Five learning theories to consider in eLearning design

Understanding the principles of knowledge acquisition can help educators to create more effective learning experiences. This article explores five learning theories that are worth considering when designing eLearning courses, and discusses why practitioners may find them valuable for enhancing learning.

1. Community of Practice Theory (Lave and Wenger)

The Community of Practice (CoP) Theory was coined in 1991 by theorists Lave and Wenger, in discussing the idea of legitimate peripheral participation (David, 2014). This concept was later extended to various other domains, and successfully provided a useful perspective on learning (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015: 1).

CoP is defined as a process of social learning. This takes place when people who have a collective interest in a subject or area (e.g. a feminist society at a school, or a group of teachers working on a similar project) collaborate over an extended period of time, sharing strategies and ideas, asking questions, and identifying solutions. As described by Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015), ‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’.

It is important to note that not every community is a community of practice. People in a neighbourhood are often called a ‘community’; however, they do not form a community of practice.

Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015) define three criteria for classifying a CoP:

  1. There must be a domain. A CoP is not simply a group of friends or a network of people – it has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest (e.g. third-year political science lecturers, Stormers rugby fans or Catholic priests). The members of the domain have a certain amount of commitment toward it, as well as a shared competence that distinguishes them from outsiders.
  2. There must be a community. In pursuing the domain of interest, members engage collectively in activities, identify problems, determine solutions, and share information with one another. In this way, members consist of people who engage and learn together as a group.
  3. There must be a practice. A CoP is not just a group of people who have a shared interest. Members of a CoP are practitioners who collectively develop a shared repertoire of resources, which can include practitioner stories and experiences, solutions to problems, helpful tools, and so on.

It is by developing and combining these three criteria that a community of practice is cultivated (David, 2014; Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015; and Sánchez-Cardona et al., 2012). Moreover, it is argued that the quality of students’ work appears to be much higher when they are able to work collaboratively, and that their responses to the learning experience in the CoP indicate that the approach is sufficiently effective (Yukawa, 2010).


2. Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer)

The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning relates to how individuals focus their cognitive resources when receiving and integrating new information. The ‘multimedia principle’ states that people learn more when both words and pictures are combined, than from words or pictures alone (Mayer, 2002).

The theory states that we have two separate channels for processing information: one auditory and one visual channel. Each channel has a limited capacity; therefore, one can only process a certain amount of information per channel at a time. To optimise learning, this theory recommends utilising both auditory and visual channels, rather than overloading one or the other (David, 2020).

Multimedia instruction is often complex, and requires additional processing effort. As a result, it may cause extraneous cognitive load. Mayer and Moreno (2003: 46) suggest that instructors can reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning by doing the following:

  1. Moving some essential cognitive processing from the visual channel to the auditory channel
  2. Presenting multimedia explanations in paced segments
  3. Providing students with background information before class sessions (e.g. the names and characteristics of components)
  4. Eliminating unnecessary information, sounds and images
  5. Signalling key information
  6. Aligning image-relevant text with corresponding visuals
  7. Avoiding duplication of material
  8. Presenting multimedia and corresponding narration simultaneously
  9. Ensuring that students can create and hold mental representations

These approaches enable a learning design that is focused on adding value to the learning experience, rather than inadvertently distracting students from the task at hand (Van Barneveld, 2012).


3. Elaboration Theory (Reigeluth)

The Elaboration Theory posits that instruction should be organised in a hierarchal manner, from simple to complex (Pappas, 2014). The theory was coined by Reigeluth, who believed that an educational system should focus on creating ‘well-designed resources’ to facilitate learning. As such, this theory presents an organisational strategy for designing educational resources (Reigeluth and Stein, 1983).

To optimise learning, this theory stresses that educational content should start with a general discussion of basic concepts before moving on to more complex concepts. This allows students to scaffold new and increasingly complex information upon an existing knowledge base. In this way, students ‘develop a meaningful context into which subsequent ideas and skills are assimilated’ (Pappas, 2014).

For example, mathematics students at university are required to complete MATH 101, which consists of the basic principles, before moving on to the more complex second-semester module, MATH 102. Instructors also present students with supporting content and, throughout each lesson, provide a summary of the previous lesson.

In this way, students are provided with a certain base knowledge or ‘prerequisite’ set of skills before moving on to new information. This ensures that the appropriate scaffolding processes are carried out, allowing the student to acquire new knowledge effectively (Pappas, 2014; Greer, 2013; and Reigeluth, 1983).


4. Social Learning Theory (Bandura)

The Social Learning Theory is particularly useful for classroom management, as well as for enhancing teaching and learning (David, 2019). The theory was coined by Bandura (1977) and refers to the process of learning through observation, imitation and modelling (David, 2019).

