Models of Learners
Home Up Instructional Design Models of Learners





© 2001, 2004, Elena Qureshi, M.A. M.Ed. Ph.D.

There is a body of educational research that emphasizes the importance of consideration of the learnerís role when writing instructional objectives (Smith, 1999). New models are being proposed for instruction that are learner-driven and learner-centered. In this manner, frameworks can be developed that may allow instruction to be designed in a way so that students can maximize their learning and teachers can meet expectations of top-down managers.

A teacherís model of the learner will influence their perceived role of a teacher (Morton, 2000). Depending on how the learner is viewed, research identifies five models: Tabula Rasa model, Hypothesis Generator, Nativism model, Constructivist model, and Novice-to-Expert model.

Model 1: Tabula Rasa

One of the conceptions of human nature is known as "human nature as tabula rasa." Tabula rasa model refers to the theory of John Locke, an English philosopher, whose works, like those of Rousseau, had a considerable impact upon our Founding Fathers. The central notion is that human nature is essentially a blank slate. We are born into the world with no knowledge, and without having any disposition to do good or evil. What we become depends entirely upon the affect of the environment. If we control a child's environment we can make him become what we wish (Shermis, 1998). This idea was picked up by some German philosophers and also by turn-of-the century psychologists such as Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson, and in the mid-century by Skinner.

Skinner claimed that children come into the world with a tabula rasa -a blank slate-bearing no pre-conceived notions about the world or about language, and these children are then shaped by their environment, slowly conditioned through various schedules of reinforcement. Skinner also claimed that learning in general could be programmed. You can teach anything by a carefully designed program of step-by-step reinforcement. Skinner characterized the learner as being similar to a battery, in that it continually emits behavior, while the environment selects certain behaviors based upon their consequences.

Andrew and Issacs (1995) criticizing Skinnerís model of pure behaviorism, noted that it denied the importance of internal states in learning. Murphy (1997) suggested that where behaviorism emphasized observable, external behaviors and, as such, avoided reference to meaning, representation and thought. Other researchers (Chomsky, 1971; Graham, 2000) pointed out that one remarkable feature of human behavior that Skinner deliberately rejected was that people creatively make their own environments. The world is as it is, in part, because we make it that way. Skinner protested that "it is in the nature of an experimental analysis of human behavior that it should strip away the functions previously assigned to autonomous man and transfer them one by one to the controlling environment" (Chomsky, 1971, p.198). Critics also say that behaviorism oversimplifies human behavior and that it sees the human being as an automation instead of a creature of will and purpose (Graham, 2000).

In the behavioral approach, learning, according to Murphy (1997), is conceived as a process of changing or conditioning observable behavior as result of selective reinforcement of an individual's response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. The mind is seen as an empty vessel or as a mirror reflecting reality. Behaviorism centers on students' efforts to accumulate knowledge of the natural world and on teachers' efforts to transmit it. It therefore relies on a transmission, instructionist approach, which is largely passive, teacher-directed and controlled.

One of the models of teaching and learning based on the Skinnerís model is instructivism. According to Fardouly (1998), the instructivist approach is characterized by the following features:

∑1 Students learn as a result of instruction so they should be instructed in what to learn.

∑2 Learning is a stimulus-response association that shapes desirable behaviors.

∑3 Goal oriented learning.

∑4 Goals are structured into a learning hierarchy from lowest (memorization) to highest (analysis and synthesis).

∑5 Learning tasks reduced into individual components.

∑6 Tasks must be mastered independently and then assembled (task and skill analysis is carried out to break down skills into their component parts).



In a typical behaviorist classroom, students are passively involved in receiving all necessary critical information from the teacher and the textbook (NCREL, 1995). Rather than inventing solutions and constructing knowledge in the process, students are taught how to "get the right answer" using the teacher's method. Students do not even have to "make sense" of the method used to solve problems.

