Learning about learning

This page explores several learning theories that are especially relevant to business simulations.






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Many years ago I was designing a project management simulation for a large British engineering company. Having drawn up a specification for the simulation, the company's Finance Director (CFO) got involved. He did not understand the difference between learning facts and developing the ability to do something and said "but this is the same as other courses" - it was not but development was stopped. This page tries to alleviate this problem by trying to answer the question "how do adult business people learn?"

This page explores Adult Learning, Experiential Learning, a Learning Hierarch and Cognitive Load.

Adult Learning

Anyone who has been involved in company training for any period of time realise that pedagogic (academic) instruction is different from andragogic (adult) learning - that is to say learning facts is very different from learning how to be better at your job! The chart below lists six adult learning principles, difference and goals & purposes - each of which explored further when you scroll down.


Core Adult Learning Principles

1. Learners Need to Know
- why
- what
- how

2. Self Concept of the Learner
- autonomous
- self directing

3. Prior Experience of the Learner
- resource
- mental models

4. Readiness to Learn
- life related
- developmental task

5. Orientation to Learning
- problem centred
- contextual

6. Motivation to Learn
- intrinsic value
- personal payoff

Characteristics of Adult Learners

Why and How rather than What
Adults learn differently from academic students. Adults are concerned with doing things better rather than knowing enough facts to pass an exam. So for adult learners the reason for learning (why) and the learning process (how) are perhaps more important than content (what).

Why means that the learning must be relevant and as simulation get participants to solve real business problems this helps.

How means that the learning process is crucial and the learner centred self-directed nature of business simulations helps.

In school and university the student is at the bottom of the food chain. In contrast a business person is autonomous and self-directing and as such at the top of the food chain and will challenge the trainer and demand that the teaching is relevant. The student centred and driven learning as provided by simulations provides for this and not only does this  motivating.

Prior Experience
The adult learner expects that his or her prior experience is recognised and seen as a resource. Working as part of a team running a simulated business recognises this and increase learning effectiveness as learners share their knowledge and experience and learn from each other. Besides sharing knowledge and experience with the other team members, learners must defend
and promote their views. Not only does this update and correct knowledge (mental models - schema) but it also causes deep cognitive processing

Readiness to Learn

Orientation to Learning


Adult Learning and Business Simulations

This is


Experiential Learning

Simulation based learning is experiential where for several periods learners make decisions that impact a simulated business producing results that must be analysed before replanning and making the next period's decisions. This process follows the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle and here I explore how this delivers learning.

Decision-Making/Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle

Making Decisions/Active Experimentation
This involves participants deciding what actions to take. An important consideration is that. like the real world, once a decision is made it is implemented and participants must live with the it. This forces participants to think deeply before making a decision - something necessary for learning.

Simulation/Concrete Experience
Based on the decisions the business simulation model determines outcomes that are returned to participants for them to analyse. takes the decisions and This is

Analyse Results/ Reflective Observation
This is crucial to learning and the design and the time-table must ensure that there is sufficient time to reflect and participants are encouraged to reflect. Additionally, it must be possible for the analysis to enable participants to tease out the linkages between decisions and results and determine strengths and weaknesses

Replan/Active Conceptualisation
This involves participants moving on from the analysis to determine what to do next. This activity involves calling on existing knowledge and experience and discussing different viewpoints

The Experiential Learning Cycle and Business Simulations

This is

My meta-composition concept is grounded in the Experiential Learning Cycle.

Learn more about meta-composition

Learning Hierarchy

Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain (1956) shows learning falling on a spectrum ranging from remembering factual knowledge through to developing the ability to critically evaluate possible solutions to business problems to creating solutions. Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) revisited this and presented the hierarchy in two dimensions - process and knowledge.

Cognitive Process Dimension

The diagram above shows learning processes in increasing levels of complexity and, arguably, mastery of one level require mastery of the prior level.

