Environments For Learning Research Paper

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The term ‘learning environment’ expresses that learning is dependent on various environmental factors, which are created to various degrees by external factors. A learning environment is made up of an arrangement of teaching strategies and methods, learning materials, and media. The learning environment represents the current temporal, spatial, and social learning situation and also includes the relevant cultural context. The basis for concrete measures to create learning environments provides a fundamental concept for teaching and learning. In the following, two central (purist) concepts are compared with each other and are then confronted with a pragmatic concept. In this manner, a framework for orientation is provided with regard to the design and assessment of learning environments.

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1. The Cognitivist-Based Concept: The Design Of Object-Oriented Learning Environments

1.1 Basic Assumptions

In a cognitivist position on teaching and learning, all efforts are devoted to instruction and to the question, how teaching and learning are planned, organized, and guided. In this way, the learners understand and internalize the contents of knowledge according to their system and succeed in learning based on predefined teaching and learning goals. In the design of learning environments, one concentrates on the object of teaching and learning, which as a rule is interpreted as a ‘pre-fabricated knowledge system.’ The teaching learning process is therefore viewed as a type of ‘knowledge transfer.’ The teacher’s function is to present and explain the contents of knowledge and also to guide the learner and to ensure that advances in learning are made. The learner remains in more of a passive position (Lowyck 1991). Under these conditions learning is to a large degree a receptive process. In object-oriented learning environments, great emphasis is placed on the assessment of how successful learning is. Norm-oriented and/or learning goaloriented tests evaluate to which learning results the instructional methods have led. Instruction and evaluation are, in this case, viewed as two separate units.

1.2 Problems Of The Cognitivist-Based Teaching And Learning Concept

There is still a lack of empirical findings that justify a rational structuring of the learning and teaching processes, as it is postulated in the cognitively oriented teaching and learning models and in the discipline of ID. Especially lacking is the evidence that the effects of single instructional measures are replicable. Theoretically problematic is the instruction’s analytical process of separating entireties into elementary parts that are transferred separately. This reductionist procedure ignores the fact that understanding is dependent on the entire knowledge structure and not on its isolated parts. Contestable also is the instructional methods assumption that the effect of different methods can be exactly predicted (Duffy and Jonassen 1991). Most apparent, however, are the practical problems of the cognitivist view with its uneven role separation between teachers and learners, which results in many cases in receptive behavior from the learner. The resulting shortage of self-initiative and self-responsibility for the learning process and its success increases the possibility that the learners find themselves in a passive position and feel demotivated, or at best extrinsically motivated (Deci and Ryan 1993). In addition, systematized and logically prepared knowledge has little to do with the complex and unstructured demands of everyday situations (Resnick 1987). In this way cognitive-oriented instruction often produces ‘tacit knowledge,’ which has been gained but which cannot be used in real situations.

2. The Constructive-Oriented View: Design Of Situational Learning Environments

2.1 Basic Assumptions

Constructivism has been discussed intensively again in educational psychology since the 1980s, and specifically constructivism as a scientific and cognition theory and also as a paradigm in sociology, cognition science, and psychology (‘new’ constructivism) (see Gerstenmaier and Mandl 1995). In questions of teaching and learning the ‘new’ constructivism becomes especially relevant: in contrast to radical constructivism, the new constructivism is more concerned with the thinking and acting subject. Central to this is the assumption that knowledge is not a copy of reality, but rather a human construction (Knuth and Cunningham 1993). While teaching and learning methods in the tradition of the cognitive view hold the instruction at the center of their efforts, the views of the constructivists distinguish themselves by placing the learner and the learning process at the center. The question of how knowledge is constructed and the connection between knowledge and action is more important than how knowledge is transferred (Gerstenmaier and Mandl 1995). The learner finds him herself in an active position, while the teacher has the task of providing problem situations and the tools to solve them and, if necessary, is available to react to the needs of the learner. In the constructivist position, learning is viewed as an active constructing process, which is situated in a definite context. Evaluation is an integral part of the constructivist view, in which processes are more important than results; however, there are no predefined evaluation methods, which are theoretically derived and empirically ‘secured.’

