Communication Theory


Information Transmission


Encoding, transmission, and decoding of information

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … information
  • Knowing is … decoding meaning
  • Learner is … recipient
  • Learning is … receiving meaning
  • Teaching is … encoding




Communication Theory is an umbrella category that collects a variety of models of how people prompt others to think compatible thought. Most of the members of this category assume that communication is a matter of transferring information from a sender who encodes the information and then transmits it via some specified medium to a recipient who decodes it. That is, mdost of these theories assume the Conduit Metaphor:
  • Conduit Metaphor (Conduit Model of Communication) (Michael Reddy, 1970s) – a model of human communication that frames it as a three-step process by which (1) the sender puts thought-objects into word-containers and then (2) shunts those words to a receiver (through some manner of conduit), who (3) extracts the meaning from the word-containers. So framed, all efforts at communication are understood to entail some developmental of miscommunication. Associated constructs include:
    • Interpersonal Gap – the difference between what a “sender” wishes to communicate and what the “recipient” understands
The Conduit Metaphor is evident across many prominent constructs within Communication Theory, which include:
  • Channels of Communication – (1) at the organizational level, the means (e.g., speaking, writing, etc.) and paths (e.g., direct contact, through chains of command, etc.) of communication among members; (2) on the individual level, any mode by which information might pass among people – via., e.g., writing, speaking, gesturing, touching
  • Communication Network – a model of the movement of information in an organization, typically indicating agents, directions, frequencies, and extents
  • Downward Communication – messaging from higher-status positions in an organization to lower-status positions. Such messaging is typically information-focused and directive.
  • Horizontal Communication (Lateral Communication) – messaging among members of an organization who share similar duties and/or ranks
  • Upward Communication – messaging from lower-ranked members of an organization to higher-ranked individuals. Most such messaging involves reporting and accountability.
Examples of Communication Theory (sequenced by decade) include:
  • Laswell’s Model of Communication (Harold Laswell, 1940s) – an analytical model of communicative acts that specifies five elements: Communicator (Who stated it?), Message (What was stated?), Medium (How was is communicated?), Audience (To whom?), and Effect (What was the response?)
  • Osgood–Schramm Model of Communication (Charles Egerton Osgood, Wilbur Schramm, 1950s) – a descriptive model that frames communication as a two-way negotiation of meaning (as opposed to a direct exchange of information). Four components of each communicative act are identified: Sender (encoder of the message), Message (content of the message), Receiver (decoder of the message), and Semantic Barriers (personal influences that affect how the message is interpreted).
  • Helical Model of Communication (Dance’s Helix Model) (Frank Dance, 1960s) – a descriptive model, based on the image of an ever-widening spiral, in which communication is characterized as a gradually elaborative process. Through time and extended engagement, communicators exchange more and more information, enabling deeper understanding and richer personal connections.
Major subcategories of Communication Theory include discourses focused on influence and persuasion, as well as nonverbal aspects of communication:
  • Persuasion Theory (Persuasion; Persuasion Arts) (various. 1930s) – a category of Communication Theory that is focused on influencing the attitudes, thinking, and/or actions of one’s audience. It comes in many forms – including overt (explicit) and covert (implicit), targeted and general, beneficent and exploitative, forcible and gentle. Some specific Persuasion Theories include:
    • Message-Learning Approach (Hovland Model; Yale Attitude Change Approach; Yale Model) (Carl Hovland, 1940s) – a Persuasion Theory that focuses on affecting the learner’s attitude. The model posits a five-step process (Exposure, Attention, Comprehension, Yielding, Retention) and identifies four clusters of factors that determine effectiveness of interventions (Source, Message, Channel, Recipient).
    • Subliminal Persuasion (various, 1950s) – a strategy to influence thinking and attitudes by presenting information in a manner that is available to perception but that does not bubble to the surface of one’s consciousness. There is considerable debate over its effectiveness.
    • Social Judgment Theory (Carolyn Sherif, 1960s) – a Persuasion Theory that assumes one makes an immediate judgment of an idea’s value at the moment of perception. The theory thus focuses on how to frame a message so that the recipient is more likely to assess it positively and, therefore, assimilate its message.
    • Conversion Theory (Conversion Theory of Minor Influence; Minority Influence) (Serge Moscovici, 1970s) – the principle that a consistent minority can have a disproportionate influence on popular opinion, owing mainly to the fact that members of a majority opinion group tend to avoid conflict and thus are less apt to engage critically with novel ideas
    • Dual Process Model of Persuasion – any Persuasion Theory that identifies a pair of complementary processes for assessing the validity of a message. Prominent examples include:
      • Elaboration Likelihood Model (Richard Petty, John Cacioppo, 1980s) – the perspective that there are two main processes of persuasion: (1) a “central route” that is conscious, careful, and reasoned, and (2) a “peripheral route” that is lacks focused and deliberate analysis, operating instead on qualities such as attractiveness, familiarity, or credibility of sources
      • Heuristic-Systematic Model (Shelly Chaiken, 1980s) – a Persuasion Theory focused on how one might assess the validity of the message. Two processes are proposed:
        • Systematic Processing (Shelly Chaiken, 1980s) – assessing the validity of a message by analyzing of all relevant aspects
        • Heuristic Processing (Shelly Chaiken, 1980s) – assessing the validity of a message on the bases of some aspect or subset (e.g., credible source, compelling presentation, positive reviews, etc.)
    • Social Impact Theory (Bibb Latané, 1980s) – a theory intended to gauge “social impact,” which is understood in terms of the influences that people have on one another. A multiplicative model is suggested that combines such factors as persuasiveness, expertise, attractiveness, proximity of personalities, and number of persons engaged.
    • Information Manipulation Theory (Steen McCornack, 1990s) – a Persuasion Theory for examining the ways one might give a compelling-but-false impression to an audience. The theory suggests that the persuasive person can manipulate any of four communication maxims: Quantity (information is complete); Quality (information is accurate); Relation (information is relevant); Manner (information is presented in a comprehensible and coherent way)
    • Amplification Hypothesis (J.J. Clarkson, 2000s) – a cluster of suggestions on triggers that prompt people to harden particular attitudes. For example, acting as though certain about an attitude, or launching an emotional attack on an attitude will serve to trigger audience members to amplify and consolidate that attitude. More uncertain expressions tend to trigger softened attitudes, and cognitive attacks are more effective.
  • Social Influence Theory (Herbert Kelman, 1950s) – the suggestion that one’s perspectives and behaviors are influenced by others and by perceived expectations of a social situation. Three processes are proposed:
    • Compliance (Normative Behavior; Normative Conformity) (Herbert Kelman, 1950s) – the appearance of agreement while maintaining divergent opinions. Many Compliance techniques have been identified, including:
      • Disrupt-then-Reframe Technique (Barbara Price Davis, Eric Knowledge, 1980s) – a two-step Compliance tactic that starts with an odd and confusing request/offer, which is followed by a more sensible phrasing of the same request/offer
      • Door-in-the-Face Technique – a two-step Compliance tactic that starts with an extreme request, which is followed by a more modest (target) request
      • Foot-in-the-Door Technique – a two-step Compliance tactic that starts with a minor opening request, which is followed by a more significant (target) request
      • Low-Ball Technique – a two-step Compliance tactic in which an agreement is secured before hidden costs are revealed
      • That’s-Not-All Technique – a two-step Compliance tactic that involves presenting a substantial initial request, which is followed by a more modest (target) request that includes added features
    • Identification (Herbert Kelman, 1950s) – adopting the manners of a respected person
    • Internalization (Herbert Kelman, 1950s) – enactment of attitudes and/or actions, in both public and private contexts
  • Social Meaning Model (Judee Burgoon, D.A. Newton, 1990s) – a perspective on nonverbal communications that attends to the meaning associated with nonverbal cues, especially those cues that might be interpreted differently by participants and/or that might provide non-explicit information on participants’ beliefs, traits, attitudes, and emotions. Associated discourses include:
    • Expectancy Violations Theory (Judee Burgoon, 1990s) – a perspective focused on predicting and explaining the impact of those nonverbal cues that participants deem either unexpected or inappropriate
  • Weapons of Influence (Robert Beno Cialdini, 1980s) – a distillation of qualities associated with having and exerting influence into six key principles: reciprocity; commitment and consistency; social proof; authority; liking; scarcity