Model 2: Hypothesis Generator

Cyr (1999) noted that Hull's theory of behavior was the first in the history of psychology to give a formal and comprehensive explanation for behavior. This theory could explain behaviors whether normal, abnormal, animal or human. According to Mills (1998), Hull centered the theory on the belief that a correlation existed between behavior and the environment, even at the most primitive level. Hull was confident that when a primary reinforcement preceded an event it was the primary reinforcer that was the catalyst for that event to occur. Hull (1934) suggested that the concept of habit formation had a variety of patterns. Hull theorized that there were two major types of habit: one characterized by a series of divergent action choices, radiating out like a fan from a single stimulus each leading to a distinct reaction, and the second characterized by a convergence of a number of acquired action tendencies from a separate stimuli, all upon a single response (Cyr, 1999). Hull suggested that first type was responsible for the variability of responses in trial and error learning. Each of the divergent tendencies were incompatible with each other, meaning that the organism was not capable of operating more than one choice at a time. According to Hull's theory, the second type of habit formation, convergence, was responsible for explaining the subtle forms of animal and human adjustments. Hull contended that convergence was of great importance biologically because it saved an organism from the trial and error learning process, by having the ability to react to new stimuli as it arises. Hull further suggested that when it came to dangerous situations the habit formation of convergence could make the difference of life or death to an organism.

According to Hullís theory (1934), humans are characterized by intentionality that is they choose experiences. Furthermore, they generate hypotheses and interpret their experiences in terms of their notions about the world (Morton, 2000).

Hull (1935) formulated a number of postulates (or laws), which explained the variables essential for learning (Ibrahim, 2001). Of these, it is his fourth postulate, which is important in explaining learning. It defined the upper limit of the habit strength, a concept developed by Hull. This was done in terms of relationship between three variables which were:

1) the magnitude of need reduction,

2) the time interval between response and reinforcement, and

3) the time interval between the conditioned stimulus and the response.

Though Hull has propounded a very vigorous theory of learning, the concept of habit strength is the highlight of it. Thus it is habit strength that mainly causes learning (Ibrahim, 2001).

Model 3: Nativism Model

In Developmental Psychology, nativism is defined as a theory that says that we are born with certain capacities to perceive the world in particular ways. These capacities are often immature or incomplete at birth but develop gradually. For example, we are born with the capacity to learn language. One of the supporters of this theory is Chomsky.

Chomsky argued that children come into this world with very specific innate knowledge, knowledge that includes not only general predispositions and tendencies but also knowledge of the nature of language and the world (Linuma, 2000a). Furthermore, children are born with a built-in device of some kind (LAD) that predisposes them to language acquisition - to a systematic perception of language around them, resulting in the construction of an internalized system of language.

Chomsky (1975, p.7) also believed that genetics controls not only the nature of human language but human knowledge and belief - `our systems of belief are those that the mind, as a biological structure, is designed to construct.' If there were topics for which mankind failed to come up with satisfactory scientific explanations after trying for a long time, this, according to Chomsky, might be because the true theories of those topics were not included in the class of theories that human minds were biologically capable of formulating (Sampson, 2001).

In a review of Skinnerís book on verbal behavior, Chomsky (1959) argued that some behavior (linguistic behavior, in particular) has to be understood in terms of internally represented rules. These rules are not products of learned associations. They are part of our native psychological endowment as human beings. Chomsky charged that behaviorist models of language learning could not explain various facts about language acquisition, such as the rapid acquisition of language by young children, which is sometimes referred to as the phenomenon of "lexical explosion." A childís linguistic abilities appear to be radically under-determined by the evidence of verbal behavior offered to the child in the short period in which he or she acquires those abilities. By the age of four or five (normal) children have an almost limitless capacity to understand and produce sentences they have never heard before. The basic rules or principles of grammar, therefore, argued Chomsky, must be innate.

Keil (1999) noted that the problem of behavioral capacities outstripping individual learning histories to which Chomsky had referred, seemed to go beyond merely the issue of linguistic behavior in young children. It appeared to be a fundamental fact about human beings that our sensitivities and behavioral capacities often surpass the limitations of our individual learning histories. Our history of reinforcement often is too impoverished to determine uniquely our behavior. Much learning, therefore, seems to require pre-existing or innate representational structures within which learning occurs.