2.2 The Situated Cognition Movement

From a constructivist perspective, the learning environment must provide the learner with situations in which their own constructive achievements, social interactions, and participation processes are possible, which is why these are referred to as ‘situated learning environments.’ It is the goal of situated learning environments that the learner understands the new contents and is able to use the gained knowledge and skills in a flexible manner. In addition, the learner should be able to develop problem-solving skills and other cognitive strategies. Above all, it is due to the situated cognition movement that the ideas of context and social participation in authentic situations have found widespread use in the learning process. The term situated cognition, in a similar fashion to the term constructivism, is not clearly defined and there are several theoretical variations. Common to both is the view that thinking, acting, and learning take place situ-ally and that knowledge is on the one hand constructed by the perceiving subject and on the other hand is shared amongst a community (Resnick 1991). Concepts within the situated cognition movement stem from various influences, which range from cognitive anthropology (Lave 1991) to ecological psychology (Greeno 1989) to socio-cognitive schools of thought. Since the end of the 1980s various approaches have been developed in instructional psychology which are related to the Situated Cognition movement, for example approaches like Anchored Instruction (CTGV 1997), Cognitive Flexibility (Jacobson and Spiro 1992) or Cognitive Apprenticeship (Collins et al. 1989). The commonality exists in the fact that the learning processes are embedded within solving authentic problems and that learning is not restricted to the aspect of knowledge acquisition, but rather is viewed under the perspective of enculturation.

2.3 Problems In Constructivist-Oriented Teaching And Learning Concepts

The constructivist view runs into difficulties when the question is raised regarding the empirical underpinning of the postulated effects of situated learning environments. Although the number of studies has recently increased, the findings are far from sufficient. In addition, several findings of transfer research contradict the constructivist postulate that knowledge is bound to context (Anderson et al. 1996). There is the problem that the promotion of learning processes through constructivist principles has led in subsequent knowledge tests to poorer results. The meaning of these findings is first qualified, when these results are compared to the results of later applied tests of the learner, which show a positive influence of situated learning. Problems of the theoretical kind arise when a more radical constructivist perspective is taken, which states that there is no objective reality those teachers can pass along to their students. Many supporters of situated learning environments, however, take a less extreme view and assume that, aside from the individual construction capacities of the learner, it is possible to stimulate learning processes externally (Lowyck 1991). Even in the framework of this moderate constructivist position, teachers are given such large degrees of freedom that they have problems in making the right choice. It must also be mentioned that central concepts such as activity and situation are conceptually vague and used in a heterogeneous manner (Renkl et al. 1999). The supporters of the constructivist view must also accept the practical criticism that their approach for both teachers and learners may be very time-consuming and may result in a poor cost-benefit relationship (Anderson et al. 1996). The lack of direction and support for the learner in situational learning environments can also lead to undesirable results; one example could be that the demands placed on the students are too high. This is especially the case with learners who have disadvantageous learning conditions, so that the danger of a ‘scissor effect’ arises: as a rule, more competitive (motivated) learners profit from situated learning environments than less competitive learners. The goal of situated learning, namely the enculturation and acquisition of expertise, cannot be sought after in many contexts. For example where orientation and a lower achievement level are sufficient, proven cognitivist ways are practicable and from time to time more economical (Winn 1996).

3. The Attempt At A Pragmatic View: Structure Of Problem-Oriented Learning Environments

3.1 Basic Assumptions

The use of theoretical teaching and learning models in practice is difficult in many respects, regardless of whether they are models for creating object-oriented or situated learning environments. The practical problems of both the cognitivist and the constructivist position have made it clear that theoretical one-sidedness is problematic when applied to practice. The lack of clear empirical finds from which action-guiding rules for or against a definite form of teaching and learning makes the situation even more confusing. Against this background the attempt is increasingly being made to take a middle position between the cognitivist and the constructivist views and to find a balance between the primacy of instruction in object-oriented learning environments and the primacy of construction in situational learning environments. To a large degree, consensus has been reached supporting a relative constructivist conception of learning as an active, self-guided, constructive, situative, and social process (Reinmann-Rothmeier and Mandl 1997). Knowledge-based constructivism is also currently under discussion, in which learning is based on the personal construction of meaning from the perspective of the learner, but also presupposes sufficient knowledge, whose acquisition is barely possible without instructional guidance and support (Resnick and Williams Hall 1998).

