Do Learning Theories Matter In Classroom Teaching?: The role of learning theories in the teaching of a service course in undergraduate statistics

Matthew Ovens
YourStatsGuru, Melbourne, Australia

Originally submitted on 7 April 2017 as part of coursework at Curtin University, Perth, Australia


The role of learning theory for classroom teachers is important. This paper briefly reviews modern learning theories before discussing the role of theory in the classroom. An example from the author’s own teaching practice is presented to demonstrate how the theory of Error Management Training was tested for use in an undergraduate statistics service course.

Keywords: Learning Theory, Statistical Packages, Guided Training, Error Management Training

Front page of paper


The question of, "How to we learn?" has occupied the work of philosophers, thinkers and researchers at least from the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras. Twined with this, is the question of, "How do we then teach to ensure learning occurs?" The mystery surrounding the acquisition of knowledge and the best pedagogical practices to maximise effective learning has resulted in many differing theories, especially in modern times with the rise of the discipline of educational psychology.

The behaviourism models of learning, still popular in the 1950s and 1960s, theorised that learning only occurred through outside stimulus and so learning could only occur if one was presented with the right stimulus. In this model of learning, the teacher’s role is provide such a stimulus for the learner. Indeed, Skinner (1968) stated that "teaching is simply the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement" (p. 25). This suggests the role of a teacher reduces to merely the transmitter of information, information that has previously been "learned at least once by someone" (p. 25).

An unfortunate consequence of the past popularity of these behaviourism models has been the corruption of the typical university lecture into a truly didactic, i.e. patronising and/or boring, event that does little to engage the learner. Secondary and primary teaching levels were not immune from the consequences either. Most modern textbooks for mathematics are still based on the idea of providing students with the right stimulus and reinforcement via seemingly endless exercises. Modern technology, such as PowerPoint slide shows, have exacerbated the situation, in many cases resulting in the lecturer merely reading their slides out to the students. When a lecturer tries to engage the students during the lecture, for example via a conversational style lecture, there is often backlash, both from the institution and the students, such is the level of influence that behaviourism has had on how the expectations of what constitutes "good" teaching and learning.

A quick review of modern learning theories

The works of Piaget (e.g. Piaget (1930), Piaget (1972)) and Vygotsky (e.g. Vygotsky (1935)1) suggested that learners were not simply empty vessels into which a teacher "poured" knowledge, as espoused by the behaviourist models. Indeed, their work suggested that even young children were capable of constructing their own theories of how the world works, assessing them against new information and updating their theory to accommodate new observations that did not fit their previous theory. Whilst it took some time for their contributions to be recognised by the English speaking world, their work (and that of others) began to seriously question the behaviourist models in education.

Ausubel (e.g. Ausubel (1965), Ausubel (1968)) questioned the parallels between the theories of Piaget and those of the neobehaviourist movement, along with the notion that educational psychology was not a discipline in its own right, whilst Novak (e.g. Novak (1977)) suggested that science and mathematics education needed a "new curriculum reform movement even more massive than the 1960s" (p. 474). Inherent in the works of Piaget, Vygotsky, Ausubel, Novak and many others was the idea of a learner constructing their own meaning from information around them, often alongside, and sometimes in conflict with, their teacher-guided instruction, giving rise to the term of constructivism.

Constructivism has become a popular paradigm for education, or as Hodson and Hodson (1998 as cited in Simpson (2002)) described it, "a new orthodoxy of science education" (p. 347). Constructivism and social constructivism, however, are not, as Simpson (2002) reminds us, "an instructional methodology; constructivism is an epistemology, a philosophical explanation about the nature of knowledge" (p. 347). The question of "What is knowledge?" also occupied the philosophers of antiquity, however, unlike those ancient philosophers, constructivism does not require that knowledge represents an absolute reality, rather, "knowledge is a kind of compendium of concepts and actions that one has found to be successful, given the purposes one had in mind" (Von Glasersfeld 1995, p. 7). Constructivism, although popular, is not without its critics, as Pegues (2007) points out.

