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J M (Mike) Nelson
Phone: 612-810-0157


Learning Theories

Miller (1956) presented the idea that short-term memory could only hold 5-9 chunks of information (seven plus or minus two) where a chunk is any meaningful unit. A chunk could refer to digits, words, chess positions, or people's faces. The concept of chunking and the limited capacity of short term memory became a basic element of all subsequent theories of memory.

The second concept is TOTE (Test-Operate-Test-Exit) proposed by Miller, Galanter & Pribram (1960). Miller et al. suggested that TOTE should replace the stimulus-response as the basic unit of behavior. In a TOTE unit, a goal is tested to see if it has been achieved and if not an operation is performed to achieve the goal; this cycle of test-operate is repeated until the goal is eventually achieved or abandoned. The TOTE concept provided the basis of many subsequent theories of problem solving.

1. Short term memory is limited to seven chunks of information.
2. Planning (in the form of TOTE units) is a fundamental cognitive process.
3. Behavior is hierarchically organized (e.g., chunks, TOTE units).systems.

Along with Kohler and Koffka, Max Wertheimer was one of the principal proponents of Gestalt theory which emphasized higher-order cognitive processes in the midst of behaviorism. The focus of Gestalt theory was the idea of "grouping", i.e., characteristics of stimuli cause us to structure or interpret a visual field or problem in a certain way (Wertheimer, 1922). Wertheimer was especially concerned with problem-solving. The essence of successful problem-solving behavior according to Wertheimer is being able to see the overall structure of the problem. Two directions are involved: getting a whole consistent picture, and seeing what the structure of the whole requires for the parts." Gestalt theory applies to all aspects of human learning, although it applies most directly to perception and problem-solving. The work of Gibson was strongly influenced by Gestalt theory.


1. The learner should be encouraged to discover the underlying relationship among the elements.
2. Gaps, incongruities, or disturbances are an important stimulus for learning
3. Instruction based upon the laws of organization: proximity, closure, similarity and simplicity.

The Operant Conditioning theory of B.F. Skinner is based upon the idea that learning is a function of change in overt behavior. Changes in behavior are the result of an individual's response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. A response produces a consequence such as defining a word, hitting a ball, or solving a math problem. When a particular Stimulus-Response (S-R) pattern is reinforced (rewarded), the individual is conditioned to respond. The distinctive characteristic of operant conditioning relative to previous forms of behaviorism (e.g., Thorndike, Hull) is that the organism can emit responses instead of only eliciting response due to an external stimulus.

Reinforcement is the key element in Skinner's S-R theory. A reinforcer is anything that strengthens the desired response. It could be verbal praise, a good grade or a feeling of increased accomplishment or satisfaction.

1. Behavior that is positively reinforced will reoccur; intermittent reinforcement is particularly effective
2. Information should be presented in small amounts so that responses can be reinforced ("shaping")
3. Reinforcements will generalize across similar stimuli ("stimulus generalization") producing secondary conditioning

According to structural learning theory (J. Scandura), what is learned are rules which consist of a domain, range, and procedure. There may be alternative rule sets for any given class of tasks. Problem solving may be facilitated when higher order rules are used, i.e., rules that generate new rules. Higher order rules account for creative behavior (unanticipated outcomes) as well as the ability to solve complex problems by making it possible to generate (learn) new rules.

Structural analysis is a methodology for identifying the rules to be learned for a given topic or class of tasks and breaking them done into their atomic components. The theory proposes that we should teach as many higher-order rules as possible as replacements for lower order rules. The theory also suggests a strategy for individualizing instruction by analyzing which rules a student has/has not mastered and teaching only the rules, or portions thereof, that have not been mastered.

1. Whenever possible, teach higher order rules that can be used to derive lower order rules.
2 . Teach the simplest solution path first and then teach more complex paths or rule sets.
3. Rules must be composed of the minimum capabilities possessed by the learners.

Sensory-motor skills are an important category of learning in many tasks and occupations (not to mention all forms of sports). Motor skills can be classified as continuous (e.g. tracking), discrete, or procedural movements. The last category of skills are probably most relevant to real world applications such as typing, operating instruments, or maintenance. Long-term retention of motor skills depends upon regular practice; however, continuous responses show less forgetting in the absence of practice than discrete or procedural skills. Repetition after task proficiency is achieved (overtraining) and refresher training reduce the effects of forgetting. Unlike verbal learning, sensory-motor learning appears to be the same under massed and spaced practice. Learning and retention of sensory-motor skills is improved by both the quantity and quality of feedback (knowledge of results) during training.

Marteniuk (1976) presents a theoretical framework for sensory-motor skills based upon information processing theory. This framework emphasizes the importance of feedback in correcting motor behavior and selective attention in determining what actions are taken. Marteniuk suggests two ways in which learning/teaching of motor skills can be facilitated:
(1) slow down the rate at which information is presented, and
(2) reducing the amount of information that needs to processed.

Singer (1975) examined the importance of prompting and guidance while learning motor skills relative to trial and error or discovery strategies. His research suggests that some form of guided learning seems most appropriate when high proficiency on a new skill is involved. On the other hand, if the task is to be recalled and transferred to a new situation, then some type of problem-solving strategy may be better. In addition, guided learning may be most effective in early training while trail and error is important in advanced training.

Many forms of sensory-motor behavior are learned by imitation, especially complex movements such as dance, signing, crafts, or surgery. Consequently, theories of social learning and development (e.g. Bandura, Vygotsky) are relevant to sensory-motor activities. Finally, theories of individual differences, such as Guilford or Gardner, have identified a broad range of sensory-motor abilities that vary across individuals.

