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What Are Learning Theories and How Can They Be Used in Learning Programs

October 11, 2017 | By Soma Bhaduri


Micro Blog-Traditional Learning Theories

Understanding learning theories is vital to design effective programs that meet diverse learner needs and maximize outcomes. The theories in this article show how individuals process information, offering insights for impactful learning experiences.

What Are Learning Theories?

Learning theories are frameworks that instructional designers commonly utilize to fulfill the needs of their target audience and the unique learning setting. To make effective use of these ideas, instructional designers must first obtain a solid comprehension of them. Recognizing the strengths and shortcomings of each learning theory allows them to improve their application and produce more successful and engaging learning experiences.

Why Do You Need Learning Theories?

Learning theories are conceptual frameworks that provide insight into how information is taken in, processed, and recalled during the learning process. The same information may frequently be presented in numerous formats.

The Importance of Understanding Learning Theory

Learning Theories describe how learners acquire, process and retain information during learning. Where the same information can be presented in multiple ways, Learning Theories help guide Instructional Designers in crafting effective learning solutions by:

  • Identifying the appropriate format and methodology of learning
  • Making the learning process meaningful and engaging for learners with varying learning styles

What Are the 5 Major Learning Theories?


Key Proponents: B.F. Skinner, John B. Watson

Concept: Behaviorism emphasizes the idea that learning is a shift in observable behavior brought about by external stimuli. According to this thought, all behaviors can be described without considering internal mental states since they are all learned through conditioning.

Key Elements:

  • Classical Conditioning (Pavlov): Learning through association, where a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a meaningful stimulus, eliciting a conditioned response. Through his research on dogs, Pavlov demonstrated this by demonstrating how salivation (a conditioned response) may be induced by associating food (a meaningful stimulus) with the sound of a bell (a neutral stimulus).
  • Operant Conditioning (Skinner): Learning through consequences, such as reinforcement and punishment. A behavior is strengthened by positive reinforcement when it results in a gratifying consequence, and it is strengthened by negative reinforcement when an unpleasant stimulus is eliminated. Punishment, on the other hand, uses adverse outcomes to try and change conduct.

Example: In an online learning course, learning objectives are assessed through repeated practice opportunities utilizing a game-based method where students are required to recall the capital cities of states. As soon as they respond correctly, learners receive quick feedback that helps them advance toward mastery. The learner’s memory is strengthened by regular practice and reinforcement of the material.


Key Proponents: Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner

Concept: The internal processes of learning, such as reasoning, memory, and problem-solving, are the main emphasis of cognitivism. This theory stresses the importance of mental processes in describing how people learn, viewing learning as a process of gathering and organizing knowledge.

Key Elements:

  • Schema Theory (Piaget): Knowledge is organized into units or schemas, which are frameworks for understanding and interpreting information. Learning involves the adaptation and modification of these schemas as new information is assimilated and accommodated.
  • Discovery Learning (Bruner): Learners construct their own knowledge through active engagement, exploration, and problem-solving. This approach encourages learners to discover principles for themselves, promoting deeper understanding and retention.

Example: In an application training course for two sets of audiences with varied knowledge levels, a pre-test is used to define appropriate learning paths. A visual organizer allows learners to explore topics relevant to their knowledge levels, ensuring the content is chunked into manageable segments aligned with their cognitive development. This helps cater to individual learning needs and promotes effective knowledge acquisition.


Key Proponents: Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget

Concept: According to constructivism, learners build their own knowledge and understanding of the world through experiences and reflection. It focuses on how learners actively construct their own understanding via interactions with others and their surroundings.

Key Elements:

  • Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky): The difference between what a learner can do independently and what they can achieve with guidance. This notion focuses on the role of social interaction and collaborative learning in cognitive growth.
  • Scaffolding: Providing temporary support to learners that is gradually removed as they become more proficient. This method helps learners accomplish tasks they cannot complete independently, facilitating skill development and confidence.

Example: In an online course for instructional designers on writing effective storyboards, learners engage with a character placed in real-life situations to tackle various aspects of storyboarding. To support them in applying what they have learned in real-world work settings, helpful instructions and practical tips are given, encouraging a hands-on, reflective learning process.


Key Proponents: Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers

Concept: Humanism views learning as an individual endeavor to reach one’s potential. It places a strong emphasis on human development, self-actualization, and the innate capacity for self-direction and intrinsic motivation.

Key Elements:

  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: This theory suggests that learning is influenced by the fulfillment of basic needs, from physiological necessities to self-actualization. Only when lower-level needs are met can individuals focus on higher-level learning and personal growth.
  • Student-Centered Learning: This approach focuses on the learner’s experience and feelings, promoting an environment where learners take an active role in their education. It values the personal perspectives and experiences of learners, fostering a more engaging and relevant learning process.

Example: A personal development course where learners set their own goals and engage in self-reflection activities, fostering an environment that supports personal growth and self-directed learning. This approach encourages learners to take ownership of their learning journey and align it with their personal aspirations.


Key Proponents: George Siemens, Stephen Downes

Concept: Connectivism posits that learning occurs through networks and connections, emphasizing the role of technology and digital networks in contemporary learning. It suggests that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and learning involves the ability to navigate, grow, and understand these networks.

