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Learning Theories

Learning theories are an organized set of principles explaining how individuals acquire, retain, and recall knowledge. By understanding these different theories, we can better understand how our learning occurs. Understanding these theories can also be used to create different techniques and strategies to promote learning.

3 Learning Theories:

Behaviorism: Behaviorism theorists believe that knowledge exists independently and outside of people. They view the learner as a blank slate who must be provided the experience. In behaviorism it is believed that learning occurs when new behaviors or changes in behaviors are acquired through associations between stimuli and responses. Meaning association leads to a change in behavior, for example, “study for a test and get a good grade.” One downside to behaviorism is that it does not prepare the learner for problem solving or creative thinking. It only prepared the learner for recall of basic facts, automatic responses, or performing tasks.

Applications of behaviorist learning theory:

  • Drill / Rote work
  • Repetitive Practice
  • Bonus Points (providing and incentive to do more)
  • Participation Points (providing an incentive to participate)
  • Verbal Reinforcement (saying “good job”)
  • Establishing Rules

Cognitivism: Cognitive information processing is based on the thought process behind the behavior. This theory is based on the idea that humans process information instead of merely responding to stimuli. Changes in behavior do occur but only as an indicator to what is going on in the learner’s head. The learners mind can be compared to a mirror from which new knowledge and skills will be reflected. Cognitive learning is used when the learners plays an active role in finding new ways to understand and process information and relates it to what they already know.

Applications of cognitive learning theory:

  • Classifying or Chinking Information
  • Linking Concepts (associate new content with something known)
  • Providing Structure (organizing your lecture in efficient and meaningful ways)
  • Real World Examples
  • Discussions
  • Problem Solving
  • Analogies
  • Imagery / Providing Pictures
  • Mnemonics


Constructivism is based on the idea that we all create our own perspective of the world, based on individual experiences and internal knowledge. Learning is based on how the individual interprets the meaning of his or her experiences. Since everyone has different experiences, learning becomes unique for each person. This theory is used to prepare people to problem solve, to be successful the learner must have a significant knowledge base to be able to interpret and create ideas. Because constructivism is different for each person it does not work when results need to be consistent.

Applications of cognitive learning theory:

  • Case Studies
  • Research Projects
  • Problem Based Learning
  • Brainstorming
  • Collaborative Learning / Group Work
  • Discovery Learning
  • Simulations