Thursday, June 22, 2023

What is my doctoral research about? Introducing the Triangle Learning Theory - TLT


In the past few days, I'm sure many of you have been with me, going through ups and downs. Yesterday (1/25), you may have also received a flood of birthday wishes from friends. Once again, thank you all. After 12 years of hard work, from entering in 2010 to the present year 2022, from before my child was born to now, where they're in fourth grade and second grade. After all these years, I have finally passed my doctoral thesis defense! (Throwing confetti)

Full text download of the doctoral thesis: "Exploring the Secret of a Corporate Trainer: The Transformation of the Cognitive Schema of Learners"(link:

"What exactly is this thesis about?" I believe this may be the question on many people's minds.

This thesis combines my practical experience in corporate training with learning theories. Through interviews with 12 participants from four listed companies, and extracting insights from the 160,000-word interview transcripts, I have identified 15 cognitive schemas (plainly speaking: learning points in class) and 24 instructional schemas (plainly speaking: 24 commonly used instructional techniques by corporate trainers). Finally, I propose the "Triangle Learning Theory" (TLT) as an instructional framework. During the defense, the committee highly acknowledged the academic and practical significance of this research, which truly required years of dedication and daily early mornings to complete.

However, I also understand that most people may not have the time (or patience) to read the entire 400-plus-page thesis (including interview transcripts). Academic research, especially a doctoral thesis, is meant to be thorough and rigorous in its presentation of the process. But if we switch perspectives to the practical angle, the question becomes, "What are the results of this research? How can it benefit educators in general?"

Four companies, with three people in each of them,12in total. Four interview in two months. 16 thousand word of transcript,15congnitism model, 24teaching model. Connection between three learning theories.

Let's skip all the research investigation and analysis process for now and jump straight to the conclusion: Apply the "Triangle Learning Theory - TLT" to check if your instructional process is missing any piece. By completing this golden triangle, you can make your teaching more effective! Students' learning outcomes will improve, and they will have a better chance of retaining what they have learned for a longer period!

"Is it really that effective? Is it too good to be true?"

Triangle Learning Theory – TLT

Let me quickly explain what the "Triangle Learning Theory - TLT" is. Simply put, it refers to effective teaching that integrates three learning theories throughout the instructional process: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism. This integration ensures that students can fully absorb and retain the knowledge for a longer period.

Let's take an example: After attending a "Professional Presentation Skills" course, many people are deeply impressed by the "Post-it Note Brainstorming" technique and continue to use it even after several years. Why is that? Is it truly effective, or is there something unique about our teaching approach? Now, let's look at it from a different perspective: If I had simply talked about how great the Post-it Note technique is from start to finish, would students remember it for so long? If you only watched a video demonstration of the technique, would the impression be as deep?

Therefore, let's analyze in detail the process of teaching the "Post-it Note technique" in the classroom (this is a non-public Know-How, by the way). First, I "explain" what the technique is (which falls under Behaviorism), then break it down into four steps (structured approach, which belongs to Cognitivism). Next, I provide a real-life example (analogical case, also part of Cognitivism), followed by a live demonstration (demonstration as part of Social Learning Theory, also within Behaviorism). That concludes the instructional process for the initial phase of the Post-it Note technique.

Did you notice something? Throughout the entire teaching process, instructional methods constantly alternate between "Behaviorism" <> "Cognitivism," incorporating a blend of different teaching techniques.

Now, did you notice which aspect is missing among the three major instructional techniques?

Exactly, after utilizing "Behaviorism" and "Cognitivism," we should also apply "Constructivism" for a complete learning experience! Therefore, after the demonstration, we engage the learners in a "Group Discussion" and have them engage in "Hands-on Practice" (both of which fall under Constructivism). This way, the entire instructional process for the Post-it Note technique fully incorporates the three foundational learning theories: "Behaviorism," "Cognitivism," and "Constructivism." Such an approach ensures that learners have a complete and memorable learning experience, resulting in long-term retention.

The above explanation is not solely based on my own experience and understanding. This research primarily relied on the personal experiences of the learners. The study involved 12 participants from four publicly listed companies representing high-tech, finance, manufacturing, and other industries. Through interviews conducted before the course, immediately after, one month later, and two months later (12 individuals x 4 interviews = 48 times!), it was found that the Post-it Note technique left a lasting impression on most participants. Detailed analysis of their responses (academically referred to as grounded theory coding) revealed that the use of different instructional methods and transitions made a profound impact on their learning even two months after the course. By incorporating practical experience, learner interviews, teaching techniques, and the foundation of learning theories, it was possible to identify that integrating the three major learning theories in instructional methods leads to effective learning (academically termed as establishing cognitive schemas for long-term memory). Furthermore, the three learning theories can be organized into three levels: integration in the initial stage, stimulus reinforcement in the second stage, and paradigm requirements in the third stage. These levels progress from simple to complex and can be combined to form over 20 different instructional techniques.

Practical Applications of TLT Theory

Here's another example of practical application: Recently, I had the opportunity to serve as an internal instructor and coach at a globally renowned Fortune 500 company. When reviewing the courses designed by the instructors, I applied the "golden triangle of learning theories" to evaluate and analyze the entire teaching process. For instance, with Teacher A, the entire process consisted solely of "lecturing" based on behaviorist theory... let's just say there was a request for a redo! XD

Teacher B was slightly better, incorporating both "lecture" and presenting a "case study." This approach might sound interesting, but at the end of it, the participants still didn't know how to apply the knowledge effectively. In other words, although a mix of behaviorist and cognitive theories was utilized, the constructivist theory was not applied. Consequently, the knowledge or skills remained with the teacher rather than being internalized by the students. While not asked for a redo, some modifications were requested.