Sequencing of Instruction. One of the most important issues in the application of learning theory is sequencing of instruction. The order and organization of learning activities affects the way information is processed and retained (Glynn & DiVesta, 1977; Lorch & Lorch, 1985; Van Patten, Chao, & Reigeluth, 1986) A number of theories (e.g., Bruner, Reigeluth, Scandura) suggest a simple-to-complex sequence. The algo-heuristic theory of Landa prescribes a cumulative strategy. According to Gagne's Conditions of Learning theory, sequence is dictated by pre-requisite skills and the level of cognitive processing involved. Criterion Referenced Instruction (Mager) allows the learner the freedom to choose their own learning sequence based upon mastery of pre-requisite lessons. Component Display Theory (Merrill) also proposes that the learner select their own learning sequence based upon the instructional components available.

Theories that emphasize the goal-directed nature of behavior such as Tolman or Newell & Simon would specify that the sequence of instruction be based upon the goals/subgoals to be achieved. Gestalt theories, which emphasize understanding the structure of a subject domain, would prescribe learning activities that result in a broad rather than detailed knowledge for a particular domain.

Behavioral (S-R) theories of learning such as Thorndike, Hull or Skinner, would tend to support a linear sequence of instruction. From the behavioral perspective, learning amounts to S-R pairings and mastery of a complex subject matter or task involves the development of a chain or repertoire of such connections. Indeed, a fundamental principle of Skinnerian programmed learning was the "shaping" of such S-R chains.

A major theme in Constructivist Theory of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves. The instructor and student should engage in an active dialog (i.e., socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.

1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).
3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).

The Connectionism learning theory of Thorndike represents the original S-R framework of behavioral psychology: Learning is the result of associations forming between stimuli and responses. Such associations or "habits" become strengthened or weakened by the nature and frequency of the S-R pairings. The paradigm for S-R theory was trial and error learning in which certain responses come to dominate others due to rewards. The hallmark of connectionism (like all behavioral theory) was that learning could be adequately explained without referring to any unobservable internal states.

Thorndike's theory consists of three primary laws: (1) law of effect - responses to a situation which are followed by a rewarding state of affairs will be strengthened and become habitual responses to that situation, (2) law of readiness - a series of responses can be chained together to satisfy some goal which will result in annoyance if blocked, and (3) law of exercise - connections become strengthened with practice and weakened when practice is discontinued. A corollary of the law of effect was that responses that reduce the likelihood of achieving a rewarding state (i.e., punishments, failures) will decrease in strength.

1. Learning requires both practice and rewards (laws of effect /exercise)
2. A series of S-R connections can be chained together if they belong to the same action sequence (law of readiness).
3. Transfer of learning occurs because of previously encountered situations.
4. Intelligence is a function of the number of connections learned.

Instructional Systems Design

Why bother with Theory at all?
A solid foundation in learning theory is an essential element in the preparation of ISD professionals because it permeates all dimensions of ISD (Shiffman, 1995). Depending on the learners and situation, different learning theories may apply. The instructional designer must understand the strengths and weaknesses of each learning theory to optimize their use in appropriate instructional design strategy. Recipes contained in ID theories may have value for novice designers (Wilson, 1997), who lack the experience and expertise of veteran designers. Theories are useful because they open our eyes to other possibilities and ways of seeing the world. Whether we realize it or not, the best design decisions are most certainly based on our knowledge of learning theories.

An Eclectic Approach to Theory in Instructional Design
The function of ID is more of an application of theory, rather than a theory itself. Trying to tie Instructional Design to one particular theory is like school vs. the real world. What we learn in a school environment does not always match what is out there in the real world, just as the prescriptions of theory do not always apply in practice, (the real world). From a pragmatic point of view, instructional designers find what works and use it.

What Works and How Can We Use It?
Behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism - what works where and how do we knit everything together to at least give ourselves some focus in our approach to instructional design? First of all we do not need to abandon the systems approach but we must modify it to accommodate constructivist values. We must allow circumstances surrounding the learning situation to help us decide which approach to learning is most appropriate. It is necessary to realize that some learning problems require highly prescriptive solutions, whereas others are more suited to learner control of the environment. (Schwier, 1995)
Jonnassen in Manifesto for a Constructive Approach to Technology in Higher Education ([On-line]) identified the following types of learning and matched them with what he believes to be appropriate learning theory approaches.

1. Introductory Learning -
learners have very little directly transferable prior knowledge about a skill or content area. They are at the initial stages of schema assembly and integration. At this stage classical instructional design is most suitable because it is predetermined, constrained, sequential and criterion-referenced. The learner can develop some anchors for further exploration.

2. Advanced Knowledge Acquisition -
follows introductory knowledge and precedes expert knowledge. At this point constructivist approaches may be introduced.

3. Expertise is the final stage of knowledge acquisition.
In this stage the learner is able to make intelligent decisions within the learning environment. A constructivist approach would work well in this case.

Having pointed out the different levels of learning, Jonassen stresses that it is still important to consider the context before recommending any specific methodology. Reigeluth's Elaboration Theory which organizes instruction in increasing order of complexity and moves from prerequisite learning to learner control may work in the eclectic approach to instructional design, since the learner can be introduced to the main concepts of a course and then move on to more of a self directed study that is meaningful to them and their particular context.

For an overview of how this relates to dance lessons, see Why Our Ballroom Dance Classes are Better. At least why I think so.

For an outline of the task analysis, see Dance Instruction Assessment

For insight into how facts about short term memory influenced the design of Ballroom Basics, see Applied Theory

For more about the relationship between the traditional and the Nelson approach, see A Side By Side Comparison

For more about how this approach evolved, see: Teaching Ballroom Dance: A Rationale For an Alternative Approach Dance Home Page Dance Curriculum Dance Articles

Copyright (c) 2006, J. M. Nelson. All rights reserved. Reproduction of contents prohibited without prior permission from the author.