Theories of Learning

When thinking about instruction you cannot help but to think about theories of learning. Learning theories help you, define learning and identify appropriate strategies and methods that can help learning better take place. The core learning theories and what other theories of learning pull from are behavioral, cognitive, and constructivist.


  • Define learning
  • Explain theories of learning
  • Provide meaningful reflection about theories of learning and designing instruction to meet all students needs

Behaviorism, Constructivism, and Connectivism Overview

How does learning occur?
Black box - observable behavior main focus
Structured, computational
Social, meaning created by each learner (personal)
Distributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns
What factors influence learning?
Nature of reward, punishment, stimuli
Existing schema, previous experiences
Engagement, participation, social, cultural
Diversity of network
What is the role of memory?
Memory is the hard wiring of repeated experiences - where reward and punishment are most influential
Encoding, storage, retrieval
Prior knowledge remixed to current context
Adaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks
How does transfer occur?
Stimulus, response
Duplicating knowledge constructs of "knower"
Connecting to (adding nodes)
What types of learning are best explained by this theory?
Task-based learning
Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving
Social, vague ("ill defined")
Complex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources
Source: Ireland, T. (2007)


Learning is a process of associating a stimulus with a response. When this happens, a new behavior is created. Behaviors are strengthened through reinforcements. The learner is passive abula rasa (blank slate) and behavior is shaped by reinforcement. Reinforcements can be either positive or negative. Punishment has the potential to decrease a behavior. Learning is defined as a change in the behavior of the learner.

The video explains behaviorism in education image play_overlay.pngThe techniques of reinforcement and punishment have been employed by teachers in the classrooms since early colonial times to promote desirable behaviors and discourage unwanted behaviors of learners.

  • behavioral contracts
  • behavior modification (encouraging a desired outcome) with the help of reinforcement, punishment and extinction.
  • cueing responses
  • easily measurable.
  • allows for specific learning.
  • easy to incorporate.
  • fails to explain the development.
  • Effect in shaping a behavior of a learner is not taken into account.

Focus on the brain and how it obtains, processes, and stores information. Contrasts with behaviorism by stating that not all learning occurs through shaping and/or changing a behavior. Cognitivism states instead that learners are active participants in their own learning. It also suggests that the brain is similar to a computer - focusing on input, storing, and output of information.

Learning according to cognitivism is shaped through the use of learning strategies and connecting new information to prior knowledge and attitudes. This is called schemes. Teacher-centered approach where teacher organizes and chunks information in order to provide meaningful learning opportunities for students to gain new knowledge. Methods used - problem based - complex problem broken into meaningful chunks.

  • Organized structure to learning through the process of in put and output. Information comes in and is processed in short term memory before it moves into long term memory to be stored for later use.
  • Breaking down (chunking) information into small managable parts allows information to be better processed and stored for later retriveal.

  • Process of learning is very structured, may become difficult for learners to adapt to any changes.


A learner constructs their own knowledge or understanding. This construction takes place by integrating a learners personal experiences and interactions with the outside world into instruction. New information is incorporated into prior attitudes, beliefs, and experiences as references. Learners within this approach are active participants in the construction of knowledge while the teacher main role is as facilitator or guide.

Lev Vygotsky identified the idea of social constructivism. There is a need for social interaction with others to help the learner make meaning with information. Zone of Proximal Development is also important, learners develop a level of meaning on their own but have the potential to develop more meaning through structured interactions with others.
Jean Piaget incorporated the idea of cognitive constructivism into learning. The idea that knowledge is constructed by through the process of assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation is when incoming information is associated with a schema. Accommodation is when incoming information does not match a schema. Thus, the schema must be changed to accommodate this conflict.

  • activities are relevant to the learner and real-world based.
  • Learners construct knowledge and meaning as they can relate new information to their own experiences, beliefs, and attitudes.

  • experiences and attitudes can vary.
  • desired outcome may not always be achieved when different people approach the problem or task.

learners take control of the learning situation through Problem-Based Learning.

Constructivism must be well structured and organized for learners.

Overview of Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism external image play_overlay.png

Vygotsky and Constructivism

Vygotsky's Developmental Theory: An Introduction (Davidson Films) external image play_overlay.png


Knowledge exists outside of the learner through the development and construction of connections between information and knowledge. Connections are made through a learning network. A learner must develop skills around ever changing networks of knowledge. They must identify appropriate connections between concepts and people, remain current, and know accurate and quality information as it changes and evolves.

RSS feeds and social learning tools such as twitter and Facebook are examples of this theory. With the vast amount of information available, learners have the potential to build a learning network that continuously evolves and grows.

  • networked and connected to a variety of sources, information can be obtained easily and instantly.
  • RSS Feeds and other Web 2.0 tools allow for the learner to retrieve the most recent updates to any topic.

  • difficult to determine if a source quality

A summary of connectivism external image play_overlay.png

Further Resources