Fundamental Theories of Learning

December 20, 2022

What are the major learning theories used to explain education, and how can you embrace these in your classroom?

Course Enquiry

What is a Theory of Learning?

The way in which human beings learn has been theorised for hundreds of years through various domains such as philosophy, educational psychology and biology. Understanding the cognitive architecture behind the learning process is an essential part of developing conceptual knowledge of teaching.

Historically, psychology has been where we have found some of the most profound answers about the process of learning. Recent theories, such as dual coding and cognitive load theory provide educators with practical guidance on how to prepare lessons and facilitate effective educational activities.

Learning is not just about cognition, there is a complex interplay of different emotional, social and behavioural components. In this article, we will outline some of the major theories that you will encounter on within your academic studies or journey of becoming a teacher.

Some of these theories of learning might now seem outdated, but their historical significance remains an integral part of any psychology degree or teacher training course.

Every student is unique and will process new ideas in slightly different ways. Whether you are an advocate of learning styles or subscribe to more evidence-informed cognitive research, we must always consider neurodiversity when thinking about education.

Because the human brain is unique, and different experiences contribute differently to learning, we must refrain from narrowing our perspective of learning. Educational Psychology experts have spent a lot of time discovering how people learn and this has been explained through different domains such as behavioural sciences and cognition research.

An effective educator will have a wide repertoire of different methods of teaching and learning. Teachers might need to adopt different learning theories when considering the broad range of circumstances we face daily.

The following are five of the most significant educational learning theories that teachers may use to create inclusive learning environments in the classroom and improve students' classroom learning.

What are the most significant learning theories in education?

 

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive learning theories focus on the way individuals think. Mental processes play an important part in learning. According to cognitive theory, students can be impacted by external and internal factors.

Descartes and Plato were the first philosophers to focus on cognition. Researchers such as Jean Piaget made significant contributions to cognitive psychology. These contributions have shaped many aspects of modern society, including educational reform and the early years of education. His work had many overlapping domains but had a significant focus on how internal structures and environments impact the learning process.

According to cognitive theory, both external forces and inner thoughts are significant elements of cognition. As learners understand how their thought, metacognitive processes and parasocial processes impact their behavior and learning process, they develop more control over it (self-regulation).

The Cognitive Theory explains how learners build their understanding of their thinking process and how this enables them to understand new ideas. Cognitive psychology proposes that teachers must provide their students with opportunities for cognitive development through techniques such as thinking out loud and asking questions in the classroom.

These methods will allow learners to understand their thinking process, and use this knowledge to create better learning opportunities.

Metacognition refers to the ability to monitor one's own thoughts and actions. This includes self-awareness, insight, and reflection. These metacognitive processes allow us to understand our own thought patterns and behaviours.

For example, if someone asks me a question I don't know the answer to, I'll ask myself questions like 'what am I doing?', 'why am I asking this person?' and 'is my behaviour appropriate?' before answering the question.

Cognitive learning theory
Cognitive learning theory

Behaviourism Learning Theory

Behaviourism learning theory is based on the idea that a learner is like a blank slate and how he behaves depends on his interaction with his environment. Behaviourism learning theory suggests that behaviors are learned and influenced by external forces.

Educational psychologists have been broadening the concept of behaviorism. Behaviorism is the foundation for psychology that can be quantified and observed. Positive reinforcement is a prominent component of behaviorism - classical conditioning examined in dog experiments by Pavlov. Theories of classical conditioning implies that behaviors are directly affected by the reward system that can be achieved.

Teachers may utilize positive reinforcement for assisting pupils learn better. When learners receive positive reinforcement, they will possibly retain information and move forward, a direct outcome of the behavioral learning theory.

Constructivism Learning Theory

This theory is based on the concept that students create their learning experiences based on their previous knowledge. When students receive new information, they build the new learning onto their past knowledge and experiences, making a reality which is unique to the students.

Constructivism learning theory considers learning as an active process, which is individual and personal for every single student.

Constructivism allows teachers to understand that each student brings past knowledge to the classroom. Educators in constructivist conditions of learning perform the role of a guide to helping learners build their understanding and learning.

They allow students to establish their reality and process based on past experiences. This is important for enabling students to bring their knowledge and use it in their future learning practices.

Constructivist learning theory
Constructivist learning theory

Humanism Learning Theory

Humanism Learning Theory is very much similar to constructivism. Humanism directly concentrates on the concept of self-actualization. Everyone operates under a hierarchy of needs, and self-actualization is at its top.

