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Simulation and learning theories.


Before simulation courseware is designed, it is imperative to analyse the learning theories that are embedded in it. This is because the aim of the courseware, amongst others, is to facilitate and improve the conditions of students' learning and knowledge retention. This paper attempts to critically discuss three learning theories that are crucial in designing simulation courseware to be used in a military setting.


Military institutions are considered to be amongst the oldest organisations in the world. Since the time of Plato, military organisations have often been called the guardians and the public respects them as such. Given their special role, most governments need to ensure that their military institutions are ready to defend the country and such readiness depends critically on comprehensive education.

The question addressed in this paper relates to learning theories that are suitable in designing simulation courseware to be used in tertiary military academies. The emergence of simulation technology has increased expectations about creating a learning environment that is more engaging and meaningful. Though there are many other interdependent factors that may affect the success of learning such as students' learning styles and methods that match goals, simulation courseware is considered to be one tool that can help students develop skills of independent learning and critical thinking. Nonetheless, before attempting to design suitable courseware, designers need to have a full understanding of the learning theories involved.

Learning Theories

Behaviourism: A Critical Heritage

Modern behaviourism has its origin in the work of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner. What they all share is the belief that similar to animals, humans are creatures whose behaviour is modelled on repetitious conditioning in which certain types of acts are rewarded and others to be punished. Taking these ideas into human learning, Skinner (1976) suggests that students may learn better when they are "Drill[ed] and [forced to] Practice"; students must practice until they are properly trained.

Not surprisingly, military learning commences on the basis of behaviourism. Military personnel depend critically on their automatic responses to dangerous situations. These dangerous situations are akin to "stimulus" that Pavlov and Skinner identify as the cause for soliciting a behavioural response. Modern military learning today remains rooted in behaviourism. In fact with the emergence of technology in military learning, the behaviourist approach becomes the key learning theory in designing relevant courseware. The first courseware that used the behaviourist approach was Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI), designed in the 1970s (Saettler 1990). CAI incorporates "drill-and-practice" techniques to condition students' learning. The design of CAI depends on the analysis of learning needs and systematic development of instruction called Instructional Design (ID). 1D originates in behaviourism since its focus is on observable behaviours and it is later used as a method for developing instruction.

Gagne (1985) is a crucial figure of ID since his ideas on principles of conditions of learning define the guidelines for designing courseware. Five major categories of conditions of learning are verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills and attitudes. These five categories suggest that depending on the skills to be taught, designers must attend to the students' need of learning the required skills. Gagne's first category of conditions of learning, which is verbal information, supports learning by presentation within an organised, meaningful context. Gagne's second condition of learning, intellectual skills requires prior learning of prerequisite skills. Cognitive strategies are a type of learning which requires repeated occasions in which challenges to thinking are presented. For motor skills, the learning is developed through practices and attitudes are learnt most effectively through the use of human models and "vicarious reinforcement". It is pertinent to note that Gagne's early works are mostly based on the needs of the U.S. Air Force (Sims 1996). Eventually, modern military learning attempts to mould officers who can act not only on "a conditioned basis", but more on their ability to question and analyse critical situations. That is why learning theory in a military setting is now shifting towards constructivism.

Cognitivism & Constructivism: A Crucial Analysis

As behaviourists partially unsuccessful to explain certain social behaviours (for instance students did not imitate all behaviours that had been reinforced), there is a need to find an alternative learning theory. Cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganisation of the cognitive structures through which students process and store information. This learning theory can be traced back to the ancient Greeks; Plato and Aristotle. However, contemporary educationists have named Piaget as the most important theorist in cognitivism.

Cognitivism refers to students' ability to use their minds to store information. Information is viewed as symbolic, mental constructions in the minds of individuals and learning becomes the process of committing these symbolic representations to memory where they may be processed (Piaget 1977). However, information stored is useless unless it is processed to become knowledge. The use of simulations allows students to gather much information but the ability to critically evaluate the information is more important (Levin and Waugh 1998). Using concepts derived from cognitivism, artificial intelligence in many technology-driven software and courseware is developed and used to help students gather and evaluate the information. Cognitive theorists believe that learning is the result of the attempts to make sense of the world. In cognitivism, knowledge is learnt and changes in knowledge make changes in behaviour possible. At the same time, reinforcement is used as a source of feedback; it is thus crucial to provide informative as well as corrective feedback in simulation courseware.

Cognitivism later gives birth to a new concept of learning theory called constructivism. The basic principle of constructivism is that students learnt by "interacting" with learning materials rather than observing them. At the same time, students bring prior knowledge to a learning situation in which they must critically assess and re-evaluate their understanding of new information. The concept of constructivism has its roots in classical antiquity, going back to Socrates' dialogues with his followers, in which he asked directed questions that led his students to realise for themselves the weaknesses in their thinking. The Socratic Dialogues are still an important tool in the way constructivist educators assess their students' learning and plan new learning experiences. The constructivists approach to teaching and learning is based on a combination of a subset of research within cognitive psychology and a subset of research within social psychology. The basic argument is that an individual student must actively 'build' or 'construct' knowledge and skills.

