Learning theory (education)

Learning theory (education)

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In psychology
Educational psychology
Educational psychology is the study of how humans learn in educational settings, the effectiveness of educational interventions, the psychology of teaching, and the social psychology of schools as organizations. Educational psychology is concerned with how students learn and develop, often focusing...

 and education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

, 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, 2004; Ormrod, 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
Behaviorism , also called the learning perspective , is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things that organisms do—including acting, thinking, and feeling—can and should be regarded as behaviors, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior...

, cognitivism
Cognitivism (psychology)
In psychology, cognitivism is a theoretical framework for understanding the mind that came into usage in the 1950s. The movement was a response to behaviorism, which cognitivists said neglected to explain cognition...

, and constructivism
Constructivism (learning theory)
Constructivism is a theory of knowledge that argues that humans generate knowledge and meaning from an interaction between their experiences and their ideas. During infancy, it was an interaction between human experiences and their reflexes or behavior-patterns. Piaget called these systems of...

. 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.

Merriam and Caffarella (1991) highlight four approaches or orientations to learning: Behaviourist, Cognitivist, Humanist, and Social/Situational. These approaches involve contrasting ideas as to the purpose and process of learning and education - and the role that educators may take.


Behaviorism as a theory was primarily developed by B. F. Skinner. It loosely encompasses the work of people like Edward Thorndike
Edward Thorndike
Edward Lee "Ted" Thorndike was an American psychologist who spent nearly his entire career at Teachers College, Columbia University. His work on animal behavior and the learning process led to the theory of connectionism and helped lay the scientific foundation for modern educational psychology...

, Tolman, Guthrie, and Hull. What characterizes these investigators are their underlying assumptions about the process of learning. In essence, three basic assumptions are held to be true. 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:

1) Classical conditioning
Classical conditioning
Classical conditioning is a form of conditioning that was first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov...

, where the behavior becomes a reflex response to stimulus as in the case of Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a famous Russian physiologist. Although he made significant contributions to psychology, he was not in fact a psychologist himself but was a mathematician and actually had strong distaste for the field....

'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.

2) Operant conditioning
Operant conditioning
Operant conditioning is a form of psychological learning during which an individual modifies the occurrence and form of its own behavior due to the association of the behavior with a stimulus...

 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
Radical behaviorism
Radical behaviorism is a philosophy developed by B.F. Skinner that underlies the experimental analysis of behavior approach to psychology. The term radical behaviorism applies to a particular school that emerged during the reign of 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.

Since behaviorists view the learning process as a change in behavior, educators arrange the environment to elicit desired responses through such devices as behavioral objectives, competency -based education, and skill development and training.

Educational approaches such as applied behavior analysis
Applied Behavior Analysis
Applied behavior analysis is a science that involves using modern behavioral learning theory to modify behaviors. Behavior analysts reject the use of hypothetical constructs and focus on the observable relationship of behavior to the environment...

, curriculum based measurement, and direct instruction
Direct instruction
Direct Instruction is an instructional method that is focused on systematic curriculum design and skillful implementation of a prescribed behavioral script....

 have emerged from this model.


The earliest challenge to the behaviorists came in a publication in 1929 by Bode, a gestalt
Gestalt psychology
Gestalt psychology or gestaltism is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School; the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies...

 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: (1) that the memory system is an active organized processor of information and (2) 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
Working memory
Working memory has been defined as the system which actively holds information in the mind to do verbal and nonverbal tasks such as reasoning and comprehension, and to make it available for further information processing...

 model were established as a theoretical framework in cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology exploring internal mental processes.It is the study of how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems.Cognitive psychology differs from previous psychological approaches in two key ways....