These are the moments in which someone feels that all of their demands have been fulfilled and that they are the most favorable version of themselves. All are willing to accomplish this, and learning environments may either help meet needs or move away from fulfilling needs.

Teachers may establish classroom conditions of learning that allow students to get nearer to their self-actualization using creative, self-expressing learning activities.

Educators may also help students’ meet their physical and emotional requirements, offering them a comfortable and safe place to learn, with enough food, and the desired support to succeed. This type of environment is the most facilitative to enabling students to learn.

Connectivism Learning Theory

Connectivism Learning Theory goes someway to help us understand the implications of digital educational technologies in the classroom. The idea goes some way to help us think about how information that exists outside of our immediate learning environment forms an integral part of the learning process.

George Siemens first wrote the article that led to this theory. The idea helps us think about knowledge as a connected network of ideas that lives beyond the immediate classroom.

As learning is a cognitive process that happens inside our heads, we also need a stimulus to think with, which increasingly resides in networks across digital platforms.

Teachers may use connectivism in a classroom to support students create connections with the objects that excite them, which will help them learn. Teachers may use digital technologies to create good, positive connections with learning.

Digital technologies may help build relationships and connections with the learners and with their peer groups to make learners feel enthusiastic about learning.

Additional Learning Theories to consider

The above five theories of learning consider the major ways we have historically explained the process of learning for educators who wish to support their students’ learning. There are also some good supplemental theories teachers may wish to use to support students in a classroom.

Similarities of learning theories
Similarities of learning theories

Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative learning theory was proposed by the Educational Theorist Jack Mezirow, after researching adult female students who were returning to school. This theory of learning offers an unique approach to adults in education and learning. This learning theory is based on the concept that students may modify their thinking based on new knowledge.

The Educational Theorist Mezirow believed that learners have crucial opportunities linked to their previous experiences and that critical review and reflection may lead to their knowledge transformation.

This strategy is more helpful for adult students, as young learners don’t have the same type of transformation or learning experience. According to this theory, people's worldview is enhanced by their learning, which helps them to understand new ideas and concepts.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory can be used as useful equipment for controlling learners who cause disruption in the classroom. This theory concentrates on the idea of children learning by observing others. For instance, a student may see a class fellow asking for something politely and get that, or maybe a student hears another class fellow talking about a new topic, which teaches him something new even if it's not something he has tried himself.

In this instance, we are effectively treating students as educational resources.

Social learning theory was proposed by Albert Bandura. During the 1960s, he performed the Bobo doll experiment and observed children’s behavior after watching an adult violently treating a doll-like toy. He documented the children's reaction when the aggressive adult was punished, rewarded, or faced no outcomes after attacking the doll.

Social Learning Theory has the following 4 elements:

  1. Attention: The lessons must be unique or with unique activities to enable children to focus.
  2. Retention: The students must internalize information to be able to recall it afterwards.
  3. Reproduction: The student must apply previously learned behavior when it is applicable.
  4. Motivation: The students are motivated by seeing other class fellows being punished or rewarded for different conducts.

Experiential Learning Theory

Experiential learning theory concentrates on learning by doing and motivates learning through experiences that will help students recall memories and retain details.

In 1984, David Kolb put forward the Experiential learning theory. Though Kolb's influence came from other theorists such as Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, and John Dewey, he identified 4 stages of Experiential Learning Theory.

  1. Diverging. The diverging learning style involves learners seeing things from a different perspective. They mostly concentrate on reflective observation and concrete learning, wanting to see and observe the situation before getting involved.
  2. Assimilating. This stage involves students receiving implicit information. These students prefer abstracts and concepts to people and analyze using analytic models. These students focus on reflective observation and abstract conceptualization in the experiential learning style.
  3. Converging. Converging students are problem solvers. They prefer technical tasks and use their learning for practical issues. They like to try new ideas, and their learning concentrates on active experimentation and abstract conceptualization.
  4. Accommodating: At this stage, students embrace practicality. They use intuition to solve problems and enjoy new challenges. These students use active experimentation and concrete learning while learning.

An example of experiential learning is to grow a garden to learn about plants instead of watching educational videos about it.

Comparing learning theories
Comparing learning theories

Implementing theories of learning in the classroom

Without an underlying theory of the learning process, educators would find it problematic to design effective classroom instruction. These theoretical arguments also have implications for digital learning materials and the design of multimedia learning.

As well as affecting how we think about educational technology, these key figures in educational research can help us reframe how we think about pedagogy.

Educators might create particular methods to apply these theories of learning in the classroom. For example, they may use educational video games to teach a specific topic. It is important that teachers have a well-rounded knowledge of these learning theories so that we can create purposeful classroom experiences.

