Learning Theories

What are learning theories and why are they important to learning goals and learning outcomes? How do you determine what learning theories best match an instructional situation?

Learning is a process which pulls together emotional, cognitive, and environmental factors and experiences in order to acquire, enhance, and make changes to an individual’s skills, knowledge, values, and views. Learning theory are therefore an attempt to describe how people learn. This helps us understand the inherently complex process of learning and how to best structure instruction, teaching, training and other education processes.

They are an approach to the area of knowledge, a way of analyzing and talking about and doing research on cognition. They summarize a large amount of knowledge about the laws of information process in a fairly small space, and attempt to explain what learning is and why it works as it does. The major learning theories are: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. These are the basis on which instructional design principles are founded.

Behaviorism: Discuses behaviors that can be observed. Behaviorism does not fully consider the thought processes that go on in the learners mind. Stimulus and responses as derived from the work of Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike, Skinner, an Gagne promoted and experimented in the behaviorism. Behaviorism is applied in different educational areas including systems approach, computer-assisted learning, development of objectives etc. In instructional design, the curriculum and behavioral objectives include learning tasks, divided (chunked) into distinct quantifiable tasks through analysis.

Cognitivism: Cognitivism deviates from behaviorism in that it deals with the internal mental processes of the mind and how these processes could be used to endorse effective learning. Behaviorism breaks tasks into small steps and/or chunks, which are then used to shape the learner’s behavior. In cognitivism the tasks are first analyzed and then broken down into steps. These chunks of information are then used to enlarge learning in instructional design curriculum. Information is then organized and delivered or taught from the most simple to the most complex depending on the learner’s prior schema or knowledge. Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Gagne are a few of the theorists associated with cognitivism. In instructional design curriculum, cognitivism plays an important role in organizing information, using metaphors and arranging information from simple to complex.

Constructivism: Founded on the premise that, by learners reflecting on their experiences, and thereafter constructing their own understanding of their world. The learners generate their own “rules” and “mental models,” which they use to make sense of their experiences. Learning is therefore the process of adjusting the mental models to accommodate new experiences. Constructivism principles in instructional design curriculum are applied in the use of the hypertext and hypermedia, where the learner can gain access to a wider area of learning, by controlling what elements they access.

Further Reading

Instructional Design Approaches

Instructional Design and Learning Theory

Instructional Design Models

Occasional Papers in Educational Technology

In summary, with learning theories, the three main categories or frameworks are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Behaviorism focuses on the objectively observable aspects of learning. Cognitivism looks beyond learners’ behaviors to explain brain-based learning. \

Constructivism is a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new concepts and ideas based on prior knowledge and experience. Therefore, to answer the question ‘what is learning theory’, it is important to think of the goals and objective of the instructional situation.