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Modes of Learning Theory

Youwei Yu


Rumelhart and Norman (1978) originally proposed the Modes of Learning Theory (MLT), stating that there are three modes of learning: accretion, structuring, and tuning. Accretion is defined as the addition of new knowledge to existing memory; restructuring involves the formation of new conceptual structures or schema; tuning is the adjustment of knowledge to a specific task, usually through practice. Further, Rumelhart and Norman extended their model to include analogical processes: this suggests that a new schema is created by modeling it on an existing schema and then modifying it based upon further experiences (Rumelhart & Norman, 1981).
Based on Rumelhart and Norman’s statement on MLT, the three concepts mentioned are all related to the learner’s previous experience, prior knowledge, and existing schema. As Ertmer and Newby (1993) stated, the cognitive method is a process that helps learners integrate, organize, and connect new information with previous knowledge, thereby making knowledge more meaningful—usually based on students’ existing mental schema. Therefore, MLT can be could be categorized as a cognitivist theory.

Previous Studies

Norman (1982) integrated MLT into Morse code learning and examined the application of three learning modes in different stages of learning. He discussed the initial learning of the code as the process of accretion; learning to recognize sequences or full words represented restructuring; while the gradual increase in translation or transmission speed indicated the process of tuning. In short, in learning Morse ciphers, the different stages of the process represent different modes. Taking “apple” as an example, the learner needs to learn the Morse codes corresponding to the letters a, e, l, and p first. The existing knowledge is the word, apple, and the new Morse code is learned on this basis. This process is accretion. Further matching each letter to the Morse code to form a complete word is the process of restructuring, and the process of training to improve the speed of recognizing the Morse code for “apple” is tuning.

Similarly, MLT has also been used in vocabulary learning. Gershkoff-Stowe and Hahn (2007) stated that word learning is more than the simple acquisition of information into memory; it also involves the fine-tuning of processes that enable increased accessibility to information. These two examples support the assumption that modes of learning exist in the process of vocabulary learning.

Moreover, MLT has been applied in coaching. Gilbert and Trudel (2005) mentioned that most coaches begin their coaching careers in the acquisition stage of learning and gradually turn to the construction stage of learning. That is to say, this is the process from accretion to restructuring. For example, many new challenges may be encountered during training. For coaches, it is the generation of new knowledge for addressing these challenges that is the process of accretion; by solving these challenges, the coach will form a new mental schema. This new schema is embodied in consistent fixed routines or strategies; this process is called restructuring.

Model of Learning Theory

Figure 1 presents the concepts, constructs, and proposition of MLT.

Modes of Learning Model

Concepts, Construct, and Proposition

The three main concepts in this theory are contained in the model: accretion, restructuring, and tuning (Rumelhart & Norman, 1978). More specifically, these three concepts form a construct, which is modes of learning. Hence, it leads to the proposition that learning happens through three modes—accretion, restructuring, and tuning, so people may learn through one or more than one mode if that opportunity is offered.

Further, this theory also threw light on how these three concepts work. Rumelhart and Norman (1978) stated that accretion exists when the new knowledge matches the previous knowledge/schema; restructuring is the process of reorganizing the existing schema to generate new knowledge; while tuning is to improve accuracy, generalizability and specificity on the basis of existing knowledge. Based on the concepts, construct, and proposition implied by the theory, the model shown in Figure 1 was established.

Using the Model

This model is mainly to enable learners to understand which learning modes they are in, or for educators to predict which learning mode the students are in. For example, when learners first learn the word “spring,” they might think of the season that is warm or from March to May. Then this word is new knowledge added to the learners’ original cognition based upon their memory. Therefore, if learners are learning the word “spring,” they will interpret this word within the learners’ existing schema, but when learners are learning a second meaning of the word—a device that can stretch and bounce–this interpretation and the learners’ original cognition do not match. Thus, learners entered the stage of restructuring. After a long time of practice, such as making sentences or using this word in daily life, learners may use the word flexibly and easily, which is tuning.

It is not difficult to find that in the learning process, according to the individual differences of each student, learners are likely to appear in different learning modes for different items. According to the current literature, the use of MLT has not been widely used in research and the literature examples that can be found are limited; moreover, the extant studies are relatively old. However, teachers and researchers can use this theory to understand students’ modes of learning to a certain extent and people can estimate and determine which mode is in accordance with their stage of learning; this could make learning more efficient. For example, when learning vocabulary, some students have difficulty remembering new words, which indicates that they may be in the accretion mode. Therefore, teachers can use pictures, videos, and other graphics to connect with available memories, such as putting lollipop pictures and the word “lollipop” together. Further, some students may confuse two similar words such as “receipts” and “recipes.” When in the process of restructuring, teachers can show students that the newly learned word “recipe” does not match the original spelling of “receipt.”  For another example, some students know how to read a word, but may find it hard to translate or easy to forget. Such learners might make sentences of these specific words in order to improve their translation speed through fine-tuning. In addition, this theory can also help teachers evaluate students’ content knowledge. For example, in language learning, teachers can test which learning mode students are in through classroom questions, tests, or interviews to adjust their teaching strategies.
From the perspective of researchers, this theory holds some potential to be combined with other learning methods or teaching strategies. This theory can be used in various fields. For example, in the medical field, the process by which doctors learn medical knowledge including professional terms can be investigated. Research can study the time that it takes nurses to skillfully and flexibly give injections to different patients after repeatedly practicing injection and infusion skills. Similarly, in the legal field, research may investigate how lawyers learn legal knowledge, including the laws of different countries and places and then how, according to the classification and analysis of different cases, they can summarize suitable defense routines.


In summary, this chapter explains the origin of MLT, briefly reviews previous research, and provides a model that can be used to explore learners’ learning modes. Students and teachers can use the model to evaluate both teaching and learning strategies; researchers can test the model through a variety of instructional activities and combine the theory with other theories to create strong theoretical models of learning.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993) Behaviorism, cogitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72.

Gershkoff-Stowe, L., & Hahn, E. (2007). Fast mapping skills in the developing lexicon. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 50(3), 682–697.

Gilbert, W., & Trudel, P. (2005). Learning to coach through experience: Conditions that influence reflection. Physical Educator, 62(1), 32–43.

Norman, D. A. (1982).  Learning and memory. W.H. Freeman.

Rumelhart, D. & Norman, D. (1978). Accretion, tuning and restructuring: Three modes of learning. In. J.W. Cotton & R. Klatzky (eds.), Semantic Factors in Cognition. Erlbaum.

Rumelhart, D. E., & Norman, D. A. (1981). Analogical process in learning. In J. H. Anderson (Ed.). Cognitive Skills and Their Acquisition (pp. 335-358). Psychology Press.


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Modes of Learning Theory by Joy Egbert and Mary Roe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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