Understanding these theories can be developed through CPD, and it's always useful to revisit historical perspectives to help shape our own philosophies of education.

Knowledge of different theories of learning allows teachers to connect to each student in their classroom. Teachers may use different learning styles or educational technologies to teach, making education more inclusive and multisensory.

Theoretical terminology used to explain learning

What is Proximal Development?

Proximal development is a concept of learning theory based on the idea that learners can achieve more complex end results when support and guidance are provided during their learning process.

Proximal development theory states that learners benefit from having a mentor or teacher provide scaffolding as they progress in their knowledge.

What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding consists of providing explanations, leading questions, and support through demonstrations or models that allow learners to build on existing knowledge by linking new information with prior understanding.

The theory of proximal development suggests that while a learner's current abilities should form the basis for instruction and practice, it also allows them to acquire new skills faster.

What is Cognitive Architecture?

Cognitive architecture is a theory of learning which attempts to explain how the human mind acquires and processes information. This involves analyzing the different types of mental activity that underlie learning and decision-making, as well as exploring their implications for the design of educational materials and systems.

It's based on the idea that cognitive processes can be broken down into small, manageable steps or ‘chunks’ which are repeated to eventually build up more complex behaviours. Within cognitive architecture, attention is paid to how people take in new information, store it, use existing knowledge to build up new skills, and react to stimuli in their environment—all of which contribute to successful learning outcomes.

What is Educational Technology?

Educational technology is any form of technology that is designed to support and enhance learning processes. It can include tools such as computers and software, online learning platforms, virtual classrooms, visual aids and multimedia resources.

Educational technology enables educators to provide a more inclusive and engaging learning experience for their students by helping them access new educational opportunities or materials. By using educational technology, teachers can also assess student understanding more effectively in order to tailor lesson plans for individuals or groups.

The use of educational technology has been shown to increase learner engagement and improve academic performance across different subject areas.

What is Educational Psychology?

Educational psychology is the science of studying how individuals learn in different environments and settings. It deals with how people think, how they respond to their environment, and how they interact with others.

Educational psychologists consider various aspects such as human development and learning theories as they study the cognitive processes that may affect the effectiveness of instruction.

It also examines motivation, attention, memory, emotion, creativity, problem-solving skills and behavior management. With this knowledge, educational psychology contributes to the design of more effective learning strategies for both students and teachers.

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Big Ideas

What is a Theory of Learning?

The way in which human beings learn has been theorised for hundreds of years through various domains such as philosophy, educational psychology and biology. Understanding the cognitive architecture behind the learning process is an essential part of developing conceptual knowledge of teaching.

Historically, psychology has been where we have found some of the most profound answers about the process of learning. Recent theories, such as dual coding and cognitive load theory provide educators with practical guidance on how to prepare lessons and facilitate effective educational activities.

Learning is not just about cognition, there is a complex interplay of different emotional, social and behavioural components. In this article, we will outline some of the major theories that you will encounter on within your academic studies or journey of becoming a teacher.

Some of these theories of learning might now seem outdated, but their historical significance remains an integral part of any psychology degree or teacher training course.

Every student is unique and will process new ideas in slightly different ways. Whether you are an advocate of learning styles or subscribe to more evidence-informed cognitive research, we must always consider neurodiversity when thinking about education.

Because the human brain is unique, and different experiences contribute differently to learning, we must refrain from narrowing our perspective of learning. Educational Psychology experts have spent a lot of time discovering how people learn and this has been explained through different domains such as behavioural sciences and cognition research.

An effective educator will have a wide repertoire of different methods of teaching and learning. Teachers might need to adopt different learning theories when considering the broad range of circumstances we face daily.

The following are five of the most significant educational learning theories that teachers may use to create inclusive learning environments in the classroom and improve students' classroom learning.

What are the most significant learning theories in education?

 

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive learning theories focus on the way individuals think. Mental processes play an important part in learning. According to cognitive theory, students can be impacted by external and internal factors.

Descartes and Plato were the first philosophers to focus on cognition. Researchers such as Jean Piaget made significant contributions to cognitive psychology. These contributions have shaped many aspects of modern society, including educational reform and the early years of education. His work had many overlapping domains but had a significant focus on how internal structures and environments impact the learning process.

According to cognitive theory, both external forces and inner thoughts are significant elements of cognition. As learners understand how their thought, metacognitive processes and parasocial processes impact their behavior and learning process, they develop more control over it (self-regulation).

The Cognitive Theory explains how learners build their understanding of their thinking process and how this enables them to understand new ideas. Cognitive psychology proposes that teachers must provide their students with opportunities for cognitive development through techniques such as thinking out loud and asking questions in the classroom.