Remember (Knowledge)
Here learners are able to recall or recognise information - business simulations help participants reinforce and refresh prior knowledge.

Understand (Comprehension)
Here learners understand something - such as profit is different from cash flow.

Business simulations help participants review and test learning and embed new knowledge.

Here learners perform a basic
task. That is to say perform a task where the process is known such as calculating Gross Profits from Revenues and Costs of Sales. Depending on the business simulation and learning purpose, participants may need to do such calculations.


Here learners make

Business simulations help participants

Here learners make judgments. For example, in business one needs to decide whether ROI is satisfactory or whether a company is financially safe.

Business simulations help participants

Create (Synthesis)
Here learners create, unique solutions to business problems.

Business simulations help participants

Knowledge Dimension

Here I explore the types of knowledge explored by business simulations and necessary for the successful business person.

Factual Knowledge
This represents the basic knowledge such as business terminology.

Business simulations help participants

Conceptual Knowledge
This is a connected web of relationships (Hiebert, 1986) but may be fragmented. In business, examples of conceptual knowledge are the marketing mix or price volume elasticity.

Business simulations help participants

Procedural Knowledge
This is the knowledge exercised when performing a task such as determining Gross Profit.

Business simulations help participants

Meta-Cognitive Knowledge
This is higher order knowledge of strategy, task an person variables (Flavell, 1979) or use of knowledge gained in one situation in another (Bransford & Cockingl, 1999).

Learning Hierarchy and Learning (including Business Simulations)

The type of learning needed helps define which learning methodology is appropriate. In particular, individual e-learning is likely to be most appropriate for remembering and understanding and, perhaps, applying and analysing. In contrast, evaluation and creation is especially Business simulations ass

Cognitive Load

Central to the meta-composition design of a business simulation is cognitive load. As shown in the diagram below, there are three types of cognitive load - intrinsic, extraneous and germane.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load
This is the cognitive load associated with learning.

Extraneous Cognitive Load
Extraneous or ineffective cognitive load involves working with unrelated activities.

Germane Cognitive Load
This is the cognitive capacity left after taking into account Intrinsic and Extraneous Cognitive Load

For learning to occur the schema in long-term memory need to be restructured. Before this happens information passes through working memory and this has limited capacity - that is to say it is a bottleneck and cannot handle more than a few items of information simultaneously.

Cognitive Load and Business Simulations
Efficient Learning is delivered by minimising extraneous load and maximising intrinsic load. Extraneous load can be minimised by eliminating cognitive clutter and noise, having a simple user interface and only using graphics appropriately.

Ensuring Effective Learning is less clear as it is important that there is not cognitive overload. This involves ensuring adequate germane load and restricting the number of items being processed by working memory.

Central to Meta-Composition is the management of cognitive load and ensuring that it is derived from relevant and necessary cognition.


Amer, Aly (2006) Reflections on Bloom's Revised Taxonomy Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology No 8 Vol 4(1)

Anderson, Lorin W and David R Krathwohl (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing Longman, New York

Bloom, B.S., N.D. Engelhart, E.J. Furst, W.H. Hill and D.R. Krathwohl, 1956) Taxonomy Of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1, The Cognitive Domain

Bransford, J. and R. Cocking (1999) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school National Academy Press, Washington

Cannon, Hugh M., Andrew Hale Feinstein (2005) Bloom beyond Bloom: Using the revised taxonomy to develop experiential learning strategies Developments in Business Simulations and Experiential Learning Volume 32

Flavell, J. (1979) Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-development inquiry American Psycologist, 34

Hiebert, J. (1986). Conceptual and Procedural Knowledge: The Case of Mathematics. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.



Whiteley, T. Rick (2006) Using the Socratic Method and Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain to enhance Online Discussion, Critical Thinking and Student Learning Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning Volume 33

2015 Jeremy J. S. B. Hall

Most recent update: 30/07/15
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