, new cognitive frameworks of learning began to emerge during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Today, researchers are concentrating on topics like cognitive load
Cognitive load
The term cognitive load is used in cognitive psychology to illustrate the load related to the executive control of working memory . Theories contend that during complex learning activities the amount of information and interactions that must be processed simultaneously can either under-load, or...

 and information processing
Information processing
Information processing is the change of information in any manner detectable by an observer. As such, it is a process which describes everything which happens in the universe, from the falling of a rock to the printing of a text file from a digital computer system...

 theory. These theories of learning play a role in influencing instructional design
Instructional design
Instructional Design is the practice of creating "instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing." The process consists broadly of determining the current state and needs of the learner, defining the end goal of instruction, and...

. Aspects of cognitivism can be found in learning how to learn, social role acquisition, intelligence, learning, and memory as related to age.

Educators employing a cognitivist approach to learning would view learning as internal mental process (including insight, information processing, memory, perception) where in order to develop learner capacity and skills to improve learning, the educator structures content of learning activities to focus on building intelligence and cognitive and meta-cognitive development.


The learning theories of Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey serve as the foundation of constructivist learning theory. 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".
Constructivism itself has many variations, such as Active learning
Active learning
Active learning is an umbrella term that refers to several models of instruction that focus the responsibility of learning, on learners. Bonwell and Eison popularized this approach to instruction . This "buzz word" of the 1980s became their 1990s report to the Association for the Study of Higher...

, discovery learning
Discovery learning
Discovery Learning is a method of inquiry-based instruction and is considered a constructivist based approach to education. It is supported by the work of learning theorists and psychologists Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Seymour Papert...

, and knowledge building
Knowledge building
The Knowledge Building theory was created and developed by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia for describing what a community of learners needs to accomplish in order to create knowledge...

. 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.

Informal and post-modern theories

Informal theories of education breaks down the learning process, learning authentically and with practicality. One theory deals with whether learning should take place as a building of concepts toward an overall idea, or the understanding of the overall idea with the details filled in later. In Marzano’s restructuring knowledge the informal curriculum promotes the use of prior knowledge to help students gain big ideas and concept understanding. This theory states that new knowledge cannot be told to students, rather student’s current knowledge must be challenged. By challenging student’s current ideas, students can adjust their ideas to more closely resemble actual theories or concepts. By using this method students gain the big idea taught and later are more willing to learn and keep the specifics of the concept or theory taught. This theory further aligns with the studies of Brown and Ryoo, who support that teaching concepts and the language of a subject should be split into multiple steps.

Other informal learning concerns regard sources of motivation for learning. Deci argues that intrinsic motivation creates a more self-regulated learner yet schools undermine intrinsic motivation. This is not ideal for learning. Critics argue that average students learning in isolation perform significantly lower than those learning with collaboration and mediation. Students learn through talk, discussion, and argumentation.

Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative learning theory [explains the] process of constructing and appropriating new
and revised interpretations of the meaning of an experience in the world. Transformative learning is the cognitive process of effecting change in a frame of reference although it is recognized that important emotional changes are often involved. These frames of reference define our view of the world and we have a tendency as adults to reject or deem unworthy any ideas that do not ascribe to our particular values, associations, concepts,etc. Our frames of reference are composed of two dimensions: habits of mind and points of view. Habits of mind, such as ethnocentrism, are more fixed and influence our point of view and the resulting thoughts or feelings associated with them, whereas points of view may change over time as a result of influences such as reflection, appropriation and feedback. Transformative learners utilize discourse as a means of critically examination and reflection “devoted to assessing reasons presented in support of competing interpretations, by critically examining evidence, arguments, and alternative points of view.” When circumstances permit, transformative learners move toward a frame of reference that is more inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective, and integrative of experience. Transformative learning leads to autonomous and responsible thinking which is essential for full citizenship in democracy and for moral decision making in situations of rapid change.