3.2 Problem-Oriented Learning Environments

A moderate constructivist view of learning does not in any way exclude guidance and support from teachers. It is neither possible nor sensible to solely rely on the constructive ability of learners. One cannot constantly transfer prefabricated knowledge systems to learners according to fixed rules. In various attempts to integrate object-oriented and situated learning environments and thereby to utilize the characteristics of both approaches, problem-oriented learning environments are often postulated. With a desideratum of characteristics, which especially the Anchored Instruction view, the Cognitive-Flexibility theory, and the Cognitive Apprenticeship view have in common, some guidelines from problem-oriented structuring of learning environments can be formulated, which also can be combined with instructional measures of cognitivist character. (e.g., CTGV 1997, Reinmann-Rothmeier and Mandl 1997):

(a) Learning in a situated manner with authentic problems: The starting point of learning processes should be authentic problems—problems which due to their relationship to reality and their relevance motivate the learner to develop new knowledge or new skills. Problem-oriented learning environments are therefore designed in such a manner that they make possible and encourage dealings with realistic problems and authentic situations.

(b) Learning in multiple contexts: To ensure that newly gained knowledge or concepts do not remain fixed to a certain situation, the same contents should be learned in different contexts. Problem-oriented learning environments are therefore designed in such a manner that the learned material can also be applied to and utilized in the analysis of other problems.

(c) Learning using multiple perspectives: In learning it should be considered that single contents or problems could be examined from different perspectives or aspects. Problem-oriented learning environments are therefore designed in such a manner that knowledge and concepts can be learned and applied using multiple perspectives.

(d) Learning in a social context: Learning must not be done as an individual process, but rather group learning and group tasks should be used in as many learning phases as possible in the framework of situated problem analysis. Problem-oriented learning environments are therefore designed in such a manner that they make it possible to have cooperative learning and problem solving in groups.

(e) Learning with instructional support: Learning without any instructional support is ineffective and causes excessive demands on the learners. Teachers cannot limit themselves to giving opportunities to learn; they must also guide learners whenever necessary and especially give specific guidance for problem solving. Problem-oriented learning environments are therefore structured in a manner that provides both diverse possibilities for learning in complex situations and the knowledge necessary to work on problem solving.

It is also important to explicitly consider motivational factors that are generally lacking in the structuring of cogvitivist learning environments. Motivational factors are implicitly used in situational learning environments but conceptually receive rather little attention (Stark et al. 1998).

3.3 Empirical Arguments For Problem-Oriented Learning Environments

Considerations of the compatibility of instruction and construction show a certain relation to the so-called ‘adaptive teaching,’ which strives towards an optimal fit between the internal need for the support of the learner and the external offer of support. The classic ATI (Aptitude Treatment Interaction) research (Cronbach and Snow 1977) shows an interaction between individual learning conditions and the teaching methods employed. It showed in numerous cases that learners with less advantageous learning conditions profited from a highly structured learning situation, but learners in advantageous learning conditions did not. Teacher-centered forms of instruction in the sense of the cognitivist view are more effective in disadvantageous learning conditions (i.e., little previous knowledge, lower intelligence, high level of anxiety). Situated learning environments, which place high demands on the capability of the learner to construct knowledge, appear to be more effective for learners with advantageous learning conditions. The strongest predictor for subsequent learning results has, in recent studies, proven to be the domain-specific preknowledge. The call for the combination of instructional principles from cognitivist and constructivist teaching and learning approaches has also gained empirical support from other fields. In initial business school education, for example, the combination of multiple perspectives (in the form of multiple examples and instructional support (in the form of requests for self-explanation)) has proven effective. A further example is case-oriented computer learning programs in medicine, which support learning in authentic problem situations with directions and expert commentaries as support (Grasel 1997). In addition, there have been further developments in the Anchored Instruction approach, in which narrative anchors have been enhanced with teacher-supported learning cycles (CTGV 1997). Positive results have also been shown in attempts to implement problem-oriented teaching and learning forms within conventionally structured (mass-) universities and in this way to combine them in a logical way with new, constructivist-inspired models of teaching and learning.


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