educational theories

For several years, I was an art teacher and a substitute teacher (K-12). Most of what I remember from my teaching days all those years ago are things like keeping the senior guys in my “easy A” art class (as it turns out, it wasn’t an easy A) from sticking the wooden rulers in the heating unit fan and how using certain epoxies with the seventh graders was always a huge mistake.

But being a teacher is a tremendous life skill, if you ever get a chance to experience it. You lose the fear of speaking in front of groups, you learn to be organized and methodical, and you learn how to talk about something in a way that helps others understand it. You also become aware of the different approaches to educational theory—and that’s what we’re going to take a look at.

Your educational content marketing, after all, is strongly about teaching people. Knowing a bit about educational theories will improve your content marketing. Let’s take a look at the different ways people learn, and how you can tap into that.

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1. Constructivism: Using Our Experiences

In constructivism, we use our own experiences to understand what’s going on around us. Those experiences have taught us what is right and wrong, what works and what doesn’t. We form rules and models on which we base future decisions or behavior.

With constructivism, every experience is an act of learning. Every experience has meaning. What this means is that there is no particular standard that you can hold a group of people to, because a standard simply cannot encompass the broad experiences and interpretations of those experiences.

educational theories

Constructivism can be challenging if your audience is large and varied, because not all will have had the same experiences, and not all will have interpreted those experiences the same way. A tight niche audience, narrowly focused, will learn the same way more regularly.

However, you can tap into constructivism if you can illustrate an experience you had, and interpret the meaning you extracted from it. In this way, you create both a shared experience and understanding of that experience with your reader.

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This is the classic anecdote approach, telling a story at the start of your content, but with a twist: You also have to provide the meaning of the story according to how you want your audience to understand it. Otherwise, they’ll search for a similar experience they’ve had, attach their own meaning, and you’ve lost them.

Apply it to your educational content marketing:

  • Brainstorm how you can create unique and memorable new experiences for your audience with your educational content marketing. Think about using different content types, finding new angles for your stories, and becoming a thought-leader who covers new, oft-ignored topics in your niche.
  • Help your audience understand an experience you had to create a shared understanding. Think about turning those experiences into how-to posts, and what works/what doesn’t stories with big takeaways.

2. Behaviorism: Focusing On Behavior

In behaviorism, the sole focus is on the observation and teaching of behavior. For teachers adhering to behaviorism, they are most concerned that their students acquire the preferred behavior.

Pavlov, for example, and his dogs.

Behaviorism generally uses rewards to produce the preferred behavior, though threats can do the same (albeit with a lower level of actual learning, which we’ll discuss next). In content marketing, the “threat” of scarcity, for example, can really get people to act.

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In some sense, you tap into behaviorism with your copy and especially with your call to action (CTA). You’re not too terribly interested if your readers deeply consider the philosophy of “Buy now!”—you mainly just want to incite the behavior of buying, right now.

A focus on teaching a particular behavior is more subtle, and less overt. This isn’t a how-to approach to content marketing, but is more about writing copy that elicits particular behavior. This means getting people to behave based on conditioning. For example:

“Give us your email and we will give you a free download!”

Screenshot 2015-09-17 11.32.55

CoSchedule’s Resource Library is an example of behaviorism applied to educational content marketing.

 

That is a classic case of rewarding your reader for performing a particular behavior. If the reward is good enough, they’ll trust your future rewards to be worthy of the behavior you ask them to do in order to get them.

This sounds a little crass, admittedly. Your readers aren’t dogs that will eat at the ring of a bell. But all of us are influenced by the reward feedback system, whether we care to admit it or not. Your reward might be:

  • Free download
  • Limited/exclusive access
  • Ad-free/pop-up free access
  • No waiting in a queue
  • Discount pricing

The trick is to use a stimulus before handing out a reward. Otherwise, you train readers to think that they can get great freebies from you, and the moment you decide to start asking for an email address or payment, they will be shocked. And with good reason: You didn’t enforce that behavior up until that moment.

Apply it to your educational content marketing:

  • Use content marketing to incite the behavior you’d like your audience to take. Like Pavlov, you can do this through a rewards system by giving your audience something valuable in exchange for their action.
  • Apply the threat of scarcity to your educational content marketing. This works particularly well when you set up the classic challenge and solution scenario in your content, pinning something like time or money as the motivator to change a behavior.

3. Brain-Based: Your Brain Wants To Work

We all have a brain.

Yes, even that driver you encountered this morning on the ride to the office.

A brain-based approach to learning accepts that our brains want to work. They want to process information, because that is what they are for. A brain-based learning approach accepts that:

  • We have spatial and rote memory, and they work in different ways. (I covered that here.)
  • Our brain creates patterns, both for learning and also to provide understanding. Emotions are key in creating these patterns. (I covered that here.)
  • Learning uses your whole body and all the senses.
  • Learning happens best when we are challenged, not threatened (though “threatening” can spur on behavior, which relates to behaviorism.)
  • Our brain works to understand the whole and the part, and can perform several functions at once (though be wary of thinking this is about multitasking, which will hurt your content marketing.)

So, understanding all of these things about how our brain is working, a brain-based approach to learning makes the experience immersive. You are looking to add context to your content, in other words, whether through audio, visual, or text. You use examples from multiple angles to illustrate a point. You provide peripheral material to support your content. If the brain wants to work, you’re happy to give it something to do.

educational theories

It’s like thinking of the brain as a pincushion, with all of the different pins at an angle trying to find that place in each individual where the brain grabs on and really gets it.