The role of theory in the classroom

Consensus, as it is well known, does not prove a theory correct, rather the theory must be able to explain and predict observations. Education is a particularly difficult field in which a theory can be used to explain observations as there are so many factors outside of the classroom that can affect a student’s learning. Given this difficulty, one may be tempted to ask if there is really a place for theory in the classroom? The answer, in this author’s opinion, is resoundingly yes. Klette (2012) also argues that theory plays a vital role in educational research, "theory is essential in education research as a research domain" (p. 3).

Having a theory of how learning occurs is crucial for a teacher and for formulating their approach to teaching a given topic, otherwise how does one expect to (a) affect learning within their students; and (b) measure the success or failure of one’s approach to teaching with their students. For the educational researcher, trying to make sense of what is happening in the classroom, a theory is vital when proposing a research project, otherwise the researcher is merely collecting data for the sake of collecting data. A point also made by Suppes (1974): "Reliance on bare empiricism or bare intuition in educational practice is a mental form of streaking, and nudity of mind is not as appealing as nudity of body" (p. 6).

Learning theory alone, however, does not provide a panacea. Teachers need to have practical methods that can be applied in the classroom, preferably using existing equipment to reduce the likelihood of institutional resistance under the guise of financial constraints. Along with these practical methods, teachers also need "buy-in" from their students and their institution with regards to any changes, hence it is important that teachers not only understand the theory, but have the ability to explain it well to others. As Hennessey et al. (2012) argue, "Without significant changes in the way that schools are run, including provided time to prepare and deeper, more sustained, professional development experiences, the majority of teachers would not be able to accomplish this" (p. 200).

Institutional change is also required if we are to address the some of the current problems within science and mathematics education. As Anderson (2007) states, "Researchers in science education also generally agree on one central finding about current school practice. Our institutions of formal education do not help most students to learn science with understanding." (p. 5.). Of course, institutional change is unlikely to occur rapidly unless there is substantial pressure from government, parents, teachers and students simultaneously, so the teacher is left to try and implement small changes within the context of their own classroom practice.

Theory not only provides a guide as to how to implement change in one’s classroom practices, it also acts like an shield with regards to institutional resistance. Introducing change into classroom practices, as mentioned earlier, often results in backlash against the teacher, however, with a well developed, robust theory behind such changes, it is difficult for an institution to wholly block the changes. Equally, if the theory and need for changes are explained well to students, parents and colleagues, their natural resistance to change will likely be lowered. It is for these reasons that theory is vital to classroom practice.

An example of putting theory into classroom practice

Many tertiary students, especially those in science, social science, medicine and allied health, engineering and information technology undergraduate degree programs, are required to undertake at least one first year unit of mathematics. Students in psychology related majors are usually required to take at least one semester of statistics, typically taught as a service course, although their degree program may include up to five or six units with a large component of statistical theory. For many of these psychology degree programs, post-compulsory high-school mathematics is not a prerequisite subject for entry into the program and many indeed struggle with mathematics beyond a basic primary school level. Further compounding the problems associated with these service courses is the requirement to introduce the students to statistical analysis software such as SPSS or R.

In July 2008, I returned to teaching mathematics and statistics at a leading Victorian university2, where my first unit to coordinate and teach was a service course entitled "Statistical Computing" (hereafter referred to as SC102b). Students undertake SC102b in the second semester as part of their first-year of a bachelors degree in psychology. The majority of students enrolled in SC102b are those who either did not complete any post-compulsory high-school mathematics or took the lowest available level and performed poorly. As such, many of these students had difficulty with algebraic manipulation and some even struggled with the use of fractions. Despite these difficulties, many of the students performed well enough in the course to pass, but it was clear that very few really retained this knowledge for use in later courses.

One particular set of skills that these students needed to acquire and retain was the ability to utilise a statistical analysis package, in this case SPSS. Whilst students needed to demonstrate a certain degree of aptitude with the package in order to pass SC102b, discussions at student progress committee meetings often reflected the fact that students regularly needed "re-training" in nearly all later units of their degree program in order to complete assessment tasks. The popular method of instruction in use at the time was the method of Guided Training (GT) wherein a student is given a series of detailed step-by-step instructions on how to complete the desired task. For example, an early set of instructions might detail how one enters data into the package and obtains a set of descriptive statistics via the menus.