Other learning theories

Educational Neuroscience or Neuroeducation is an emerging new learning theory. Prestigious universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, USC and others are now offering programs dedicated to neuroeducation and are developing majors and degrees in the field. It is founded on connecting what we know about how the brain processes and stores information with classroom instruction and experiences . Neuroeducation analyzed the biological change in the brain as new information is processed and looks at what environmental, emotional, social situations are best in order for the new information to be processed. It further analyzes under what conditions the brain stores information and links it to other neurons versus simply determining that the information is non-essential to store and hence reabsorbs the dendrite and dismisses the information.

Radin points out that the examination of the art and science of teaching was further accelerated by President G.H. Bush when he declared the 1990s as the Decade of the Brain. The integration and application of what we know about the brain was strengthened in 2000 when the American Federation of Teachers stated, It is vital that we identify what science tells us about how people learn in order to improve the education curriculum . Rowland discusses that what is exciting about this new field in education is that modern brain imaging techniques now make it possible, in some sense, to watch the brain as it learns. As academic language and learning (ALL) educators often work with students on improving their approaches to learning, the question then arises: can the results of neuro-scientific studies of brains as they are learning usefully inform practice in this area? Although the field of neuroscience is young, it is expected that with new technologies and ways of observing learning, the paradigms of what students need and how students learn best will be further refined with actual scientific evidence. In particular, students who may have learning disabilities will be taught with strategies that engage their brain and makes the connections needed.

Other learning theories have also been developed for more specific purposes than general learning theories. For example, andragogy
Andragogical learning theory
Andragogical learning theoryBeginning in the 1950s Malcolm Knowles developed a new theory - which he called "Andragogy" - in the context of adult learners. This is often contrasted with the child's learning methods - pedagogical learning....

 is the art and science to help adults learn.

Connectivism (learning theory)
Connectivism was introduced as a theory of learning based on the premise that knowledge exists in the world rather than in the head of an individual....

 is a recent theory of Networked learning
Networked learning
Networked learning is a process of developing and maintaining connections with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another's learning.The central term in this definition is connections...

 which focuses on learning as making connections.

Multimedia learning
Multimedia learning
Multimedia learning is the common name used to describe the cognitive theory of multimedia learning This theory encompasses several principles of learning with multimedia.-The Modality principle:...

 theory focuses on principles for the effective use of multimedia in learning.


Criticism of learning theories that underlie traditional education
Traditional education
Traditional education or back-to-basics refers to long-established customs found in schools that society has traditionally deemed appropriate. Some forms of education reform promote the adoption of progressive education practices, a more holistic approach which focuses on individual students'...

al practices claims there is no need for such a theory; that the attempt to comprehend the process of learning through theory construction creates more problems and inhibits personal freedom.

Other interests

Every well-constructed theory of education has at its center a philosophical anthropology
Philosophical anthropology
Philosophical anthropology is a discipline dealing with questions of metaphysics and phenomenology of the human person, and interpersonal relationships. It is the attempt to unify disparate ways of understanding behaviour of humans as both creatures of their social environments and creators of...


See also

  • Cultural-historical psychology
    Cultural-historical psychology
    Cultural-historical psychology is a theory of psychology founded by Lev Vygotsky at the end of the 1920s and developed by his students and followers in...

  • Instructional theory
    Instructional theory
    An Instructional theory is "a theory that offers explicit guidance on how to better help people learn and develop." Instructional theories focus on how to structure material for promoting the education of human beings, particularly youth...

  • Instructional design
    Instructional design
    Instructional Design is the practice of creating "instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing." The process consists broadly of determining the current state and needs of the learner, defining the end goal of instruction, and...

  • Kinesthetic learning
    Kinesthetic learning
    Kinesthetic learning is a learning style in which learning takes place by the student actually carrying out a physical activity, rather than listening to a lecture or merely watching a demonstration. It is also referred to as tactile learning...

  • Science, technology, society and environment education
    Science, technology, society and environment education
    Science, technology, society and environment education, originates from the science technology and society movement in science education. This is an outlook on science education that emphasizes the teaching of scientific and technological developments in their cultural, economic, social and...

