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Learning Theory

What is Learning Theory?

In short, learning theories are abstract frameworks that describe how knowledge is received and processed during the learning experience. Learning theory informs the application of instructional design through models. Although there are multiple theories of learning, there are three principle foundations that influence most instructional design models today. These learning strategies include: behaviorist learning theory, cognitivist learning theory, and constructivist learning theory. See learning theory history, definitions, and practical examples below:

Learning Theories Overview


Behaviorism is a learning theory that emphasizes the importance of observable behaviors in understanding and explaining the learning process. It emerged as a dominant psychological and educational paradigm during the early 20th century and was heavily influenced by the work of psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner. Behaviorism is rooted in the belief that the environment plays a crucial role in shaping human behavior, and learning is a result of associations formed between stimuli and responses.

Examples of Behaviorism Learning Theory:

  1. Stimulus-Response (S-R) Associations: Behaviorism posits that learning occurs through the establishment of associations between stimuli (external events) and responses (observable behaviors). When a specific stimulus consistently leads to a certain response, the learner forms a connection between the two.

  2. Operant Conditioning: B.F. Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning, which involves modifying behavior through the use of reinforcements and punishments. Positive reinforcement involves rewarding a desired behavior, making it more likely to be repeated. Negative reinforcement involves removing an aversive stimulus, also increasing the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment, on the other hand, aims to decrease the occurrence of undesirable behaviors by introducing negative consequences.

  3. Behavior Modification: Behaviorism suggests that behavior can be modified and shaped through careful manipulation of reinforcements and punishments. This concept has been applied in various fields, including education, therapy, and even organizational management.

  4. Observable Behavior: Behaviorists focus solely on observable behaviors and do not delve into internal mental processes, emotions, or cognitive states. This emphasis on objectivity and quantifiability is one of the defining characteristics of behaviorism.

  5. Classical Conditioning: Ivan Pavlov's work on classical conditioning contributed to behaviorism by showing how reflexive behaviors could be conditioned to occur in response to previously neutral stimuli. For example, the famous "Pavlov's dogs" experiment demonstrated how dogs could be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, which had been paired with food.

  6. Generalization and Discrimination: Behaviorism also discusses the concepts of generalization and discrimination. Generalization involves applying a learned response to similar stimuli, while discrimination involves differentiating between similar stimuli and responding only to specific ones.

  7. Learning by Observation: Although behaviorism primarily focuses on observable behaviors, it also recognizes that individuals can learn by observing the behaviors and consequences of others. This concept has been elaborated upon in later learning theories.

Critiques and Limitations Learning Theory:

While behaviorism has contributed valuable insights into learning and behavior modification, it has been criticized for oversimplifying human learning by ignoring internal cognitive processes and emotions. Critics argue that focusing solely on observable behaviors neglects the complex mental aspects of learning, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Behaviorism is a learning theory that highlights the significance of external stimuli and observable behaviors in the learning process. It has had a significant impact on education, psychology, and various other fields, shaping our understanding of how behaviors can be learned, modified, and reinforced through associations with environmental stimuli.


Cognitivism is a learning theory that places a strong emphasis on the mental processes and cognitive activities involved in learning. Unlike behaviorism, which primarily focuses on observable behaviors, cognitivism delves into the internal workings of the mind, including perception, memory, problem-solving, and decision-making. This theory emerged in response to the limitations of behaviorism, which didn't adequately explain complex cognitive processes.

Examples of Cognitivism Learning Theory:

  1. Information Processing: Cognitivism views the human mind as an information-processing system. It emphasizes how learners acquire, organize, store, and retrieve information in their minds. Cognitive processes involve attention, perception, memory encoding and retrieval, and executive functions like planning and decision-making.

  2. Schema Theory: According to cognitivism, learners construct mental frameworks called schemas to organize and make sense of new information. These schemas are structures of knowledge that help individuals interpret and process new experiences based on their existing knowledge.