These methods will allow learners to understand their thinking process, and use this knowledge to create better learning opportunities.

Metacognition refers to the ability to monitor one's own thoughts and actions. This includes self-awareness, insight, and reflection. These metacognitive processes allow us to understand our own thought patterns and behaviours.

For example, if someone asks me a question I don't know the answer to, I'll ask myself questions like 'what am I doing?', 'why am I asking this person?' and 'is my behaviour appropriate?' before answering the question.

Cognitive learning theory
Cognitive learning theory

Behaviourism Learning Theory

Behaviourism learning theory is based on the idea that a learner is like a blank slate and how he behaves depends on his interaction with his environment. Behaviourism learning theory suggests that behaviors are learned and influenced by external forces.

Educational psychologists have been broadening the concept of behaviorism. Behaviorism is the foundation for psychology that can be quantified and observed. Positive reinforcement is a prominent component of behaviorism - classical conditioning examined in dog experiments by Pavlov. Theories of classical conditioning implies that behaviors are directly affected by the reward system that can be achieved.

Teachers may utilize positive reinforcement for assisting pupils learn better. When learners receive positive reinforcement, they will possibly retain information and move forward, a direct outcome of the behavioral learning theory.

Constructivism Learning Theory

This theory is based on the concept that students create their learning experiences based on their previous knowledge. When students receive new information, they build the new learning onto their past knowledge and experiences, making a reality which is unique to the students.

Constructivism learning theory considers learning as an active process, which is individual and personal for every single student.

Constructivism allows teachers to understand that each student brings past knowledge to the classroom. Educators in constructivist conditions of learning perform the role of a guide to helping learners build their understanding and learning.

They allow students to establish their reality and process based on past experiences. This is important for enabling students to bring their knowledge and use it in their future learning practices.

Constructivist learning theory
Constructivist learning theory

Humanism Learning Theory

Humanism Learning Theory is very much similar to constructivism. Humanism directly concentrates on the concept of self-actualization. Everyone operates under a hierarchy of needs, and self-actualization is at its top.

These are the moments in which someone feels that all of their demands have been fulfilled and that they are the most favorable version of themselves. All are willing to accomplish this, and learning environments may either help meet needs or move away from fulfilling needs.

Teachers may establish classroom conditions of learning that allow students to get nearer to their self-actualization using creative, self-expressing learning activities.

Educators may also help students’ meet their physical and emotional requirements, offering them a comfortable and safe place to learn, with enough food, and the desired support to succeed. This type of environment is the most facilitative to enabling students to learn.

Connectivism Learning Theory

Connectivism Learning Theory goes someway to help us understand the implications of digital educational technologies in the classroom. The idea goes some way to help us think about how information that exists outside of our immediate learning environment forms an integral part of the learning process.

George Siemens first wrote the article that led to this theory. The idea helps us think about knowledge as a connected network of ideas that lives beyond the immediate classroom.

As learning is a cognitive process that happens inside our heads, we also need a stimulus to think with, which increasingly resides in networks across digital platforms.

Teachers may use connectivism in a classroom to support students create connections with the objects that excite them, which will help them learn. Teachers may use digital technologies to create good, positive connections with learning.

Digital technologies may help build relationships and connections with the learners and with their peer groups to make learners feel enthusiastic about learning.

Additional Learning Theories to consider

The above five theories of learning consider the major ways we have historically explained the process of learning for educators who wish to support their students’ learning. There are also some good supplemental theories teachers may wish to use to support students in a classroom.

Similarities of learning theories
Similarities of learning theories

Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative learning theory was proposed by the Educational Theorist Jack Mezirow, after researching adult female students who were returning to school. This theory of learning offers an unique approach to adults in education and learning. This learning theory is based on the concept that students may modify their thinking based on new knowledge.

The Educational Theorist Mezirow believed that learners have crucial opportunities linked to their previous experiences and that critical review and reflection may lead to their knowledge transformation.

This strategy is more helpful for adult students, as young learners don’t have the same type of transformation or learning experience. According to this theory, people's worldview is enhanced by their learning, which helps them to understand new ideas and concepts.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory can be used as useful equipment for controlling learners who cause disruption in the classroom. This theory concentrates on the idea of children learning by observing others. For instance, a student may see a class fellow asking for something politely and get that, or maybe a student hears another class fellow talking about a new topic, which teaches him something new even if it's not something he has tried himself.

In this instance, we are effectively treating students as educational resources.

