Major Learning Theories

By: Anum Sidhu, MS Clinical Psychology

Following are the major learning theories:


Behaviorists consider learner as a passive being who merely reacts and responds to his environmental stimuli. Watson (1930) says that “Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept”. The Behavioral Learning Theories emphasize on learning of observable, tangible responses or behaviors. By a continuous process of stimulating and reinforcing a desired response, the learner finally changes his behaviors in order to match the desired response. This type of learning takes place in most basic way, and it is something that one can see. The learning occurs as long as the desired behavior is taking place. Though a mental process is involved in learning of behaviors, but most behavioral theorists do not actually address this mental process. Instead they limit their explanation of learning processes to a very fundamental behavioral change. Mostly, they don’t even admit that an in-depth mental process is required to bring about change in behavior. Some critics suggested that as behaviorists tested mostly on animals, thus they gave a level explanation of learning which do not involve role of complex mental functioning (Barret, 2003) [1].

While discussing the schedules of reinforcement and differences between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, Barret (2003) argued that these definitely can be applied if the ultimate goal is nothing more than a basic behavioral change, like getting a child clean his room, or complete his homework. However, he still believed that there is a mental process going on as well, that needs to be addressed. According to Harzem (2004) and Akinsami (2008), learning occurs when change in actions occurs through an explorative process.  Individuals are exposed to external stimuli until a desired response is received. In school settings, though the knowledge is factual, objective and absolute, one can see that students are passive participants (As cited in Guney and Al, 2012) [2].

Later on, this theory has been criticized as overly simplistic. Nevertheless, its influence can be seen in educators’ insistence that feedback is critical to learning.

Cognitive Learning Theories

The Cognitive Learning Theories emerged when researchers found out that behaviorism did not account for all types of learning. Knowledge is viewed as a scheme i.e. figurative mental structures which are processed in mind. Learning occurs when there is a change in learner’s schemata; the learner is considered as an active participant (Gagne, 1984 and Akinsami, 2008 as cited in Guney and Al, 2012). Cognitive theorists focus not only the behavioral outcomes but also on the thought processes that are involved in human learning [2].

Cognitive learning theorists argue that learning cannot be described merely in terms of changes in behavior. They make a distinction between learning and memory. They view learning as the achievement of new information. However, memory is considered to be related to the ability to recall information that has been previously learned. Cognition refers to a process through which one receives information, processes it, and then does something with that information, i.e. either discarding it or keeping it. Information is about everything, like the lighting, the time, the weather, and something on the chalkboard, refers to information that can be processed simultaneously.  How one takes in these sections of information and screen or transform them so that only the material on the chalkboard is confidently remembered, is a portion of his cognitive learning processes. Learners are ‘information processors’, i.e. information is transferred to learners and thus knowledge is organized, coded and recalled (As cited in Pange, Lakka and Toki, 2010) [3].

This can be comprehended as a stimulus-response cycle, where the learner uses numerous controls in learning environment and gets reinforced.  For example, in a classroom setting by controlling certain factors, the instructor can influence attention of students on desired information. These factors can be size, intensity, emotion, novelty, incongruity, and personal significance. The main objective of the cognitive theorists is about helping their learners organize the information in order to reproduce it at later retrieval building stage of that information. However, according to Barret (2003), there are environmental factors that cannot be ignored [1].

Social Learning Theory

The Social Learning Theory [SLT] describes how the environmental factors affect one’s behavior. Social Learning theory grew out of early work by Miller and Dollard (1941) and Rotter (1954) which focused on imitation and learning through observation. This early work had a definite behaviorist flavor as Miller and Dollard were students of Clark Hull (1884-1952), a staunch behaviorist. This early work gave way to the social learning movement of the 1960s, led by Albert Bandura, the researcher most associated with social learning theory (Doolittle, 2001) [4].

SLT focuses on learning occurring in social contexts. It includes learning from one another, such as observational learning, modeling, and imitation (Ormrod, 1999). Bandura [5] believed that behaviorism alone could not explain all that be observed. He believed that behavior and the environment affected each other. He called this phenomenon reciprocal determination. SLT is not a combination of behavior and cognitive learning theories, but SLT poses that either one of these cannot occurs alone or without the effect of outside environment. Following are the general principles of SLT:

  • People learn by observing;
  • Learning can occur without a change in behavior;
  • Consequences of both behavior and cognition play a role in learning (Barret, 2003) [1].

Learners must possess the following in order to model behavior:

Attention- learner must be ready to hear information, and pays attention in order to model something.

Retention-learner can remember the behavior observed.

Motor Reproduction-learner must be able to practice and then reproduce behavior.

Motivation-learner needs a good reason to adopt behavior, outcomes are valued, and model is similar and even admired by observer.

Constructivist Learning Theory

According to Constructivist Learning Theory, learning is a process of constructing knowledge instead of acquiring it. It takes into consideration and theorizes that the learner constructs his knowledge through his experience. In other words, learner interprets his new information through his contextual experiences and builds on his existing knowledge from conclusions reached during the assimilation of new knowledge and reflection on it (Boyle, 1997; Devries and Zan, 2003 as cited in Guney and Al, 2012) [2]. Learning is, therefore, an active process in which learners build on their own symbols by giving points to their prior knowledge (As cited in Pange, Lakka and Toki, 2010) [3].

Humanistic Learning Theory

Humanists gave priority to human needs and interests. They also believe that it is necessary to study the person as a whole, especially as an individual grows and develops over the lifespan (Edword, 1989; Kurtz, 2000; Huitt, 2009). According to Humanistic Learning Theory, learning is an independent action that is related to the values an individual develops throughout his lifespan (As cited in Pange, Lakka and Toki, 2010) [3].

Experiential Learning Theory

According to Kolb (1984), Experiential Learning Theory refers to a holistic perspective on learning that combines experiences, behavior, cognition and perception. This theory focuses on the central role of experience in the learning process. Thus learning is a continuous process grounded in experience. In classroom settings thus provide an opportunity for consciously reflecting on the behavioral actions, emotions and thoughts and transforming them (Guney and Al, 2012) [2].


1. Barret, E. C. (2003). The study of learning: A thought paper. Website address:,d.bmk

2. Guney, A., and Al, S (2012). Effective learning environments in relation to different learning theories. Procedia: social and behavioral sciences, 46. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.05.480

3. Pange, J., Lekka, A., Toki, E.I. (2010). Different learning theories applied to diverse learning subjects: A pilot study

4. Doolittle, P. (2001). Learning theory: Introduction. Website address:

5. Bandura, A. Social learning theory. Website address:

For further reading:

  1. Doolittle, P. (2001). Learning theory: Introduction. Website address:
  2. Learning theories by Wikibooks contributors (2006). Website address: OR