learning theory

Learning theory (education)

In psychology and education, a common definition of learning is a process that brings together cognitive, emotional, and enviromental 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 in what happens when the learning takes place. Explanations of what happens are called 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.

It is also important to take account of informal learning theories, and to consider the philosophical anthropology implied by any theory.


Behavorism as a theory was most developed by B. F. Skinner. It loosely includes the work of such people as 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. 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 performed ) 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, 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 learnt 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 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 punisher is not considered to be punishment 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 behavorists came in a publication in 1929 by Bode, a Gestalt psycologist. He criticised behaviorists for being too dependent on overt behavior to explain learning. Gestalt psycologists proposed looking at the patterns rather than isolated events. Gestalts 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 . For Gestaltists it lies with the individual learner; for behaviorists it lies with the environment.

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 are very useful as they guide the Instructional design.. 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. 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 know also as social constructivism (see social constructivism). Social constructivists posits 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.

Informal and post-modern theories

Informal theories of education deal with more practical breakdown of the learning process. One of these 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. Modern thinkers favor the latter, though without any basis in real world research. Critics believe that trying to teach an overall idea without details (facts) is like trying to build a masonry structure without bricks.

Other concerns are the origins of the drive for learning. To this end, many have split off from the mainstream holding that learning is a primarily self taught thing, and that the ideal learning situation is one that is self taught. According to this dogma, learning at its basic level is all self taught, and class rooms should be eliminated since they do not fit the perfect model of self learning. However, real world results indicate that isolated students fail. Social support seems crucial for sustained learning.

Informal learning theory also concerns itself with book vs real-world experience learning. Many consider most schools severely lacking in the second. Newly emerging hybrid instructional models combining traditional classroom and computer enhanced instruction promise the best of both worlds.

Other learning theories

Other learning theories have also been developed. These learning theories may have a more specific purpose than general learning theories. For example, andragogy is the art and science to help adults learn.

Connectivism is a recent theory of networked learning which focuses on learning as making connections

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

Other interests

Every well-constructed theory of education has at its center a philosophical anthropology.

See also

About accelerating the learning process

About the mechanisms of memory and learning:

About learning theories related to classroom learning:


2-Learning in Adulthood a comprehensive guide by Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, and Lisa M.Baumgartner. Third edition

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