Palmer (2000) in his critical review of Chomskyís nativism noted that Chomsky shares a number of fundamental assumptions with behaviorists and other experimental psychologists. Chomsky believes that organisms are a joint product of their genetic endowment and individual experience and that the experimental approach of the natural sciences is appropriate for the study of language. Chomskyís goals, however, are different from those of behaviorists. Chomsky, according to Palmer, is not particularly interested in verbal behavior itself, influenced as it is by the circumstances of the speaker, rather, he is interested in the ``essential nature'' of human beings that enables us to acquire a language. Specifically, Chomsky wishes to discover those elements of our nervous systems implicated in language that are genetically coded, hence ``universal.'' Chomsky called these elements ``universal grammar,'' a name that suggested the researcherís view of the task accomplished by these innate mechanisms: providing a set of rules to be used in speech production and comprehension.

Linuma (2000a) analyzed what Chomsky's theory meant in terms of examining electronic materials. The researcher noted that if one agreed that language could not really be "taught" but only acquired, then the theory could not be applied to materials that teach language. If one had developed a software program to teach grammar or pronunciation, then, one was not on the side of those who maintained a nativist theory, which holds that language is unconsciously acquired. If one had developed software to increase vocabulary, promote literacy, or develop better writing skills, one was working with people who had already 'acquired' the basics of language in the nativist sense.

The researcher listed the following implications of the theory for computers:
Natural language processing, that is, programming computers to generate grammatical sentences and sensible discourse.

Providing input so that the learner could use those (much like a child would) to generate grammatical utterances/sentences.

Using some of the aspects of language structure to help learners of English see how the language works. Using these aspects to help second language writers to develop their literacy skills.


Another supporter of nativism was Lorenz. The researcher first identified the phenomenon of imprinting in young birds. Imprinting - a young bird learns to follow a moving object, which is necessary for its survival. Lorenz discovered that it need not be its biological mother - a young bird does not innately recognize its mother, it could be any moving object. Lorenz believed that imprinting was unique and it occurred once in the bird's life and once it had happened it was irreversible. He also believed that there was a Critical Period for imprinting, so unless learning occurred during a particular period after hatching it would never occur. For Lorenz the critical period for imprinting was the first few hours after hatching.

Model 4: Constructivist Model

Constructivism is a theory that challenges the traditional behaviorist view that knowledge exists independently of the individual, that the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank tablet upon which a picture can be painted, and that learning is the resulting change in behavior due to reinforcement strategies.

The constructivist perspective asserts that learners construct knowledge by making sense of experiences in terms of what is already known (Brandt, 1997). That is, learners transfer knowledge through experiences via mental models that are used to assimilate new information into knowledge and expanded mental models (Tobin & Tippins, 1993). Constructivists also hold that learning is personal discovery, based on insight derived as a result of the student's intrinsic motivation. 

According to Smith (1999), the constructivist philosophy was a leading perspective among progressive educators during the early half of the 20th century and was part of John Dewey's paradigm of learning and instruction. It derived from several theoretical traditions. Many attribute influences to the work of Bruner, who holds that the work of the learner is an active process in which the learner constructs new ideas based on previously knowledge. Others have turned to the Vygotskyís research on the importance of a social context and his practical notion of the zone of proximal development. However, the most important influence today is from the work of Piaget.

Piaget (1968) expressed an idea that human knowledge is essentially active. According to the researcher, to know was to assimilate reality into systems of transformations. Piaget was opposed to the view of knowledge as a passive copy of reality. Knowing an object, according to the researcher, did not mean copying it - it meant acting upon it. It also meant constructing systems of transformations that could be carried out on or with this object. Knowing reality meant constructing systems of transformations that corresponded, more or less adequately, to reality. Piaget viewed knowledge as a system of transformations that become progressively adequate.

Hein (1991) identified the following principles of constructivist learning:
Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities that engage the mind as well as the hands.

Learning involves language: the language we use influences learning. On the empirical level, researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level, there is a collection of arguments, presented most forcefully by Vygotsky, that language and learning are inextricably intertwined.

Learning is a social activity: our learning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings, our teachers, our peers, our family as well as casual acquaintances, including the people before us or next to us at the exhibit.

Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears.

One needs knowledge to learn: it is not possible to assimilate new knowledge without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on. The more we know, the more we can learn.