Simulation technology has often been associated with constructivism. This relationship is perhaps due to the fact that the technology provides students with almost unlimited access to information that they require in order to do research and test their ideas (Becker 2000). Most importantly, as students engage in new forms of learning, they simultaneously expect their teachers to offer learning opportunities in exciting and engaging formats. This can only be made possible by applying constructivism in a technologically assisted medium for the learning processes (Bonk and Dennen 2005). Simulation technology then facilitates learning as it allows students to present their views and products to broader audiences. It also exposes students to the opinions of a more diverse group of people in the real world beyond the classroom, school and local community; all these conditions are optimal for constructivist learning. A principle in constructivism is to provide a context for the students in order to teach them concepts of wholes. The context should place the students in a situation similar to the one in which they are going to apply the knowledge where understanding is much more important than memorising facts.

The main theorists in constructivism are Piaget, Bruner for cognitive constructivism (from the cognitivism learning theory) and Vygotsky for social constructivism. Piaget's interest in cognitive development originates from his training in the natural sciences and his interest in epistemology. Piaget is very interested in knowledge and how children come to know their world. In short, Piaget concludes that intellectual development is the result of the interaction of hereditary and environmental factors. As the child develops and constantly interacts with the world around him/her, knowledge is invented and reinvented. Piaget (1977) is best known for developing the theory of the four stages of intellectual development. He discovers that children think and reason differently at different periods in their lives. He believes that everyone passes through a fixed sequence of four qualitatively distinct stages. Although every normal child passes through stages in exactly the same order, there is some variability in the ages at which children attain each stage. Generally, the evolution of intellectual development is divided into four phases which are summarised as sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational. Instruction should be individualised as much as possible and students should have opportunities to communicate with one another i.e. to argue and debate issues. Educators are the facilitators of knowledge--they are to guide and stimulate students. Thus, learning is much more meaningful if students were allowed to experiment rather than to listen to the teacher.

The key theorist of social constructivism, Vygotsky, becomes the first and main critic of Piaget and his followers. For him, cognitive constructivism lacks social and cultural ambience in the learning process. His major theoretical framework is that, firstly, social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygotsky et al. (2006) puts forth that every function in a child's cultural development appears twice--first, on the social level and later, on the individual level. This suggests that firstly, a child is exposed to the surrounding by his/her social contact with people (inter-psychological) and then secondly, a child will have inner interaction with him/herself (intra-psychological). Vygotsky's second theoretical framework is the idea that the potential of cognitive development is limited to a certain time span that he calls the "zone of proximal development (ZPD)". This meant that every student has the possibility of going beyond his/her present level of learning if prompts and guides appropriately by the teacher. Full development during ZPD depends upon full social interaction; the range of skills that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone.

Which Learning Theories?

In designing simulation courseware, it is found that all these three learning theories are inter-dependent. Most military learning today is an excellent example of behaviourist pedagogy. For the military, behaviourism best caters to its needs of behavioural objectives which are written descriptions of specific, terminal behaviours and are observable, measurable behaviours (van Ree 2002; Saettler 1990). Nonetheless, it is observed that this approach of learning slowly becomes irrelevant as the new cadets are vastly exposed to a different kind of learning; a learning where they are able to control it and become active participants. Bonk (Bonk, C.J., personal communication: e-mail, Oct 11 2005) suggests that there is a change of learning theory being implemented in the military setting nowadays from behaviourism to constructivism. Actually, as behaviourism concentrates on the conditions of "memorising" or "parroting", simulation courseware may assist more than these conditionings. Therefore, cognitive and social constructivism critically support the new learning environment, highlighting some benefits in terms of its practices and efficiency.

Cognitive concerns are manifested in many military skills. Increasing reliance on technology and the increasing complexity of military operations continues to raise the demand for cognitive (as opposed to physical) skills in military personnel. The interests of military institutions in cognitive performance are particularly evident in three important types of tasks namely maintenance, tactics and control of aircraft (Halff, Hollan and Hutchins 1986). However, there is also a psychological basis for the commitment of military learning because one of the most interesting developments in cognitive science is the theory of learning by doing i.e. the learning theory of constructivism and learning systems based on this theory. Further, due to the changing nature of modern military learning, constructivism becomes the strongest link in discussing simulations in the military setting. Cognitive and social constructivism allow cadets at the military academies to explore their potential at length. As learning demands quick and accurate responses from cadets, the task of moulding the future guardians using a constructivist approach of learning seems inevitable. Constructivists encourage student-centred learning (SCL) as a learning application to help students nurture and develop their learning using inner experiences and supports from social surroundings.