Teacher C demonstrated more thoughtfulness. Apart from the "lecture" and "case study" components to engage the students, she also considered how to ensure the students internalize the knowledge (constructivist learning). After covering the content and presenting the case study, she then required students to engage in "hands-on practice" (constructivist theory) and broke down the process into five major steps (structuring - cognitive theory). She provided a demonstration herself (behaviorist theory) and finally allowed students to complete the practice exercise through "group discussions" (collaborative group work - constructivist theory). Throughout the entire teaching process, there was seamless switching between the three learning theory foundations, resulting in excellent teaching effectiveness.

In conclusion, applying the TLT theory in practical teaching scenarios allows for a smooth flow of instructional methods, seamlessly transitioning between the three learning theories. This ultimately leads to achieving remarkable teaching outcomes

Analyzing Teaching Techniques using TLT

It's not just me; if we look at the top instructors around us, each of them can also apply this golden triangle and find success. For example, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to observe the teaching methods of Adam, a master of innovative instruction in top corporations. During a session on "Innovation Process Transformation," Adam started by showing a video (case study - cognitive theory) and then engaged the participants in a discussion to identify different observations and innovative ideas (group discussion - constructivist theory). He followed up by explaining the key points in the video (lecture - behaviorist theory). At this point, the teaching was clear and could theoretically end...

However, Adam didn't stop there. He initiated the next cycle by summarizing the entire process into five steps, making it easier for everyone to grasp the organized structure (structuring - cognitive approach). To reinforce the concepts, he presented a new topic for participants to apply the learned framework (practice - constructivism). Adam promptly provided immediate feedback on their practice outcomes, allowing for immediate adjustments (immediate feedback - behaviorism). Did you notice that this opened up another cycle of the golden triangle?

Let's switch to another example, the renowned instructor MJ. In a segment on financial statement analysis during his in-person classes, he first introduced a framework and process called "獨孤九劍" to aid memory retention (cognitive approach). He then meticulously explained the analytical details of the process (behaviorist approach). Next, he distributed real financial statements, encouraging participants to apply the newly acquired methods and conduct their own analysis (constructivist approach). Did you notice? In this stage of instruction, MJ utilized teaching techniques aligned with cognitive > behavioral > constructivist theories, once again covering all three learning theories.

And then there's my dear partner, the exceptional workplace coach, Coach Louis. His approach essentially follows the golden triangle of "I tell you"(behaviorist theory),"I show you"(with mnemonic aids leaning towards cognitive theory), and "You do it"(constructivist theory), continuously cycling through the three learning theories to propel forward.

Knowing the What and Understanding the Why

The practical examples of these golden triangles were actually written in my blog article back in 2018 (November 30). They also appeared in the book "Teaching Techniques" and the online courses. So, it seems like there's no need for such a lengthy research process—I already knew these things.

However, over the past few years, through the research process, I delved deeper into the theoretical essence behind these teaching techniques, starting from the practical aspects and venturing into the realm of academic research. I then approached them from the perspective of the learners: What do they remember after the class? Why does teaching have an impact? I transitioned from knowing the "what" (originally discovering these techniques through practical exploration without prior knowledge of relevant learning theories) to understanding the "why" (grasping why these methods are effective and why they help people remember). It involved condensing theory from practice and deepening practice with theory. After understanding the underlying principles, I viewed these teaching methods and instructional designs through a lens that allowed me to see beyond the surface and make prompt guidance and responses.

Most importantly, perhaps these research findings will assist everyone in future teaching scenarios. Theories are only meant to support; there is no ultimate learning theory. A truly effective instructional design combines the golden triangle of learning theories, blending different teaching methods to enable students not just to know and learn but also to apply. In the future, everyone can use this simple analytical framework to assess their own teaching and identify areas where they excel and areas where they can further improve.

Practical Experience, Academic Research, and Output of Results

Looking back on my journey, I initially honed my skills in corporate teaching (published in 2014 - "Techniques on Stage"). Then, I embarked on academic research (started writing my doctoral dissertation in 2018) while continuously connecting my teaching experience with scholarly research and learning theories. In 2019, I published "Teaching Techniques," where I organized my own experiences. Simultaneously, I continued to bridge the gap between teaching and academic research. In January 2020, I obtained approval for my research proposal and began conducting interviews with participants from listed companies. However, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing unexpected challenges. In June 2020, I launched the online course "Teaching Techniques" and wrote "Techniques for Online Teaching" in August 2021. The gamification elements used in these works were previously presented in a research paper, which was accepted by an SCI journal in October 2021. Throughout this process, I persisted in completing my doctoral dissertation research, attempting to uncover the secrets of corporate trainers' teaching from the perspective of learners' cognitive schema changes. Finally, in late January 2022, I successfully passed my doctoral dissertation defense.

From practical experience (14 years as a corporate trainer and 3 years as a part-time university lecturer) to academic contributions (doctoral research on teaching and gamification paper published in an SCI journal) and publications ("Teaching Techniques," "Techniques for Online Teaching," "Techniques on Stage," and "Techniques for Video-based Teaching" - online courses), along with my previous experience mentoring and assisting numerous teachers (serving as their teaching coach), I believe that the "Triangle Learning Theory (TLT)" I propose can help everyone teach better and ensure students have a more rewarding learning experience. That's why I persisted in completing this research.

Of course, there's much more to discuss in several hundred pages of a dissertation, but we can save that for later when we have the time.

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