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5 educational learning theories and how to apply them

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What are learning theories in education?  

Learning theories are conceptual frameworks that describe how people absorb, process and retain information.

Theories in education didn’t begin in earnest until the early 20th century, but curiosity about how humans learn dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They explored whether knowledge and truth could be found within oneself (rationalism) or through external observation (empiricism).

By the 19th century, psychologists began to answer this question with scientific studies. The goal was to understand objectively how people learn and then develop teaching approaches accordingly.

In the 20th century, the debate among educational theorists centered on behaviorist theory versus cognitive psychology. In other words, do people learn by responding to external stimuli or by using their brains to construct knowledge from external data?

Why are learning theories important in education?

Learning theories help teachers and others who work in education better understand how people acquire knowledge. The theories can help curriculum designers develop more effective educational materials, and they can help teachers apply those materials more successfully in the classroom. After all, when those in charge of learning have this information in hand, they can help their students learn more effectively.

That applies to more than classroom lessons too. Applying educational theories can help engage learners as they collaborate with one another, and it can promote lifelong learning as people understand how they best learn.

That’s why educator preparation programs spend so much time having teacher candidates study human development and multiple learning theories. Foundational knowledge of how humans learn — specifically how a child learns and develops cognitively — is essential for educators who want to become effective instructors in the classroom.

Portrait of Pamela Roggeman, EdD

Pamela Roggeman
EdD, Dean of University of Phoenix’s College of Education

Pamela Roggeman, EdD, dean of University of Phoenix’s College of Education, explains her take on the role learning theory plays in preparing teachers: “Just as no two people are the same, no two students learn in the exact same way or at the same rate. Effective educators need to be able to pivot and craft instruction that meets the needs of the individual student to address the needs of the whole child.

“Sound knowledge of multiple learning theories is a first step toward this and another reason why great teachers work their entire careers to master both the art and the science of teaching.”

Although most teaching roles don’t require adhering to a particular learning theory, educators likely already follow one or another theory, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. Following learning theories can help teachers guide their students to success because they allow educators to offer alternative effective teaching strategies.

So, whether you’re an aspiring or experienced teacher, a student or a student's parent or guardian, knowing more about each theory can make you more effective in fostering learning.

5 types of learning theories in education 

Educators typically familiarize themselves with five primary learning theories. Each prioritizes different concepts. These learning theories are:

  • Behaviorism
  • Cognitivism
  • Constructivism
  • Humanism
  • Connectivism

Behaviorism

Behaviorism has roots in the work of John Watson, who is often regarded as the father of behavioral psychology.

Explanation: Behaviorism is concerned only with observable stimulus-response behaviors, as they can be studied in a systematic and observable manner.

Application: Learning is based on a system of routines that “drill” information into a student’s memory bank and elicit positive feedback from teachers and the educational institution itself. (Students who do an excellent job receive positive reinforcement and are signaled out for recognition.)

Most teachers who use behaviorist principles focus on delivering prompt feedback to encourage student learning. They also implement reward systems that reinforce good behavior. Finally, many teachers establish consistency by starting their classes with routine activities, like problems on the board.

Cognitivism

Cognitive learning theory — or cognitivism — stems from the work of Jean Piaget (the founder of cognitive psychology) and focuses on the internal processes surrounding information and memory. It involves schema, the basic unit of knowledge, and schemata that build up over time.

Explanation: Learning relies on external factors (like information or data) and the internal thought process.

Application: Developed in the 1950s, this theory moves away from behaviorism to focus on the mind’s role in learning.

Teachers who engage in cognitive learning might ask students about their experiences with the lesson and emphasize connections between past ideas and new ones. Incorporating student experiences, perspectives and knowledge can foster engagement with the material and help students feel respected.

Constructivism

Constructivism promotes active, internal learning processes that use new information to build upon a foundation of previously acquired knowledge.

Explanation: The learner builds upon their previous experience and understanding to “construct” a new understanding.

Application: In constructivism, Roggeman says, students take an active approach to learning. Rather than being “filled up” with knowledge, they construct meaning by interacting with the world around them, as with experiments or studies.

Some of the best ways teachers can use constructivism in the classroom include promoting student autonomy by encouraging students to be active in their learning. Hands-on experimentation with interactive materials can also empower them to learn better, especially in science classes, because it can promote engagement and connectiveness in student learning. Open-ended questions are another tool for constructivist learning, since they can help foster classroom conversation and dialogue, which encourages students to think critically and form questions and solutions in real time.

Humanism

Humanism emphasizes the importance of personal growth, self-actualization and whole-person development. Humanist learning theory emphasizes the unique needs and capabilities of each student and underscores the efficacy of a personalized education.

