Theories of Learning

For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have tried to understand the nature of learning.

How does it happen? What determines its success – and failure? How can one person (such as a teacher) influence the learning of another (ie a student)?

While all agree that there isn’t one single answer, there are then various theories as to what the possible answers may be.

In this week’s blog, we summarise the three most common theories of learning, and assess what they mean in educational contexts.

This topic has generated immense amounts of research down the years, a lot of it quite theoretical and dense. Hopefully our summary isn’t too simplistic for the more academically-minded, nor too ‘jargon-heavy’ for the more everyday-minded!

What is a learning theory?

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

A fully-rounded theory aims to take into account all the cognitive, emotional and environmental influences that come into play, as well as prior experience.

What are the main theories?

As we mentioned above, numerous theories abound. We’re focusing on three, that are usually seen as the core theories:

Behaviourism: learning is an aspect of our
Cognitive constructivism: a student’s ability to learn largely relies on them adding to what they already know and understand.
Social constructivism: as cognitive constructivism above, but with a key difference – people learn best in groups.

How do these theories see learning?

Behaviourism: Students passively absorb a body of knowledge. This is then promoted through repetition and positive reinforcement.

Cognitive constructivism: Students actively assimilate new information themselves. This then goes alongside their existing cognitive structures.

Social constructivism: Students assimilate new information through collaboration, and being part of a learning community.

How do these theories motivate students?

Behaviuorism: Motivation needs to come from external sources, such as a teacher or parent, and involve positive and negative reinforcement.

Cognitive constructivism: Learning largely comes from within: students set their own goals and motivate themselves to learn.

Social constructivism: A mix of both. Internal goals can be set by students, alongside the motivation that comes from being part of a knowledge community.

How do they impact teaching?

Behaviourism: Correct behavioural responses are transmitted by a teacher, and absorbed by students.

Cognitive constructivism: The teacher facilitates learning by providing an environment that promotes the discovery and assimilation of knowledge.

Social constructivism: Collaborative learning is facilitated and guided by the teacher, through group work.

How should you put them to use?

For most teachers, a general awareness of these theories is helpful.

A level of psychological understanding of how your students are learning and developing can help you in areas such as:

Creating and deploying different teaching techniques.
Coaching students who are struggling.
Varying approaches for individual students who seem to thrive best under a particular theory.

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