The implicit model of communication within Communication Theory (i.e., the Conduit Metaphor) is a pervasive-but-naïve interpretation of communication in English, one that is knitted through the language and present in everyday habits of communicating about communicating. It is usually implicit, and it’s the one invoked in such common phrases as “putting thoughts into words,” “relaying information,” “channels of communication,” and “unpacking what’s been said.” It is closely aligned with the Acquisition Metaphor, the Construction Metaphor, and other attitudes toward learning associated with a knowledge-as-object metaphor. And it’s decidedly bogus. It in no way exemplifies the actual dynamics of human communication. (To that point, contemporary understandings of communication are more about triggering or activating associations among interlocuters. When compatible webs are triggered for both speaker and hearer, clear communication is assumed to have occurred.)

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Carl Hovland

Status as a Theory of Learning

Communication Theory is not a theory of learning. However, it is closely aligned with many, and perhaps most Folk Theories – including, most obviously, the Acquisition Metaphor and the Construction Metaphor.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While Communication Theory is not a theory of teaching, it is the metaphor of communication that underpins virtually all discourses on teaching associated with Mentalisms.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Like all metaphors, the Conduit Metaphor that infuses most Communication Theory is false, literally speaking. In most circumstances, that fact seems to be inconsequential. However, in the space of formal education, use of the metaphor is indefensible, especially as it prompts attentions and actions toward clarity of teachers’ explanations rather than nature of learners’ interpretations. That is, the discourse is decidedly unscientific.


  • Amplification Hypothesis
  • Channels of Communication
  • Communication Network
  • Compliance (Normative Behavior; Normative Conformity)
  • Conduit Metaphor (Conduit Model of Communication)
  • Conversion Theory (Conversion Theory of Minor Influence; Minority Influence)
  • Downward Communication
  • Dual Process Model of Persuasion
  • Elaboration Likelihood Model
  • Expectancy Violations Theory
  • Helical Model of Communication (Dance’s Helix Model)
  • Heuristic Processing
  • Heuristic-Systematic Model
  • Horizontal Communication (Lateral Communication)
  • Identification
  • Information Manipulation Theory
  • Internalization
  • Interpersonal Gap
  • Laswell’s Model of Communication
  • Message-Learning Approach (Hovland Model; Yale Attitude Change Approach; Yale Model)
  • Osgood–Schramm Model of Communication
  • Persuasion Theory (Persuasion; Persuasion Arts)
  • Social Impact Theory
  • Social Influence Theory
  • Social Judgment Theory
  • Social Meaning Model
  • Subliminal Persuasion
  • Systematic Processing
  • Weapons of Influence
  • Upward Communication

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Communication Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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