Explanation: This approach focuses on the unique capabilities of each learner rather than the method or materials.

Application: With the understanding that people are inherently good, humanism focuses on creating an environment conducive to self-actualization. In doing so, learners’ needs are met and learners themselves are then free to determine their own goals while the teacher assists them in meeting those learning goals.

In the classroom, a humanistic approach might look like a teacher providing students with choices about what to study in order to promote autonomy and intrinsic motivation. It also emphasizes positive teacher-student relationships, making it important for teachers to form connections with each student. Humanistic educators might use discussions, group work and self-evaluation to encourage critical thinking and this sort of connection.

Connectivism

Connectivism is a newer learning theory. It posits that knowledge and learning reside in diverse sources and experiences. That includes understanding how to navigate and source further information via digital means.

Explanation: Informed by the digital age, connectivism departs from constructivism by identifying and remediating gaps in knowledge.

Application: Strongly influenced by technology, connectivism focuses on a learner’s ability to source and update accurate information frequently. Knowing how and where to find the best information is as important as the information itself.

In the classroom, students are likely to learn good digital literacy habits to help navigate online resources to answer their questions. They may also use digital tools to collaborate.

Other types of learning theories in education 

Like students themselves, learning theories in education are diverse. Although the five learning theories we have described are some of the most prominent, there are others to discover, such as:

  • Transformative learning theory: One of the most prominent adult learning theories, transformative learning theory posits that new information can essentially change our worldviews when our life experience and knowledge are paired with critical reflection.
  • Social learning theory: This theory incorporates some of the tacit tenets of peer pressure. Specifically, students observe other students and model their behavior accordingly. Sometimes it’s to emulate peers; other times it’s to distinguish themselves from peers. Harnessing the power of social learning theory involves getting students’ attention, focusing on how students can retain information, identifying when it’s appropriate to reproduce a previous behavior, and determining students’ motivation.
  • Experiential learning theory: There are plenty of clichés and parables about teaching someone something by doing it, although it wasn’t until the early 1980s that it became an official learning theory. This approach emphasizes learning about and experiencing something so that students can apply knowledge in real-world situations.

How educational theories influence learning 

Educational theories influence learning in a variety of ways. Learning theory examples can affect teachers' approach to instruction and classroom management. Finding the right approach (even if combining two or more learning theories) can make the difference between an effective and inspiring classroom experience and an ineffective one.

Applied learning theories directly influence a classroom experience in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Providing students with structure and a comfortable, steady environment
  • Helping educators, administrators, students and parents align on goals and outcomes
  • Empowering teachers to determine their educational approach based on the needs of their students
  • Influencing how and what a person learns
  • Helping outsiders (colleges, testing organizations, etc.) determine what kind of education a student has had or is receiving
  • Allowing students to have a voice in determining how the class will be managed
  • Deciding if instruction will be primarily teacher-led or student-led
  • Determining how much collaboration will happen in a classroom

How to apply learning theories in education 

So, how do learning theories apply in the real world? Education is an evolving field with a complicated future. And according to Roggeman, the effects of applied educational theory can be long-lasting. “The learning theories we experienced as a student influence the type of work environment we prefer as adults,” she explains. “For example, if one experienced classrooms based heavily on social learning during the K-12 years, that person, as an adult, may be very comfortable in a highly collaborative work environment. Reflection on one’s educational history might serve as an insightful tool as to one’s own fulfillment in the workplace.”

Educational theories have come a long way since the days of Socrates and even the pioneers of behaviorism and cognitivism. While learning theories will no doubt continue to evolve, teachers and students alike can reap the benefits of this evolution as we continue to develop our understanding of how humans most effectively learn.

Expand your educational knowledge at University of Phoenix 

University of Phoenix offers a variety of degree programs and certificates to help educators and aspiring educators optimize their classroom experience. Discover the following:

  • Online bachelor’s degrees in education: Students can lay the foundation for a career in early childhood education or elementary education with one of these two degree programs and prepare for teacher licensure.
  • Online master’s degrees in education: Refine your career goals with an advanced degree in education. Options include focusing on adult education, curriculum and instruction, and special education, among others.
  • Online Doctor of Education: Ready to solve complex problems in education? This terminal degree program takes a deep dive into how to improve performance using critical and innovative thinking.
Headshot of Michael Feder

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.

Headshot of Pamela Roggeman

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

As dean of the University of Phoenix College of Education, Pamela Roggeman has spent over a decade in higher education teacher preparation in both the public and private sector. Her experience has included national partnerships that help to advance thought leadership in the field of education. Dr. Roggeman also serves as the President of the Arizona Educational Foundation’s Board of Directors.

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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