  • Andragogical learning theory
    Andragogical learning theory
    Andragogical learning theoryBeginning in the 1950s Malcolm Knowles developed a new theory - which he called "Andragogy" - in the context of adult learners. This is often contrasted with the child's learning methods - pedagogical learning....

  • Connectivism (learning theory)
    Connectivism (learning theory)
    Connectivism was introduced as a theory of learning based on the premise that knowledge exists in the world rather than in the head of an individual....

About accelerating the learning process
  • spaced repetition
    Spaced repetition
    Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material; this exploits the psychological spacing effect...

  • incremental reading
    Incremental reading
    Incremental reading is a method for learning and retaining information from reading that might otherwise be forgotten. It is particularly targeted to people who are trying to learn a large amount of information at once, particularly if that information is varied.Incremental reading works by...

About the mechanisms of memory
In psychology, memory is an organism's ability to store, retain, and recall information and experiences. Traditional studies of memory began in the fields of philosophy, including techniques of artificially enhancing memory....

 and learning:
  • neural network
    Neural network
    The term neural network was traditionally used to refer to a network or circuit of biological neurons. The modern usage of the term often refers to artificial neural networks, which are composed of artificial neurons or nodes...

    s in the brain
    Human brain
    The human brain has the same general structure as the brains of other mammals, but is over three times larger than the brain of a typical mammal with an equivalent body size. Estimates for the number of neurons in the human brain range from 80 to 120 billion...

  • sleep and learning
    Sleep and learning
    Many competing theories have been advanced to discover the possible connections between sleep and learning in humans. One theory is that sleep consolidates and optimizes the layout of memories, though recent evidence suggests this may be restricted to implicit procedural memories.-Increased...

  • latent learning
    Latent learning
    Latent learning is a form of learning that is not immediately expressed in an overt response; it occurs without obvious reinforcement to be applied later....

  • memory consolidation
    Memory consolidation
    Memory consolidation is a category of processes that stabilize a memory trace after the initial acquisition. Consolidation is distinguished into two specific processes, synaptic consolidation, which occurs within the first few hours after learning, and system consolidation, where...

  • short-term memory
    Short-term memory
    Short-term memory is the capacity for holding a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time. The duration of short-term memory is believed to be in the order of seconds. A commonly cited capacity is 7 ± 2 elements...

     versus working memory
    Working memory
    Working memory has been defined as the system which actively holds information in the mind to do verbal and nonverbal tasks such as reasoning and comprehension, and to make it available for further information processing...

  • long-term memory
    Long-term memory
    Long-term memory is memory in which associations among items are stored, as part of the theory of a dual-store memory model. According to the theory, long term memory differs structurally and functionally from working memory or short-term memory, which ostensibly stores items for only around 20–30...

  • declarative memory
    Declarative memory
    Declarative memory is one of two types of long term human memory. It refers to memories which can be consciously recalled such as facts and knowledge. Its counterpart is known as non-declarative or Procedural memory, which refers to unconscious memories such as skills...

     versus procedural memory
    Procedural memory
    Procedural memory is memory for how to do things. Procedural memory guides the processes we perform and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved...

  • the cerebellum
    The cerebellum is a region of the brain that plays an important role in motor control. It may also be involved in some cognitive functions such as attention and language, and in regulating fear and pleasure responses, but its movement-related functions are the most solidly established...

     and motor learning
    Motor learning
    Motor learning is a “relatively permanent” change, resulting from practice or a novel experience, in the capability for responding...

About learning theories related to classroom learning:
  • Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 2: The Learning Process

  • Learning by teaching
    Learning by teaching
    In professional education, learning by teaching designates currently the method by Jean-Pol Martin that allows pupils and students to prepare and to teach lessons, or parts of lessons...

Further reading

  • David C. Leonard (2002), Learning Theories A–Z. Greenwood. ISBN 1573564133. Google books

External links