Debates on learning theories that are suitable for courseware are not new. Scholars such as Ertmer and Newby (1993) find three stages that can be applied in designing courseware. For introductory learning where students have very little directly transferable prior knowledge about a skill or content area, the behaviourist approach is the best learning theory to be used because it is predetermined, constrained, sequential and criterion-based. Since students are at the initial stages of schema assembly and integration, "drill-and-practice" would help them to build a schema for future learning and thus provide an anchor for their next stage in learning. For the second stage or for advanced knowledge acquisition, preliminary constructivist approach and cognitivist approach may be introduced into which tasks require students to have an increased level of processing. At this stage, students' ability to filter relevant or irrelevant information is crucial. Lastly, at the final stage of knowledge acquisition, students are able to make intelligent decisions within the learning environment. A full constructivist approach would work well in this setting whereby the tasks demand high levels of processing. Students are expected to bring their prior experience and thus reconstruct new ideas based on their experiences and learning needs.

What impacts do these learning theories have on the design of simulation courseware? Generally, there will be three main implications. Firstly, learning theories to be used in courseware must match the contents to be learnt. This is because not all contents are suitable to be taught using a behaviourist, cognitivist or constructivist approach. Some contents may require 'blended' learning theories to ensure effective delivery. Secondly, designers of simulation courseware must be aware of students' needs for learning. Because students are the end users of simulation courseware, designers should always base the courseware on students' intellectual growth and changes to the courseware are vital. That is why CD-ROM format courseware may be less suitable because of its inflexibility for future changes. Unlike networked courseware that allows constant updating and modifications, CD-ROM format is an eminent medium for simulation technologies because it is easier to distribute for learning at remote areas. Lastly, in a military academy, the design of simulation courseware for first year cadets should include a more behaviourist approach to reflect and match their preliminary learning at the military academy. During the first year, cadets are trained in a manner that helps instil strong discipline and obedience. As they move to a higher year of study, the design of simulation courseware should reflect their maturity in learning. The constructivist approach may then be a dominant learning theory as it inculcates critical thinking and independence.


This paper has analysed three main learning theories that play huge roles in designing simulation courseware. It is apparent that no single learning theory can stand on its own in the current military learning environment. Undoubtedly, during the first year of study, cadets must be 'conditioned' i.e. to be taught using the behaviourist approach. Since they must follow orders and be self disciplined, an initial behaviourist approach will help to shape their attitudes and mental schema. However, since they are trained to be the elite corps in their parent services, leadership skills must be developed. Amongst the qualities of being efficient and effective leaders are to be able to take and give command and to critically examine various situations and act accordingly.

Thus, the design of courseware for cadets must take into account their transition from being conditioned to being critical and independent students. Since the constructivism learning theory offers so many options for cadets to develop qualities to become good leaders, it is perhaps appropriate to have more of a constructivist approach in simulation courseware especially for senior cadets as constructivism has the ability to promote active, constructive, intentional, authentic and co-operative learning (Jonassen, Peck and Wilson 1999). Without neglecting other learning theories, 'blended' learning theories are always welcome to structure simulation courseware especially for skills, contents or proficiency that demand them.


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Bonk, C.J. and Dennen, V.P. (2005). "Massive Multiplayer On-Line Gaming: A Research Framework for Military Training and Education". Technical Report: Advanced Distributed Learning. DoD, U.S.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defence for Personnel & Readiness

Ertmer, P. A. and Newby, T.J. (1993). "Behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective". Performance Improvement Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp 50-70

Gagne, R. (1985). The Conditions of Learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Halff, H. M., Hollan, J. D. and Hutchins, E. (1986). "Cognitive Science and Military Training". American Psychologist. Vol. 41, No. 10, pp 1131-1139

Jonassen, D.H., Peck, K.L. and Wilson, B.G. (1999). Learning with Technology: A Constructivist Perspective. New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Levin, J., and Waugh, M. (1998). "Teaching tele-apprenticeships: Electronic network-based educational frameworks for improving teacher education". Interactive Learning Environments. Vol. 6, No. 1-2, pp 39-58

Piaget, J. (1977). The Science of Education and The Psychology of the Child. New York: Penguin

Saettler, P. (1990). The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Sims, C.R. (1996). "Engagement, Control and the Learner: A Theoretical Appraisal of Interactivity". Paper presented at ASCILITE 1996. [Conference Proceedings]

Skinner, B.F. (1976). About Behaviourism. London: Vintage van Ree, A. J. (2002). "Towards a Military Pedagogy". In Florian, H. (ed.). Military Pedagogy--An International Survey. Frankfurt: Peter Lang

Vygotsky, L.S., Cole, M., John-Steiner, V., Scribner, S. and Souberman, E. (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Jowati Juhary, the Military Academy of Malaysia, KL

Jowati Juhary is a lecturer of communication technology at the MAM
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Author:Juhary, Jowati
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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