Instructional theory is a field of inquiry that is typically involved with researching and understanding how people learn, in order to make the process of instruction more beneficial for students. It often focuses on younger students and is applied to a number of different educational models and teaching pedagogies. There are two general schools of thought and inquiry with regard to instructional models and structures: cognitive models and behavioral models. Instructional theory is usually targeted toward understanding how information can be taught in a way that is effective. Though student comprehension is important, theories are usually centered more on how information can be taught rather than how it is learned.
While easily confused with teaching pedagogies, instructional theory is not a particular method of teaching or school of thought with regard to how lessons can be taught. It is typically more involved with understanding the process of teaching and how instructions issued by one person can be more fully learned and understood by those who hear it. Teaching pedagogies often spring from and develop based upon various types of instructional theory, but they are not inherently synonymous.
One of the best ways to understand instructional theory is to understand the two most common approaches to this discipline. Cognitive models of instruction typically regard the process of teaching and learning as principally occurring within the mind of the student. This makes any sort of scientific observation or critique of such theories difficult to execute, which can be considered a weakness for this type of instructional theory. While some work can be done to establish observable cognitive development, these studies are often more difficult to execute than others.
Behavioral models, on the other hand, are typically easy to observe and verify through basic scientific inquiry. An instructional theory that utilizes behavioral patterns usually regards the process of teaching and learning as an adjustment to behavior that can be observed. What occurs within the mind of the student is unknown, and therefore can potentially be ignored in favor of what can be witnessed and documented.
A number of different pedagogies have sprung from each type of model, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. One of the distinguishing aspects of a sound instructional theory, however, is that it deals primarily with the role of a teacher. While the student is important, these theories often seek to find the most effective ways for teachers to present information. Developments in such theories have led to some wide-ranging changes in education, including the idea of a teacher as a facilitator for the learning process.