The classroom is a place for learning. Under the guidance of a teacher, students acquire knowledge and skills through reading, writing, group work, and other activities. If a lesson goes well, students remember what they have learned, then build up further knowledge and skills as they progress through the curriculum.
But what exactly happens when a student learns something? How do skills and bits of information lodge themselves in a student’s brain, rather than bouncing off their heads like raindrops off an umbrella? Philosophers and psychologists have been studying this question since ancient times, producing numerous learning theories that attempt to explain how learning works. Understanding these learning theories can help teachers improve their teaching methods.
Here we look at five major learning theories posited by psychologists, noting their differences and how each of them can be applied in the classroom to improve student learning.
Learning Theories or Learning Styles?
Education has changed a lot over the last few decades. In the modern classroom, teachers understand that there is no right and wrong way to learn: all students are unique and process knowledge in different ways. This line of thinking is partly down to the theory of learning styles, which has been prevalent since the 1990s when Fleming and Mills introduced the VARK Model, highlighting the differences between visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic learners.
But how do learning theories relate to learning styles? While the two are related, they are concerned with slightly different questions. In short, learning theories attempt to explain what happens to a person when they learn something, while learning styles are an attempt to classify learners by their preferred inputs for learning (textbooks, demonstrations, group activities, etc.). Students’ preferred learning styles may also correlate be related to different types of intelligence, as outlined in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory.
Learning styles have a more direct impact on pedagogy — i.e. how a teacher decides to structure their lesson plan — than learning theories, although learning theories can help educators reflect on why a certain teaching strategy does or does not succeed.
Five Major Learning Theories
Today, there are a handful of prevalent learning theories, and important things can be learned from each of them. Here we look at five of the most important.
The theory of behaviorism is best known through the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) and his famous salivating dogs. In a series of experiments, Pavlov discovered that, if he regularly made a sound such as a bell or whistle before feeding a pack of dogs, the dogsthey would, over time, start salivating simply upon hearing the sound — even if food wasn’t actually given to them afterwards. The experiments were used to show that behavior is partly just a reflex in response to external stimulia connection between external stimuli and behavioral responses.
While it isn’t very inspiring to picture your students as salivating dogs, behaviorism has significant implications in educational theory. Proponents of behaviorism believe that students learn things in response to reinforcement and repetition. For example, rewards for correct answers can induce learners to continue giving the correct answer in future motivate student learning.
Developed as a response to behaviorist theory, the cognitivist learning theory takes a slightly more encouraging view of students and how they learn, interpreting learning as the internal arranging of information in the mind, rather than an instinctive response to external stimuli. Under the cognitivist model, learning involves incorporating new information within a system of existing knowledge using mental strategies like planning and setting goals.
Under theAccording to cognitivist theory, the teacher’s job is to present information in a way that allows students to absorb knowledge and develop skills internally, not to simply alter student behavior through reward and punishment.
Connectivism is one of the newest prominent learning theories. Focused on how learning takes place in today’s digital, ultra-connected world, connectivism takes the radical position that learning can take place outside of the human mind — in computers and databases, for example — and that massive open online courses (MOOCs) with interactive elements can be an important pedagogical tool in the modern age.
While most theories of learning focus on know-how (skills) and know-what (knowledge), connectivism introduces the idea of know-where, which can be thought of as understanding where to find information when required, e.g. through looking it up on the internet.
Throughout the 20th century and beyond, constructivism has been a prominent and influential learning theory. Closely associated with the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980), constructivism asserts that learners do not acquire skills and knowledge through mere transmission of information; instead, they construct knowledge themselves by combining that new information with prior knowledge.
Constructivism holds that new concepts will “stick” more easily if they can be attached to things we already understand. In this sense, a teacher can better deliver learning outcomes by understanding their students’ lived experiences and current levels of understanding.
Experiential learning is a learning theory that has parallels with constructivism. Like constructivism, it takes an active view of learning rather than one in which knowledge is simply transferred from teacher to student. Experiential learning holds that skills and knowledge can be acquired through action followed by reflection.
The psychological theory of experiential learning is closely tied to the philosophy of experiential education, which proposes that direct experience can help students develop skills and acquire knowledge more effectively than they might in traditional learning environments.
Applying Learning Theories in the Classroom
Although learning theories were not developed as pedagogical aids, educators can absolutely use insights from these theories to sharpen their teaching skills. Whether it’s providing positive reinforcement to students or encouraging the use of technology to source knowledge, here are a few ways teachers can turn psychological theory into improved learning outcomes:
- Behaviorism: Provide repeated positive reinforcement to students through verbal appreciation and rewards to create positive patterns of behavior; use constant and recognizable negative reinforcement — from a simple shake of the head to a punishment such as sending a student outside the classroom — to discourage disruptive behavior.
- Cognitivism: Present learning materials in ways that allow students to easily absorb them, catering to different learning styles by using a variety of media and methods; try to keep track of methods that convey knowledge and skills most effectively.
- Connectivism: Bring technology into the classroom when appropriate; encourage students to find information on their own from online databases and other reliable sources; consider having students contribute to a shared online resource such as a message board or wiki.
- Constructivism: Encourage students to form connections between the subject matter and their own knowledge and experiences; stimulate discussion between students to create a catalyst for these connections to form.
- Experiential learning: Devise hands-on activities for students that allow them to learn through practical experience; examples could include scientific experiments that take place outdoors, running a student newspaper, or building a robot.programming a robot.
Educators looking for lesson planning inspiration can take a look at our classroom quick start guide, which can help them combine practical STEM resources with psychological theory to give students the best chance of acquiring new skills and knowledge.