Learning Theories


In psychology and education, learning is commonly defined as a process that brings together cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences and experiences for acquiring, enhancing, or making changes in one’s knowledge, skills, values, and world views (Illeris, 2000; Ormorod, 1995). Learning as a process focuses on what happens when the learning takes place. Explanations of what happens constitute learning theories. A learning theory is an attempt to describe how people and animals learn, thereby helping us understand the inherently complex process of learning. Learning theories have two chief values according to Hill (2002). One is in providing us with vocabulary and a conceptual framework for interpreting the examples of learning that we observe. The other is in suggesting where to look for solutions to practical problems. The theories do not give us solutions, but they do direct our attention to those variables that are crucial in finding solutions.

There are three main categories or philosophical frameworks under which learning theories fall: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Behaviorism focuses only on the objectively observable aspects of learning. Cognitive theories look beyond behavior to explain brain-based learning. And constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts.


Behavorism as a theory was primarily developed by B. F. Skinner. It loosely encompasses the work of people like Edward Thorndike, Tolman, Guthrie, and Hull. What characterizes these investigators is their underlying assumptions about the process of learning. In essence, three basic assumptions are held to be true.[original research?] First, learning is manifested by a change in behavior. Second, the environment shapes behavior. And third, the principles of contiguity (how close in time two events must be for a bond to be formed) and reinforcement (any means of increasing the likelihood that an event will be repeated) are central to explaining the learning process. For behaviorism, learning is the acquisition of new behavior through conditioning.

There are two types of possible conditioning:


  • Classical conditioning, where the behavior becomes a reflex response to stimulus as in the case of Pavlov’s Dogs. Pavlov was interested in studying reflexes, when he saw that the dogs drooled without the proper stimulus. Although no food was in sight, their saliva still dribbled. It turned out that the dogs were reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs were served food, the person who served the food was wearing a lab coat. Therefore, the dogs reacted as if food was on its way whenever they saw a lab coat.In a series of experiments, Pavlov then tried to figure out how these phenomena were linked. For example, he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close association with their meal, the dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.
  • Operant conditioning where there is reinforcement of the behavior by a reward or a punishment. The theory of operant conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner and is known as Radical Behaviorism. The word ‘operant’ refers to the way in which behavior ‘operates on the environment’. Briefly, a behavior may result either in reinforcement, which increases the likelihood of the behavior recurring, or punishment, which decreases the likelihood of the behavior recurring. It is important to note that, a punishment is not considered to be applicable if it does not result in the reduction of the behavior, and so the terms punishment and reinforcement are determined as a result of the actions. Within this framework, behaviorists are particularly interested in measurable changes in behavior.


Educational approaches such as applied behavior analysis, curriculum based measurement, and direct instruction have emerged from this model.


The earliest challenge to the behaviorists came in a publication in 1929 by Bode, a gestalt psychologist. He criticized behaviorists for being too dependent on overt behavior to explain learning. Gestalt psychologists proposed looking at the patterns rather than isolated events. Gestalt views of learning have been incorporated into what have come to be labeled cognitive theories.

Two key assumptions underlie this cognitive approach:

  • that the memory system is an active organized processor of information
  • that prior knowledge plays an important role in learning

Cognitive theories look beyond behavior to explain brain-based learning. Cognitivists consider how human memory works to promote learning. For example, the physiological processes of sorting and encoding information and events into short term memory and long term memory are important to educators working under the cognitive theory. The major difference between gestaltists and behaviorists is the locus of control over the learning activity: the individual learner is more key to gestaltists than the environment that behaviorists emphasize.

Once memory theories like the Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model and Baddeley’s working memory model were established as a theoretical framework in cognitive psychology, new cognitive frameworks of learning began to emerge during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Today, researchers are concentrating on topics like cognitive load and information processing theory. These theories of learning play a role in influencing instructional design.[citation needed] Aspects of cognitivism can be found in learning how to learn, social role acquisition, intelligence, learning, and memory as related to age.


Constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge or experience. In other words, “learning involves constructing one’s own knowledge from one’s own experiences.” Constructivist learning, therefore, is a very personal endeavor, whereby internalized concepts, rules, and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world context. This is also known as social constructivism (see social constructivism). Social constructivists posit that knowledge is constructed when individuals engage socially in talk and activity about shared problems or tasks.

Learning is seen as the process by which individuals are introduced to a culture by more skilled members (Driver et al., 1994) Constructivism itself has many variations, such as Active learning, discovery learning, and knowledge building. Regardless of the variety, constructivism promotes a student’s free exploration within a given framework or structure. The teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems. Aspects of constructivism can be found in self-directed learning, transformational learning, experiential learning, situated cognition, and reflective practice and religious practice.

source : wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_theories)