Learning theories are conceptual frameworks describing how information is absorbed, processed, and retained during learning. Cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences, as well as prior experience, all play a part in how understanding, or a world view, is acquired or changed and knowledge and skills retained.


Learning theories are numerous but only three will be mention here as well as their advantages. They include the Social learning theory, Constructivism and Cognitivism learning theory.

  1. Social learning theory

A well-known social learning theory has been developed by Albert Bandura, who works within both cognitive and behavioural frameworks that embrace attention, memory and motivation. His theory of learning suggests that people learn within a social context, and that learning is facilitated through concepts such as modeling, observational learning and imitation. Bandura put forward “reciprocal determininsm” that holds the view that a person’s behavior, environment and personal qualities all reciprocally influence each others. He argues that children learn from observing others as well as from “model” behaviour, which are processes involving attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. The importance of positive role modeling on learning is well documented.


  1. Learning is facilitated through social concepts
  2. Observation is important in ;earning as children learn fast through it
  • People learn quickly through social context.

Vygotsky’s learning theory, also known as social development theory. The major theme of Vygotsky’s theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygotsky (1978) states: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals

Vygotsky’s theory was an attempt to explain consciousness as the end product of socialization. For example, in the learning of language, our first utterances with peers or adults are for the purpose of communication but once. Vygotsky’s theory is complementary to Bandura’s work on social learning and a key component of situated learning theory as well. Because Vygotsky’s focus was on cognitive development, it is interesting to compare his views with those a constructivist (Bruner) and a genetic epistemologist (Piaget).


  1. Consciousness is the end product of socialization
  2. The theory focus on cognitive development of the mind
  • Learning is defined as change in a learner’s schemata

C. Constructivism

Founded by Jean Piaget, constructivism emphasizes the importance of the active involvement of learners in constructing knowledge for themselves. Students are thought to use background knowledge and concepts to assist them in their acquisition of novel information. When such new information is approached, the learner faces a loss of equilibrium with their previous understanding which demands a change in cognitive structure. This change effectively combines previous and novel information to form an improved cognitive schema. Constructivism can be both subjectively and contextually based. Under the theory of radical constructivism, coined by Ernst von Glasersfeld, understanding relies on one’s subjective interpretation of experience as opposed to objective “reality”. Similarly, William Cobern‘s idea of contextual constructivism encompasses the effects of culture and society on experience.

Constructivism asks why students do not learn deeply by listening to a teacher, or reading from a textbook. To design effective teaching environments, it believes one needs a good understanding of what children already know when they come into the classroom. The curriculum should be designed in a way that builds on the pupil’s background knowledge and is allowed to develop with them. Begin with complex problems and teach basic skills while solving these problems. The learning theories of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and David A. Kolb serve as the foundation of the application of constructivist learning theory in the classroom. Constructivism has many varieties such as active learning, discovery learning, and knowledge building, but all versions promote a student’s free exploration within a given framework or structure. The teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working answering open-ended questions and solving real-world problems. To do this, a teacher should encourage curiosity and discussion among his/her students as well as promoting their autonomy. In scientific areas in the classroom, constructivist teachers provide raw data and physical materials for the students to work with and analyze.


  1. Knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses of the environment.
  2. Learners continuously test these hypotheses through social negotiation.
  • Each person has a different interpretation and construction of knowledge process, thus the learner is not a blank slate (tabula rasa) but brings past experiences and cultural factors to a situation

Other learning theories

Other learning theories have also been developed for more specific purposes. For example, andragogy is the art and science to help adults learn. Connectivism is a recent theory of networked learning which focuses on learning as making connections. The Learning as a Network (LaaN) theory builds upon connectivism, complexity theory, and double-loop learning. It starts from the learner and views learning as the continuous creation of a personal knowledge network (PKN)


Behaviorism is a worldview that assumes a learner is essentially passive, responding to environmental stimuli. The behaviourist perspectives of learning originated in the early 1900s, and became dominant in early 20th century. The basic idea of behaviourism is that learning consists of a change in behaviour due to the acquisition, reinforcement and application of associations between stimuli from the environment and observable responses of the individual. Behaviourists are interested in measurable changes in behaviour. Thorndike, one major behaviourist theorist, put forward that (1) a response to a stimulus is reinforced when followed by a positive rewarding effect, and (2) a response to a stimulus becomes stronger by exercise and repetition. This view of learning is akin to the “drill-and-practice” programmes. Skinner, another influential behaviourist, proposed his variant of behaviourism called “operant conditioning”. In his view, rewarding the right parts of the more complex behaviour reinforces it, and encourages its recurrence.


  1. The learner starts off as a clean slate (i.e. tabula rasa) and behavior is shaped through positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.
  2. Both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement increase the probability that the antecedent behavior will happen again.

iii. In contrast, punishment (both positive and negative)    decreases the likelihood that the antecedent behavior will happen again. Positive indicates the application of a stimulus; Negative indicates the withholding of a stimulus. Learning is therefore defined as a change in behavior in the learner.

Transformative learning theory

Transformative learning theory seeks to explain how humans revise and reinterpret meaning. Transformative learning is the cognitive process of effecting change in a frame of reference. A frame of reference defines our view of the world. The emotions are often involved. Adults have a tendency to reject any ideas that do not correspond to their particular values, associations and concepts.

Transformative learning takes place by discussing with others the “reasons presented in support of competing interpretations, by critically examining evidence, arguments, and alternative points of view.” When circumstances permit, transformative learners move toward a frame of reference that is more inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective, and integrative of experience.

Criticism of learning theory

Critics of learning theories that seek to displace traditional educational practices claim that there is no need for such theories; that the attempt to comprehend the process of learning through the construction of theories creates problems and inhibits personal freedom.









Learning is one of the most important activities in which humans engage. It is at the very core of the educational process, although most of what people learn occurs outside of school. For thousands of years, philosophers and psychologists have sought to understand the nature of learning, how it occurs, and how one person can influence the learning of another person through teaching and similar endeavors. Various theories of learning have been suggested, and these theories differ for a variety of reasons. A theory, most simply, is a combination of different factors or variables woven together in an effort to explain whatever the theory is about. In general, theories based on scientific evidence are considered more valid than theories based on opinion or personal experience. In any case, it is wise to be cautious when comparing the appropriateness of different theories.











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