoning and perception [28]. •

Information processing involves the encoding and retrieval of various forms of memory through the input of physical stimuli (touch, sight and sound) [29].

Retrieved physical stimuli are transformed into electrochemical signals through a process known as transduction [30].

Electrochemical signals (information) in the sensory memory can only last for very short periods of time, less than 1 second for visual and 3 seconds for sound [30].

Selective attention filters sensory memories by recognising what is familiar or important and deliberately ignoring what is unnecessary. Only the perceived useful information is progressed to the working memory [30].

The electrochemical signals (information) transferred to the working memory generally last for 20-30 seconds unless the process is constantly repeated (maintenance rehearsal/practice) at which point it can be available for up to 20 minutes [31].

Previous experience and the demands of the task can affect the processing of information in the working memory [31].

A limiting factor with information processing is the number of units that can be processed at any one time. Miller [25], proposed 7+2 for this number, but research now suggests the number may be closer to 5+2 [32,33].

Long-term memory is the part of the brain where learnt information is stored and includes mental images (imagery), procedural knowledge (how to do something) and declarative memory (information we can talk about) [32,33].

Pairing semantic memories (general knowledge of how to complete a task) with episodic memories (personal experience associated with the task) facilitates opportunities for effective learning [34].

References and further reading 1.   Skinner,  B.F.,  Are  theories  of  learning  necessary?  Psychological  review,  1950.   57(4):  p.  193.   2.   Dunn,  L.,  Theories  of  learning.  Learning  and  Teaching  Briefing  Papers  Series,   Oxford  Centre  for  Staff  and  Learning  Development  OCSLD,  Oxford  Brookes   University,  2002  Jun  27.   3.   Mackintosh,  N.J.,  Conditioning  and  associative  learning.  1983:  Oxford:  Clarendon   Press.   4.   Pavlov,  I.P.,  The  work  of  the  digestive  glands.  1897/1902,  London:  Griffin.   5.   Windholz,  G.,  Ivan  P.  Pavlov:  An  overview  of  his  life  and  psychological  work.   American  Psychologist,  1997.  52(9):  p.  941-­‐946.   6.   Skinner,  B.F.,  The  science  of  learning  and  the  art  of  teaching.  Harvard  Educational   Review,  1954.  24(2):  p.  86-­‐97.   7.   Johnston,  J.M.,  Replacing'  problem  behaviour:  an  analysis  of  tactical  alternatives.   The  Behavior  Analyst,  2006.  29(1):  p.  1-­‐11.   8.   Lerman,  D.C.  and  Vorndran,  C.M.,  On  the  status  of  knowledge  for  using   punishment:  implications  for  treating  behaviour  disorders.  Journal  of  Applied   Behavior  Analysis  2002.  35(4):  p.  431-­‐464.   9.   Martens,  B.K.  and  Meller,  P.J.,  The  application  of  behavioral  principles  to   educational  settings.  In  T.B.  Gutkin  &  C.R.Reynolds  (Eds.)  The  handbook  of  school   psychology  (2nd  ed.).  1990,  New  York:  John  Wiley  &  Sons.   10.   Bandura,  A.,  Social  Learning  Theory.  1977,  Englewood  Cliffs,  NJ:  Prentice-­‐Hall.   11.   Bandura,  A.,  Ross,  D.  and  Ross,  S.A.,  Transmission  of  aggression  through  imitation   of  aggressive  models.  Journal  of  Abnormal  and  Social  Psychology,  1961.  63:  p.   575-­‐582.   12.   Kolb,  D.A.,  Experiential  learning:  Experience  as  the  source  of  learning  and   development  (Vol.1).  1984:  Englewood  Cliffs,  NJ:  Prentice-­‐Hall.   13.   Collins,  A.,  Brown,  J.S.  and  Newman,  S.E.,  Cognitive  apprenticeship:  Teaching  the   craft  of  reading,  writing  and  mathematics  (Technical  Report  No.  403)  BBN   Laboratories,  Cambridge,  MA.  Centre  for  the  Study  of  Reading,  University  of  Illinois.   1987.   14.   Johnson,  S.D.,  A  framework  for  technology  education  curricula  which  emphasizes   intellectual  processes.  .Journal  of  Technology  Education,  1992.  3:  p.  1-­‐11.   15.   Brown,  J.S.,  Collins,  A.  and  Duguid,  S.,  Situated  cognition  and  the  culture  of   learning.  Educational  Researcher,  1989.  18(1):  p.  32-­‐42.   16.   Lave,  J.A.,  A  comparative  approach  to  educational  forms  and  learning  processes.   Anthropology  &  Education  Quarterly,  1982.  8(2):  p.  181-­‐187.   17.   Vygotsky,  L.,  Interaction  between  learning  and  development.  Readings  on  the   development  of  children.  1978.  23(3):  p.  24-­‐41.   18.   Choi,  J.  and  Hannafin,  M.,  Situated  Cognition  and  Learning  Environments:  Roles,   Structures,  and  Implications  for  Design.  Educational  Technology  Research  and   Development  1995.  43(2):  p.  53-­‐69.   19.   Anderson,  J.R.,  Reder,  L.M.  and  Simon,  H.A.,  Situated  Learning  and  Education.   Educational  Researcher,  1996.  25(4):  p.  5-­‐11.   20.   Lave,  J.  and  Wenger,  E.,  Situated  Learning:  Legitimate  Peripheral  Participation.   Cambridge:  Cambridge  University  Press,  1991.  

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Theories Of Learning  

An information guide outlining some of the theories that underpin the learning process.

Theories Of Learning  

An information guide outlining some of the theories that underpin the learning process.