Evaluating Pedagogy

Evaluating Pedagogy: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism in Higher Education
Melissa Johnson Chung
A.T. Still University
Educational methods utilized in higher education significantly affect a students’ ability to acquire knowledge or skills. Effective teachers may use a variety of educational strategies to enhance their student’s learning. In this article, we will discuss the definitions, strengths and weaknesses of three commonly used educational pedagogies: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. We will also explore which pedagogies may be best suited to teach particular subject matter or types of learners. We will also discuss how educators can incorporate many of the philosophies and methodologies of the aforementioned learning theories despite a lack of formal training.
Evaluating Pedagogy: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism in Higher Education
Behaviorist pedagogy focuses primarily on the promotion and modification of observable behavior. In its simplest sense, it defines learning as the obtainment of knowledge or skills. The methodology of behaviorism focuses on the use of environmental stimuli resulting in a predetermined response, aka acquisition of the intended information. Behaviorism also focuses on the importance of reinforcing and revisiting previously acquired knowledge.
Behaviorism’s role in higher education is widespread. One of the strengths of this pedagogy lies in its simplicity. When an instructor presents a student with a target stimulus, in most instances, the student will be able to produce the desired response. For example, a student population is presented with a lecture on a particular subject. The lecture serves as the stimulus, the attainment of the knowledge from the lecture serves as the desired response. In many situations, follow-up assessments will then prove that the stimulus provided worked to facilitate the obtainment of the desired knowledge. With behaviorism, the target stimulus can be adapted to better achieve its desired outcome. If students perform poorly on an aspect of an assessment, the stimulus can be revised. Behaviorism also focuses on giving learners an opportunity to practice making the proper response which can also be viewed as a strength of the pedagogy. Another perceived strength of behaviorism is the use of positive reinforcement and the assessment of learners to best determine their baseline level of knowledge regarding a particular subject. In this respect, the stimulus can be revised to begin instruction at the level most suitable for a student or group of students.
Despite numerous strengths, behaviorism is viewed as too simplistic by many scholars. First, this type of instruction does not provide students with an opportunity to learn how to think, but simply tells them what they should know. This form of teaching does not engage students in higher level learning skills that include critical thinking or problem solving. Most educators recognize that these developing these skills are invaluable for students in a higher education setting. Behaviorism focuses almost exclusively on learning strategies and stimulus rather than the learners themselves.

Cognitivism makes a shift from focusing solely on the stimulus to emphasizing how a student mentally processes the information provided to them. Ertmer and Newby (2009) suggest that cognitive theories focus on the conceptualization of student’s learning methods and address the issues of how information is received, stored and recovered by the mind. They also contend that environmental stimuli and instructional components alone cannot account for all the learning that results from an instructional encounter. One of the strengths of cognitivism is that it strives to encourage learners to develop and utilize strategies that encourage personal learning. It also inspires educators to develop instructional material that is organized and presented in a manner that best facilitates the student’s ability to store and eventually retrieve the presented information. In order to enhance a student’s ability to acquire problem solving and critical thinking skills, cognitivism encourages making knowledge meaningful and relating new information to existing knowledge. In contrast, cognitivism may be difficult to incoroporate in a classroom where there is high variability in the learner’s baseline knowledge and previous experiences. If not used carefully, this teaching style could put more novice learners at a disadvantage.
Constructivism as a theory proposes that knowledge results from how an individual creates meaning from his or her own experiences. In its simplest sense, constructivism contends that humans create meaning rather than acquiring it (Ertmer and Newby, 2008). One of the strengths of cognitivism is that this type of learning enables students to go beyond the passive learning of facts. This pedagogy encourages learners to apply knowledge acquired in the past to new problems and situations as they are encountered. In this respect, learners are expected to develop the ability to utilize past experiences to shape and guide future interactions. The perceived benefits of constructivist learning may be particularly valuable where the teaching of complex skills, such as problem solving or critical thinking are concerned (Tam, 2000). However, this type of learning may not be effective for novice learners. Students with little or no knowledge of a topic would likely be frustrated by this pedagogical approach. This approach may also lack the structure and organization that many students excel in.
Pedagogical Approaches Relating to Subject Matter and Education Level
In many instances, the favored pedagogical approach is dependent on the subject matter being presented. In addition, one has to think carefully about when and to what extent to engage a particular group of learners. The best approach often takes into consideration the nature of the class, the level of the learner, and, most importantly, the learning goals one has for their students. For example, basic sciences are typically defined as any one of the sciences (for example anatomy, physiology, or biochemistry) that are fundamental to the study of medicine. In many instances, the primary goal of this coursework within a medical school curriculum is to attain a standard level of knowledge appropriate for a medical provider. In these types of courses, a behaviorist pedagogy is often used. In contrast, teaching a medical student how to diagnose and treat patients often requires a baseline level of knowledge about disease processes and the human body in addition to a well-defined ability to employ clinical reasoning. This corresponds more to the constructivist approach, where the goal is not only to ensure that the individuals knows particular facts but that they can elaborate on and interpret information in the clinical setting (Ertmer and Newby, 2008).
Incorporating Pedagogy
While formal training is undoubtedly beneficial, many educators are not instructed in higher education pedagogy. Despite a lack of formal training, educators can incorporate many of the philosophies and methodologies of the aforementioned learning theories. Online resources and instructional design textbooks are available to educators looking to enhance their understanding of educational pedagogy. Many of the strategies available require little more than flexibility and a willingness to adopt new practices, procedures, and structures to encourage the desired outcomes. Educators must be willing to try new things, adopt evidence-based methods and target their teaching to the student’s they serve. Educators should also be willing to fine tune their educational practices based upon the methods of delivery they utilize. An educator is still a student, a life-long learner who strives to teach to the best of their abilities with constantly changing knowledge, resources, and demands placed upon them.

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Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2008). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72.
Tam, M. (2000). Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning. Educational Technology and Society, 3 (2).