It takes time to learn: learning is not instantaneous. For significant learning we need to revisit ideas, ponder them try them out, play with them and use them.

Motivation is a key component in learning. Not only is it the case that motivation helps learning, it is essential for learning.


Ryneveld (2000) suggested that in the constructivist theory the emphasis is placed on the learner or the student rather than the teacher or the instructor.  It is the learner who interacts with objects and events and thereby gains an understanding of the features held by such objects or events.  The learner, therefore, constructs his/her own conceptualizations and solutions to problems. Learner autonomy and initiative is accepted and encouraged.

Constructivists believe that learning is a process of sense-making, of adding and synthesizing new information within existing knowledge structures and adjusting prior understandings to new experiences (Jones, 2000). Therefore, the meaning that each learner derives from a particular learning experience is unique and each individual's experience is filtered through their personal understandings, beliefs, and values.

Ryneveld (2000) pointed out that in constructivist thinking learning is also affected by the context and the beliefs and attitudes of the learner. Learners are encouraged to invent their own solutions and to try out ideas and hypotheses. They are given the opportunity to build on prior knowledge.

Learning is considered to be a social process (Jones, 2000). Learners who are dissatisfied with their current level of knowledge engage others in a sharing, comparing, and reformulating of ideas. Through a collaborative process, learners restructure new understandings.

The constructivist classroom presents the learner with opportunities to build on prior knowledge and understanding to construct new knowledge and understanding from authentic experience. Students are allowed to confront problems full of meaning because of their real-life context. In solving these problems, students are encouraged to explore possibilities, invent alternative solutions, collaborate with other students (or external experts), try out ideas and hypotheses, revise their thinking, and finally present the best solution they can derive (NCREL, 1995).

According to Brandt (1997), while the goal of constructivism is to recognize and help facilitate the learnerís ability to construct knowledge, when applied to teaching information retrieval on the Internet it also provides the teacher with a structure for teaching. By focusing on concepts and connecting them to mental models, instructors and teachers can gain both confidence and control over the amount of material they cover in the small blocks of time usually allotted to teaching and training. Integrated with experiences that learners use to alter and strengthen mental models, a constructivist approach to teaching information retrieval also gives users a needed structure to get the most out of the Internet.

Model 5: Novice-to-Expert

Novice-to-Expert model that is reflected in the work of Norman (1993) is based on analyses of novices and experts. It is more practical than theoretical (Morton, 2000).

The way one makes the transition from novice to expert is one of the important aspects of Normanís learning model. This especially applies to learning a new skill. Norman's model focuses on a performance-oriented view. To Norman, tuning is the key to becoming an expert, and it involves a great deal of practice. Norman explained that "tuning is a slow process" and that reaching expert behavior requires "a proper mix of accretion, tuning, and restructuring (p.29, 36)." First uncomfortable, clumsy attempts at performing a skill become, through tuning, easy, fluent attempts that require little thought. Moreover, Norman stresses the fact that a skill must be maintained through tuning: "expert behavior must constantly be retuned" otherwise "performance deteriorates (p.29)."

Magno (1999) gave an example how Normanís model can be applied to the expert skills (programming skill) the researcher had acquired. A specific example given was learning the graphics commands for the Java environment. When a person was first exposed to these commands, he/she used them in a clumsy manner. Similar to Norman's model, it took time and practice with various schemes before one became skillful in applying the right commands for the right situations. As a novice, one would be emulating rather than having ideas of oneís own. However, the more one practiced using the commands, the less one had to use reflective thinking to apply them. Eventually, one would be able to create more complicated effects with the commands because one did not have to spend time thinking about the easy cases. Magno (1999) noted that one could relate to Norman's point of constant retuning even after one reached the expert level. The researcher found that it took some time to "relearn" programming skills that were not used in a long time.

Norman believed in the importance of motivation. According to Norman, people could be lured into learning. The researcher suggested that educators should use similar methods to those of the entertainment industry to do this. The idea is to appeal to people's perceptual senses to gain their attention and make them curious. "Once people are curious about the questions..., they are...willing to do the work involved in pursuing the answers (p.30) ." In this model, the important factors of motivation are fun and curiosity.