Social learning theory was proposed by Albert Bandura. During the 1960s, he performed the Bobo doll experiment and observed children’s behavior after watching an adult violently treating a doll-like toy. He documented the children's reaction when the aggressive adult was punished, rewarded, or faced no outcomes after attacking the doll.

Social Learning Theory has the following 4 elements:

  1. Attention: The lessons must be unique or with unique activities to enable children to focus.
  2. Retention: The students must internalize information to be able to recall it afterwards.
  3. Reproduction: The student must apply previously learned behavior when it is applicable.
  4. Motivation: The students are motivated by seeing other class fellows being punished or rewarded for different conducts.

Experiential Learning Theory

Experiential learning theory concentrates on learning by doing and motivates learning through experiences that will help students recall memories and retain details.

In 1984, David Kolb put forward the Experiential learning theory. Though Kolb's influence came from other theorists such as Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, and John Dewey, he identified 4 stages of Experiential Learning Theory.

  1. Diverging. The diverging learning style involves learners seeing things from a different perspective. They mostly concentrate on reflective observation and concrete learning, wanting to see and observe the situation before getting involved.
  2. Assimilating. This stage involves students receiving implicit information. These students prefer abstracts and concepts to people and analyze using analytic models. These students focus on reflective observation and abstract conceptualization in the experiential learning style.
  3. Converging. Converging students are problem solvers. They prefer technical tasks and use their learning for practical issues. They like to try new ideas, and their learning concentrates on active experimentation and abstract conceptualization.
  4. Accommodating: At this stage, students embrace practicality. They use intuition to solve problems and enjoy new challenges. These students use active experimentation and concrete learning while learning.

An example of experiential learning is to grow a garden to learn about plants instead of watching educational videos about it.

Comparing learning theories
Comparing learning theories

Implementing theories of learning in the classroom

Without an underlying theory of the learning process, educators would find it problematic to design effective classroom instruction. These theoretical arguments also have implications for digital learning materials and the design of multimedia learning.

As well as affecting how we think about educational technology, these key figures in educational research can help us reframe how we think about pedagogy.

Educators might create particular methods to apply these theories of learning in the classroom. For example, they may use educational video games to teach a specific topic. It is important that teachers have a well-rounded knowledge of these learning theories so that we can create purposeful classroom experiences.

Understanding these theories can be developed through CPD, and it's always useful to revisit historical perspectives to help shape our own philosophies of education.

Knowledge of different theories of learning allows teachers to connect to each student in their classroom. Teachers may use different learning styles or educational technologies to teach, making education more inclusive and multisensory.

Theoretical terminology used to explain learning

What is Proximal Development?

Proximal development is a concept of learning theory based on the idea that learners can achieve more complex end results when support and guidance are provided during their learning process.

Proximal development theory states that learners benefit from having a mentor or teacher provide scaffolding as they progress in their knowledge.

What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding consists of providing explanations, leading questions, and support through demonstrations or models that allow learners to build on existing knowledge by linking new information with prior understanding.

The theory of proximal development suggests that while a learner's current abilities should form the basis for instruction and practice, it also allows them to acquire new skills faster.

What is Cognitive Architecture?

Cognitive architecture is a theory of learning which attempts to explain how the human mind acquires and processes information. This involves analyzing the different types of mental activity that underlie learning and decision-making, as well as exploring their implications for the design of educational materials and systems.

It's based on the idea that cognitive processes can be broken down into small, manageable steps or ‘chunks’ which are repeated to eventually build up more complex behaviours. Within cognitive architecture, attention is paid to how people take in new information, store it, use existing knowledge to build up new skills, and react to stimuli in their environment—all of which contribute to successful learning outcomes.

What is Educational Technology?

Educational technology is any form of technology that is designed to support and enhance learning processes. It can include tools such as computers and software, online learning platforms, virtual classrooms, visual aids and multimedia resources.

Educational technology enables educators to provide a more inclusive and engaging learning experience for their students by helping them access new educational opportunities or materials. By using educational technology, teachers can also assess student understanding more effectively in order to tailor lesson plans for individuals or groups.

The use of educational technology has been shown to increase learner engagement and improve academic performance across different subject areas.

What is Educational Psychology?

Educational psychology is the science of studying how individuals learn in different environments and settings. It deals with how people think, how they respond to their environment, and how they interact with others.

Educational psychologists consider various aspects such as human development and learning theories as they study the cognitive processes that may affect the effectiveness of instruction.

It also examines motivation, attention, memory, emotion, creativity, problem-solving skills and behavior management. With this knowledge, educational psychology contributes to the design of more effective learning strategies for both students and teachers.