Key Elements:

  • Learning Networks: Knowledge exists within systems and is accessed through individuals connecting with others. The ability to form and traverse these networks is crucial for effective learning in the digital age.
  • Diversity of Opinions: Learning is enhanced by exposure to a diversity of viewpoints, which fosters critical thinking, innovation, and a broader understanding of complex topics.

Example: An online community of practice where learners interact, share insights, and learn from each other’s experiences. This environment leverages the collective knowledge and diverse perspectives within the network, facilitating rich, interconnected learning experiences that reflect real-world complexities.

What Other Types of Learning Theories Exist?

Situated Learning Theory

Key Proponents: Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger

Concept: Learning is a function of the activity, context, and culture in which it occurs. It is often unintentional and occurs through participation in communities of practice. Learners acquire knowledge by engaging in social interactions and authentic activities within a community.

Key Elements:

  • Legitimate Peripheral Participation: Newcomers become part of a community and gradually move toward full participation. They start with simpler tasks and progressively take on more complex roles as they gain competence.
  • Communities of Practice: Groups of individuals who share a concern or passion for anything they do. They interact regularly to share knowledge, improve their skills, and learn from each other through collaborative efforts.


Key Proponent: Malcolm Knowles

Concept: The method and practice of teaching adult learners; it emphasizes that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions. Adult learning is based on understanding the needs and characteristics of adult learners.

Key Elements:

  • Self-concept: Adults believe they are accountable for their own decisions. They prefer to be in control of their learning process and are more motivated when they can make their own choices.
  • Experience: Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning process, which can be a valuable resource for learning. Instruction should connect to these experiences to make learning relevant.
  • Readiness to learn: Adults are ready to learn things they feel they need to know, often related to their social roles and personal goals.
  • Orientation to learning: Adults are problem-centered rather than content-centered. They learn best when they see the practical application of the information in real-life situations.

Transformative Learning Theory

Key Proponent: Jack Mezirow

Concept: Learning is a process of transforming problematic frames of reference so that they are more inclusive, reflective, and adaptable. It entails a profound, structural shift in the basic premises of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Key Elements:

  • Disorienting Dilemma: A catalyst that prompts a person to question their existing perspectives. This often occurs through a life crisis or major life change.
  • Critical Reflection: Evaluating the validity of one’s views and assumptions. Learners critically assess their own and others’ beliefs, leading to a transformation of their perspectives.
  • Rational Discourse: Engaging in dialogue to gain new perspectives. Through discussions, learners test their ideas and consider others’ viewpoints.
  • Perspective Transformation: A significant shift in worldview or perspective. This involves integrating new knowledge into one’s existing framework, leading to a transformed outlook.

Social Learning Theory (SLT)

Key Proponent: Albert Bandura

Concept: Learning happens in a social setting and can be accomplished purely through observation or direct instruction. It emphasizes how crucial it is to observe and model the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others.

Key Elements:

  • Observational Learning: Learning by observing others’ behaviors and the consequences of those actions. It highlights the role of modeling in learning new skills and behaviors.
  • Modeling: Demonstrating behaviors so that others may observe and take note. Effective models can significantly influence the learner’s behavior and skills.
  • Imitation: Reproducing the actions of a model. Learners imitate behaviors they have observed, particularly if those behaviors are reinforced.
  • Self-efficacy: The belief in one’s ability to succeed in particular circumstances or accomplish a task. High self-efficacy can boost motivation and improve learning outcomes.

Experiential Learning Theory

Key Proponent: David Kolb

Concept: Learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. It involves a cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and doing, and emphasizes the significance of human engagement in the learning process.

Key Elements:

  • Concrete Experience: Connecting with individuals and drawing lessons from certain situations. This stage involves direct involvement in an experience or activity.
  • Reflective Observation: Observing before making judgments by viewing the environment from different perspectives. Learners reflect on what they have experienced and observed.
  • Abstract Conceptualization: Creating concepts that integrate observations into logically sound theories. Learners form theories and ideas based on their reflections and observations.
  • Active Experimentation: Applying theories to solve problems and make decisions. Learners apply their new ideas and theories in practical situations to test their validity.

How to Apply Learning Theories While Designing Learning Programs

Applying learning theories when designing programs is essential for creating impactful educational experiences. By integrating insights from Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, Humanism, and Connectivism, designers can tailor approaches to suit diverse learner needs.

Behaviorism structures environments with clear objectives and reinforcement. Cognitivism focuses on mental processes to aid understanding and retention. Constructivism promotes interactive, collaborative learning. Humanism emphasizes learner autonomy and growth. Connectivism utilizes digital networks for learning. Integrating these theories ensures programs are engaging, relevant, and effective in fostering long-term learning outcomes.

Parting Thoughts

Designing learning programs with learning theories in mind enables instructional designers to build learning environments that are conducive to effective learning. Through the use of concepts from Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, Humanism, and Connectivism, instructors may modify their methods to create custom learning styles and promote learner involvement.

This carefully planned integration enhances the learning process and helps learners acquire information that can be retained for a lifetime.

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