Learning Theories


Working in the eLearning scene the last ten plus years I have been with a lot of companies who do not fully understand how people “learn”. I was fortunate that I did a psychology subject at university that covered this very topic. Basically, there are four main categories or frameworks under which learning theories fall: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and transformative. 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. Transformative theory is a slightly complex based on all of the others. For those interested, I have written a bit more on each one below.

Behaviorism as a theory was primarily developed by this guy called Skinner. In essence, three things he found linked to learning. 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 a process called 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 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. Then the other form is 2: Operant conditioning. This is where there is re-inforcement of the behavior by a reward or a punishment. 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.

Next is Cognitive theories, they have 2 key assumptions. 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 cognitive psychs and behaviorists is the locus of control over the learning activity: the individual learner is more key than the environment that behaviorists emphasize. 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.

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. Constructivists believe 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, 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.

Transformative learning theory is 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. It has been shown that 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. 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.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.