Bandura’s theory is rooted in some of the basic concepts of behaviourism – a more traditional learning theory. Behaviourists proposed that all learning takes place through direct experience with the environment, as well as through association and reinforcement. However, Bandura (1977) deviated from this view, and argued that some learning can take place by simply paying attention to the actions of others. Here, he stressed the social component of learning, where learning occurs within a social context – i.e. observationally, through what is being modelled to us.

According to Bandura (1977), there are four necessary conditions for effective modelling to occur:

  1. Attention
  2. Retention
  3. Reproduction
  4. Motivation

To replicate behaviour accurately, students need to do the following (David, 2019):

  1. Pay attention to what is being modelled to them
  2. Remember what they paid attention to, when given the opportunity to act at a later stage
  3. Be given the opportunity to reproduce or replicate what was modelled to them
  4. Feel motivated to demonstrate what they have learned


5. Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan)

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation based on the assumption that people are proactive beings with a tendency toward growing and mastering challenges (Ryan and Deci, 2002). This theory was coined by Deci and Ryan in 1985, and has been refined by various scholars.

SDT holds that people are motivated to learn when educational material addresses three fundamental psychological needs (Ryan and Deci, 2000):

  1. Competence – people need to feel capable in their interactions.
  2. Autonomy – people need to feel in control of their actions.
  3. Relatedness or connection – people need to feel connected to others.

According to SDT, the degree to which these psychological needs are satisfied within the learning context will significantly impact effectiveness within that setting (Dean, 2018). The best description of self-determined individuals is therefore:

  1. People who are driven to acquire different knowledge and skill sets
  2. People who believe that they have autonomy and take responsibility for their actions
  3. People who have a sense of belonging and relate to those in their environment

The psychological growth described by the SDT theory does not happen automatically. Ryan and Deci (2002) argue that social support is key: our behaviour toward others can either support or undermine their motivation and growth (Cherry, 2019).



Learning theories provide us with a firm grasp of how the human mind acquires, integrates and retains information. Keeping these learning theories in mind during course design may therefore offer significant benefits in helping instructional designers to create more effective eLearning experiences that offer real educational value.



Bandura, A. (1977), Social Learning Theory. New York, NY: General Learning Press.

Cherry, K. (2019), ‘Self-Determination Theory and Motivation’. Verywell Mind [website] <> accessed 22 May 2020.

David, L. (2014), ‘Communities of Practice (Lave and Wenger)’. Learning Theories [website] <> accessed 22 May 2020.

David, L. (2019), ‘Social Learning Theory (Bandura)’. Learning Theories [website] <> 22 May 2020.

David, L. (2020), ‘Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer)’. Learning Theories [website] <> 22 May 2020.

Dean, J. (2018), ‘Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.5 Edward L. Deci & Richard Ryan’. Peakon [website] <> accessed 22 May 2020.

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1985), Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Greer, T. (2013), ‘Making the Case for Prerequisites – Or, at Least, a Defined Course Sequence’. Association for Talent Development [website] <> accessed 22 May 2020. [website] ‘Elaboration Theory (Charlie Reigeluth)’. <> accessed 22 May 2020.

Marzano, R. J. (2010), The Art and Science of Teaching / Summarizing to Comprehend. Educational Leadership 67(6): 83-84

Mayer, R. E. (2002), ‘Multimedia learning’. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 41: 85-139.

Mayer, R. E. and Moreno, R. (2003), ‘Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning’. Educational psychologist 38(1): 43-52.

Pappas, C. (2014), ‘Instructional Design Models and Theories: Elaboration Theory’. eLearning Industry [website] <> 22 May 2020.

Reigeluth, C. and Stein, F. (1983), ‘The elaboration theory of instruction’. In Reigeluth, C. (Ed.) Instructional Design Theories and Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (2000), ‘Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being’. American Psychologist 55(1): 68-78.

Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (2002), ‘Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic-dialectical perspective’. In Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (Eds.) Handbook of Self-Determination Research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Sánchez-Cardona, I., Sanchez-Lugo, J. and Velez, J. (2012), ‘Exploring the potential of communities of practice for learning and collaboration in a higher education context’. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 46: 1820– 825.

Van Barneveld, A. (2012), ‘Research for Practitioners: Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load’. Learning Solutions [website] <> accessed 22 May 2020.

Wenger-Trayner, E. and Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015), ‘Introduction to communities of practice: A brief overview of the concept and its uses’. Wenger-Trayner [website] <> accessed 22 May 2020.

Yukawa, J. (2010), ‘Communities of Practice for Blended Learning: Toward and Integrated Model for LIS Education’. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 51(2): 54-75.

Share this post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



This website uses cookies to improve your user experience. By using our website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our cookie policy. Learn More