Apply it to your educational content marketing:

  • Brain-based content includes audio, visual, and text-based content to help your audience immerse into your story with many different senses.
  • Include many different examples to illustrate your points to help people learn. Provide immediate, short-, and long-term takeaways.

4. Motivation: We Do What We Want

The motivational approach is in contrast to the behavioral approach. Instead of thinking that you can get people to do things through the proper rewards-based training, you instead accept that people are really going to do what they are motivated to do.

What are your readers already motivated to do? My guess is you have some that are motivated to:

  • Save money
  • Same time
  • Earn money
  • Build a reputation
  • Become better known
  • Get more traffic/followers
  • Become more knowledgeable
  • Connect with others
  • Gain respect of influencers

If you know what motivates your readers (and I’m pretty sure you do—you can get a pretty good idea just reading the comments you hear back from them), then you can funnel that motivation into the behavior that you want from them.

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An important part of understanding motivational learning is that you, the content marketer, must show how what you have to say applies. Remember, motivational learning is not coercion; it is not rewarding behavior, waving a carrot in front of your reader. It relies, instead, on the motivations they already have in them. You have to show them how what you have to say or sell is in tune with that motivation.

For example:

“Save money now!” is OK. It certainly is of interest to those who want to save money.

But…

“Tired of living paycheck to paycheck? Here’s your way out.” is a bit more specific, and taps into a more specific (and deeper) motivation.

educational theories

Plus, it adds an emotional element to it—you’re not only addressing the desire to get ahead financially, but you’re also addressing a fear (“What if I don’t have enough money at the end of the month!?”). Connecting emotionally with your audience breaks down barriers and gets to the heart of what really motivates them better than they even realize. They think they just want to save money, but you know it’s deeper than that.

If true motivational learning is what you’re after (and I’m going to suggest that it isn’t in just a moment), you’ll be doing away with all of your rewards. Your content will be good enough that you can simply ask readers to do the Big Buy-in without dabbling in email addresses and other reward-based training behavior.

Most of us, though, aren’t going for pure motivational-based content. We also like to include behavioral training. Rather than go either/or with behavior and motivation, think of using both. Can you get the right behavior if you tap even just a little bit into a motivation they already have? Can you reward that right behavior and combine reward with motivation for an even stronger conversion? Yes, you can.

Apply it to your educational content marketing:

  • Research your audience’s needs, whether it’s a more formal survey or as colloquial as blog post comments. Then connect those needs into what you truly want to say and the action you want your readers to take.
  • Publish content that resonates emotionally with your audience. How can you really strike a chord that will keep them engaged with your content, products, and brand?

5. Social Cognition: We Do What Others Do

Social cognition learning theory asserts that we learn based on what everyone around us, and our culture, is doing.

educational theories

In this system, people learn by watching others and seeing how they solved problems, or how they behaved. Hierarchy plays into this, with people who are seen as being in authority or more esteemed as having their behavior carry a greater weight as far as meaning or learning potential (which explains the sorry state of influence of reality television from which many have learned from).

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Social cognition also taps into constructivism a bit, the first theory we talked about, in that how we interpret experiences is also heavily influenced by our culture.

In North Dakota, for example, if you have spent an evening with a group of friends, and one of them says “Well, I s’pose…” that means “I suppose it’s time I started for home.” If someone says it, they want the party to be over. From another culture, however, that experience would have a different (if any) meaning.

Now, you can’t really do much to control your audience’s culture, because they are likely spread across many cultures. You can measure it analytically, somewhat, as far as tracking where they are from, what demographic they are in, and so on. But beyond that, your control over their larger culture is pretty limited. Here’s what you can do, however.

  • You can create a micro-culture in your followers. Think of this as your tribe, the people who spend time on your website and social accounts. You can create a culture there with your own traditions, regular features, jargon, expectations, ethos—you get the idea.
  • You can use social proof to indicate a culture preference. Social proof, as I’ve talked about before, is extremely powerful. It reassures your audience that others have trusted you, your content, your product—surely they can, too. You’ve seen this at work, where one dissenter in your comment section is sometimes convinced to change his mind because of other commenters. Call it peer pressure, call it social proof, the key is that those sheer numbers of people doing one thing (commenting! liking! sharing!) indicate a cultural preference within that micro-culture of your brand’s realm. If 10,000 people have downloaded your ebook, make that part of the CTA. Show the cultural trend.

When we’re part of a group, we tend to pick up the thinking cues of the group and adopt them as our own. Sometimes this is not a great thing (such as in brainstorming with your team), but with your readers, it saves you a tremendous amount of work. If you can get the snowball rolling in the right direction, the social cues and nudges will make those who come along to learn later join in much faster than those at the start.

It’s the difference of blogging that first week to a year later. As your audience grows, they start to do some of the work for you.

How Do You Approach Educational Content Marketing?

Some of this sounds a little creepy—“elicit proper behavior!”—but you really shouldn’t see it that way. Learning is more than simply memorizing facts, but covers such a broad range of activity. At the most basic, you’re etching an understanding in someone’s brain, an understanding of information, behavior, and experience.

As a content marketer, you want your readers to learn the right information, but you also want them to learn they can trust you and that they can go to you to make a purchase and not regret it.

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How do you approach your educational content marketing? How do you plan to improve what you’re already doing?