Strategies for formal learning

The new learning architectThroughout 2011 we will be publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We move on to the fifth part of chapter 7:

Formal learning comes in many shapes and sizes. The effectiveness and efficiency with which a formal learning intervention is delivered depends to a large extent on whether the shape and the size are appropriate for the job.

Clark and Wittrock devised a useful model for analysing training strategies according to the degree of control imposed over the learning process by the trainer and/or the student. At the most trainer-centred end of the spectrum is simple exposition – the trainer tells the learner things, using methods such as lectures or prescribed reading; no interaction is expected or required, except perhaps some Q&A or an assessment.

The second strategy – structured instruction– is still under the trainer’s overall control, but is much more interactive, allowing the trainer to fine-tune the process to the needs of the particular audience. Structured instruction is widely used in training, and includes most classroom sessions and most computer-based self-study materials. Novices will rely on this degree of structure; independent learners can often do without.

A more learner-centred strategy is guided discovery. In this case, learners engage in tasks that have been specially designed to provide them with opportunities to experiment with alternative approaches. Learners improve their skill or understanding by reflecting, with the help of facilitators, coaches or mentors, upon the outcomes of these tasks and, as a result, drawing general conclusions which they can apply to future tasks. Guided discovery allows learners to have a go and learn from their mistakes. This strategy can be deployed in the classroom, in outdoor settings (as with Outward Bound-style courses) or through computer-based case studies, games and simulations.

The final strategy in Clark and Wittrock’s model is exploration. Here each learner determines their own learning process, taking advantage of resources provided by trainers and others, and takes out of this process their own, unique learning. Exploration may seem a relatively informal strategy, but can be integrated into formalised interventions as a component in a blended solution.

A formal learning intervention may rely on just one of these strategies, but increasingly will use a combination. The choice of strategy will depend on the nature of the learning objectives, the prior knowledge and the expectations of the target audience and, to some extent, the preferences and values of the trainer.


Psychological Principles of Training by Ruth Clark and Merlin C Wittrock,published in Training and Retraining, Macmillan Reference USA (2001).

Coming next in chapter 7: Social contexts for formal learning

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6

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About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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