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Connecting theory and practice: reviewing six learning theories to inform online instruction

Earl Brieger (Department of Organizational Learning and Leadership, Gannon University, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA)
Vishal Arghode (Department of Organization Behavior/Human Resources, Indian Institute of Management Nagpur, Nagpur, India)
Gary McLean (Graduate School of Management, Assumption University of Thailand, Samutprakarn, Thailand)

European Journal of Training and Development

ISSN: 2046-9012

Article publication date: 20 January 2020

Issue publication date: 17 June 2020




The purpose of this paper is to analyze six learning theories, beyond those presented in an earlier article by the authors, and discuss their relevance and application in online instruction.


The following databases were used to review the literature on adult learning theories: Academic Search Premier, ERIC and ProQuest. The following key search terms were used in the search process: online instruction, cognitivism, connectivism, heutagogy, social learning theory, transformative learning theory and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. The titles of the identified articles were first reviewed for relevance, followed by the abstract, before any further review for suitability for inclusion in this article.


The theory comparison revealed that it is critical to ascertain which learning theory best matches an instructional situation and the background of the learners. The selected learning theories differ in several parameters. The theories were critiqued for their contributions to identified elements in promoting learning. The discussed theories suggest ways to improve online learning environments.

Research limitations/implications

Many adult perspectives about learning, while called theories, are largely lacking in evidence leading to them becoming theories. Thus, there remains a need for empirical evidence of these theories and their roles in online instruction. Comparisons of the application of these theories for adult learners in online instruction would also be useful in establishing the effectiveness of the various learning theories in different adult learning situations.

Practical implications

This paper provides a theoretical lens for adult instructors and instructional designers in incorporating these adult learning theories appropriately in improving online instruction.


This literature review uniquely critiques and compares common adult theories as they apply to adult online instruction.



Brieger, E., Arghode, V. and McLean, G. (2020), "Connecting theory and practice: reviewing six learning theories to inform online instruction", European Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 44 No. 4/5, pp. 321-339.



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