Following the revelation that much of the instruction in how to use SPSS was not being retained by the students, I sought advice from my colleagues on how one might address the problem. Some suggested the fault was with the students "not applying themselves". Others suggested that we should either turn our detailed instructions into a book or prescribe a text (e.g. Francis (2007)) to prevent students from simply "throwing away" the instructions once a task was completed. Lastly, another young lecturer teaching a similar service course and facing similar problems suggested it might be worth investigating the problem as a research project, which is what we eventually decided to do after a literature search suggested little was known about this area.

Prior to implementing any changes into the then current teaching practice, considerable effort was undertaken to identify an appropriate course in which to test the changes. SC102b has a counterpart course (hereafter referred to as SC102a) that is taught concurrently at a different campus with students of a marginally higher mathematical ability. Analysis of assessment data from previous semesters suggested the two cohorts, despite differences in entry requirements, were sufficiently similar to be comparable and thus suitable for an experimental study design.

Initial planning for the study focused on identifying alternate methods of teaching the statistical packages to students. Rather than simply trying any alternate approach we could think of, we sought one that was based in some kind of theory of how the students might best learn a statistical package, even though a dearth of literature on the subject existed at the time. A meta-analysis by Keith and Frese (2008) helped us identify a learning strategy that had the potential to be more effective than our traditional GT approach, namely an Error Management Training (EMT) strategy.

EMT differs from GT in that under EMT students are encouraged to make mistakes and hence learn from them through a process of active exploration. For example, under GT a student would be given the explicit instruction to use the "Explore" procedure in SPSS to obtain the required descriptive statistics for a set of data, whereas under EMT, the goal would be stated to the students and it would be up to them to figure out which of the options under the "Descriptive Statistics" menu satisfied that requirement. This exploratory approach helps students to identify that, whilst there are a multiple of ways to obtain basic descriptive statistics, one method (i.e. the "Explore" procedure) provides all of the information typically required for a report. An important component of EMT, often overlooked, is that errors are not only encouraged, but are framed in a positive way with the learner.

Having identified an alternate strategy to our traditional approach, the theory was presented to the teaching staff involved with both SC102a and SC102b, along with a detailed proposal of how we intended to implement and assess the effectiveness of the changes. A member of staff not directly involved in teaching either unit was to lead the research project to reduce potential bias in assessment of the efficacy of EMT over GT. Ethics approval was obtained from the university’s Human Research Ethics Committee and the study commenced in semester one of 2010. An interim report was presented at the Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education (see Baglin et al. (2011) for full details).

As the above example illustrates, putting theory into practice is not as simple as reading an article or attending a professional development course and then implementing changes into the next teaching day. Careful planning, assessment and follow-up are required to ensure any changes do not have a detrimental impact on students. Whilst ethics approval is required when research is conducted, it is still advised that before changes are implemented, teachers should at least consult with their colleagues or ethics boards.


Education is a messy process. Students do not arrive as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge, nor do they all learn the same or have the same experiences. Students cannot be treated like some kind of assembly line product whereby teachers repeatedly perform the same actions to achieve the same outcomes. Students, however, are sufficiently similar that given the right conditions can arrive at the desired learning outcome and this is where theory comes into play. A theory provides the framework, the "predictions and explanations as well as guidelines for actions and behaviour" (Klette 2012, p. 4). Theory is a therefore a vital component of the teacher’s toolbox, a must-have classroom companion.


  1. This work was translated from Russian into English and republished as Vygotsky (2011)
  2. I had been on secondment to train academics in online Learning Management Systems (LMS) for the previous 3 years


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Full citation:

Ovens, M. (2017). Do Learning Theories Matter In Classroom Teaching?: The role of learning theories in the teaching of a service course in undergraduate statistics. YourStatsGuru, Melbourne, Australia

Last updated 29 January 2018