  3. Metacognition: Cognitivism highlights the importance of metacognition, which refers to the awareness and control individuals have over their own cognitive processes. Learners who engage in metacognition are able to monitor and regulate their thinking, learning strategies, and problem-solving approaches.

  4. Transfer of Learning: Cognitivism recognizes that learning in one context can be applied to other situations, a concept known as transfer of learning. Effective transfer occurs when learners can identify similarities between the current situation and previously learned material.

  5. Problem-Solving: Cognitivism emphasizes the role of problem-solving in learning. Problem-solving tasks encourage learners to apply their existing knowledge and cognitive skills to overcome challenges and find solutions.

  6. Constructing Meaning: Cognitivism emphasizes the active role of learners in constructing their own understanding and meaning from the information they encounter. This stands in contrast to passive learning models where learners are seen as mere recipients of information.

  7. Cognitive Development: Cognitivism is closely related to cognitive development theories, such as those proposed by Jean Piaget. These theories describe how individuals' cognitive abilities and thinking processes evolve as they mature.

Limitations of Cognitivism Learning Theory

Cognitivism has greatly enriched our understanding of learning by focusing on the complexities of mental processes. However, it has been criticized for sometimes neglecting the influence of social and cultural factors on learning. Additionally, critics argue that cognitivism can sometimes overlook the emotional and affective aspects of learning.

In summary, cognitivism is a learning theory that places mental processes at the center of the learning experience. It emphasizes the role of information processing, schema development, metacognition, and problem-solving in how individuals acquire, organize, and use knowledge. This theory has contributed significantly to shaping modern education and instructional design practices.



Constructivism is a learning theory that emphasizes the active role of learners in constructing their own understanding of knowledge and the world around them. Unlike more passive learning theories, constructivism posits that learners are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with information. Instead, they actively engage with new information, building upon their prior knowledge and experiences to create meaning. This theory emerged as a response to behaviorism and cognitivism, aiming to address the limitations of these theories in capturing the richness of the learning process.

Examples of Constructivism Learning Theory:

  1. Active Learning: Constructivism highlights the importance of active participation by learners in the learning process. Learners are encouraged to explore, ask questions, seek answers, and make connections to their existing knowledge.

  2. Personal Meaning-Making: Learners do not passively absorb information; they actively interpret and construct their own understanding based on their individual experiences, cultural background, and existing beliefs.

  3. Social Interaction: Interaction with others plays a crucial role in constructivism. Collaborative activities, discussions, and engagement with peers and experts allow learners to negotiate and share their perspectives, contributing to the refinement of their understanding.

  4. Scaffolding: Educators provide scaffolding, which is temporary support, to learners as they tackle more complex tasks. This support gradually decreases as learners become more competent and confident in their abilities.

  5. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): This concept, developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, refers to the range of tasks that learners can perform with the guidance and support of a more knowledgeable individual. The ZPD acknowledges that learners can achieve more when assisted by someone who has a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

  6. Reflection: Reflective thinking is central to constructivism. Learners are encouraged to reflect on their experiences, identify misconceptions, and adapt their mental models based on new information and insights.

  7. Authentic Contexts: Constructivist learning is often more meaningful when situated in authentic, real-world contexts. Learning experiences that mirror real-life situations provide a richer environment for constructing knowledge.

Limitations of Constructivism Learning Theory:

While constructivism offers a powerful framework for understanding learning, it has been criticized for potentially downplaying the role of explicit instruction and the importance of foundational knowledge. Critics also argue that in some situations, learners might construct misconceptions or incomplete understanding if not guided effectively. Constructivism is a learning theory that places learners at the center of the learning process. It emphasizes active participation, personal meaning-making, social interaction, and the role of prior knowledge in constructing new understanding. This theory has influenced educational practices by encouraging educators to create dynamic, interactive, and collaborative learning environments that cater to learners' individual perspectives and experiences.

IDC's Instructional Design Foundations Course

Learn more about instructional design theory along with foundational models, tools and processes in IDC's Instructional Design Foundations Course and Certificate.

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