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Learning Theories – Building a Foundation For Your Course

Before we can begin building a course, we must first consider how we expect our students to learn the concepts covered in the course. Application of tested learning theories will help to strengthen the course. In this post, I will review two learning theories: (a) cognitivism and (b) subsumption theory. I will also provide examples of how these theories might be applied to building a course.

Cognitivism states that the learning process is internal, active, and creative, and that memory plays an important role in the learning process. What we learn is stored in our memory. According to cognitivism, new material is placed into memory (learned) through three processes: (a) attention, (b) encoding, and (c) retrieval. New information is received (attention) and processed (encoding) to make sense of it. Learning takes place when new information is connected to existing information so that it can be stored for later use (retrieval). The instructor should present new material in a way in which students can relate to it. This helps in the attention and encoding processes. When students receive new information that is foreign to them (they have no frame of reference), they tend to reject it; however, if the information is presented by comparing it to something they already understand, they will be able to pay attention and accept it. Giving students a frame of reference for new information allows them to be able to process (encode) the new information and to store it for later use (retrieval).

Somewhat related to cognitivism is the subsumption theory by Ausubel, who states that learning occurs through superordinate, representational, and combinatioral processes (subsumption). When new ideas are presented in a way that relates to ideas in one’s existing cognitive structure, the ideas can be processed. One’s cognitive structure is the sum of all ideas that have been presented, understood in a context, and combined in a way that makes sense and adds to the existing cognitive structure. The role of the instructor is to provide the organizers that allow students to add new ideas to their existing cognitive structure. This is done by presenting the most general ideas first, then providing the details, being sure to bring it back to the “big picture”. New material is presented by comparing it to the “big picture” or other ideas already presented and understood.

An example of the application of cognitivism and subsumption theories in an accounting course is to begin by discussing financial statements (the “big picture”). Because financial statements are likely to be a foreign concept to students, it is helpful to explain them in terms in which a student can relate. For example, it’s helpful to begin with the balance sheet, explaining what assets, liabilities, and equity are. Have students develop their own personal balance sheets, listing the assets they own, any debts they owe, and then to subtract the debts from the assets to calculate their equity (net worth). Then, give examples of “transactions” that would impact their balance sheets, such as purchase of a car with a loan. Have them record the changes to their balance sheets for each transaction. Next, move on to the income statement. Explain that their earnings from work are their revenues and that the costs of working (interest on car payments, gasoline, professional clothing, etc.) are their expenses. Have them calculate their “net income” from working.

As you begin developing a course, start with the “big picture”. This is the major course outcome. Think about it as the one big concept or skill set that you expect students to grasp by the end of the course. Develop the course to present the “big picture” first, then tie every new concept back to the “big picture”. This way of looping back to the major concept helps students to process new information in context. I like to “chunk” my courses into units or modules of related concepts. At the beginning of each unit, I discuss how the unit is related to the “big picture”. Then at the end of the unit, I provide some activity that helps students to tie the unit concepts back to the “big picture”. In my Introduction to Financial Accounting course, unit one covers the accounting cycle. I begin the unit by looking at the end result of the accounting cycle, the financial statements. We then spend time covering each of the steps in the accounting cycle. At the end of the each step, we discuss how it relates to or changes the financial statements. At the end of the unit, students complete the accounting cycle for a small business. We also discuss (either in class or in online discussion forums) the impact of the steps to the financial statements. Students compare the beginning financial statements with the ending financial statements and discuss what took place to make the changes.

Once the course is structured into units, you are ready to begin writing lesson plans. For each new concept you will introduce, consider what knowledge of the concept students are likely to have. For example, in an Intermediate Accounting course with a Principle of Accounting prerequisite, you might assume that students would have a basic understanding of financial accounting. You might also provide an overview of the principles course as a review just in case some students completed the prerequisite course several semesters (or years) ago. Introduce new concepts within the framework that students can recognize, either from previous courses or from a personal perspective. Begin with the “big picture”. For example, when I teach Cost Accounting, I begin by explaining that we will be examining reports that are not designed for external users. While the reports help to provide information for the financial statements designed for external users, the information is provided in a way that is useful to management. I also introduce the concept of unit cost the very first class by using an example to which students can relate. One example I use for traditional-aged college students is to have them plan a party. We list all the things we would purchase for a party and total the cost. Then we write down the expected number of people who will attend the party. We can then calculate the cost per attendee (unit cost). This introduces the new concept (unit cost) in a way that is familiar to them (a party), which allows them to accept the new information, process it, attach it to the example to remember it, and retrieve it later.

By developing the course backwards, starting with the outcome(s) and making sure to tie new concepts to the outcome(s), you will help your students to receive and process the new information. If you provide learning activities that require students to manipulate objects, numbers, etc., they are more likely to remember the concept later as they will be able to remember the activity. The more learning opportunities you can provide in a context familiar to students, the more successful your students will be.


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