Theories – descriptive/prescriptive learning theories / instructional design theories

Theories – descriptive/prescriptive learning theories / instructional design theories

Today’s big idea is about theories – the different between descriptive theories and prescriptive theories and two specific types of theories: learning theories and instructional-design theories.

I began the day by reading about activity theory – a descriptive theory that was being used to describe some aspects of faculty development. Descriptive theories are concerned with providing a description of what people actually do. “Descriptive learning theories make statements about how learning occurs and devise models that can be used to explain and predict learning results.” (Ullrich, 2008, p.37).

Activity theory provides a useful lens “to highlight problematic features of the learning and teaching setting” (Issroff & Scanlon, 2002, p.83).  A similar descriptive theory, actor-network theory, provides a means of analysing the power relations within an organization, which was used by Fox to criticize communities of practice theory (COPT) for its lack of attention to issues of power and inequality within the communities (Fox, 2000).

Communities of practice theory is interesting, in that it seems to want to cross the bridge between prescriptive and descriptive theory.  In the book Cultivating Communities of Practice (2002), Wenger, McDermott, & Synder provide descriptive criteria for what consititutes a community of practice, and they provide guidenance on how to cultivate such communities. Boud and Middleton, however, says that communities of practice are indeed not easily cultivated because “people have explicit contacts for learning, some of which are determined by structural relationships, others of which are created informally.” (Boud & Middleton, 2003, p.200). Personally, I believe that COPT is useful as a descriptive theory, but requires too much effort (too many resources) to be useful as a prescriptive theory.

In my reading, I was looking for theories that would directly inform the way I design faculty development, and the descriptive theories that I was reading about only provided a mechanism for analysing the results of the learning activity. What I really wanted was a prescriptive theory – one that tells me how I should be designing something.

I had thought that learning theories could fall into both categories: descriptive and prescriptive. Reigeluth, however, says that “learning theories are descriptive. They describe how learning occurs” (1999, p.12). For prescriptive theories, I need to look for instructional-design theories: “instructional-design theories are design oriented, they describe methods of instruction and the situations in which those methods should be used, the methods can be broken into simpler components methods, and the methods are probabilistic.” (Reigeluth, 1999, p.7). That being said, “learning and development theories are useful for understanding why an instructional-design theory works, and, in areas where no instructional-design theories exist, they can help an educator to invent new methods or select known instructional methods that might work.” (Reigeluth, 1999, p.13)

In short, my big idea for today is that if I want to find theories that will tell me how to design instruction, I need to look into instructional-design theories. If want to know why instruction works, then I should look at learning theories.


Boud, D., & Middleton, H. (2003). Learning from others at work: communities of practice and informal learning. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(5), 194-202. doi:10.1108/13665620310483895

Fox, S. (2000). Communities of practice, Foucault and actor-network theory. Journal of Management Studies, 37(6), 853-868. doi:10.1111/1467-6486.00207

Issroff, K., & Scanlon, E. (2002). Using technology in Higher Education: an Activity Theory perspective. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, (November 2001), 77-83.

Reigeluth. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing. In Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Second., pp. 5-29). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ullrich, C. (2008). Descriptive and prescriptive learning theories. Pedagogically founded courseware generation for web-based learning (pp. 37-42). Berlin: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-88215-2_3

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Synder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Feature image by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

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