What are learning theories in education, and how do they impact teachers and students? How many learning theories exist, in what key ways do they differ from each other, and what goals or objectives do they share in common? These are just a few of the questions we’ll answer in this overview, which compares major theories of learning like Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism — plus offers tips for educators on how to implement them.
Whether you’re an experienced teacher who wants new ideas for putting learning theories into practice, or you’re still considering whether a career in education could be right for you, this guide will help provide you with insight into some core teaching principles that educators should be aware of. Read on to learn all about learning theories, why they matter, and how you can make them work for your students.
What Are Learning Theories?
In simple terms, theories of learning are ideas about the ways students learn and retain information. These principles provide different frameworks that teachers can use to adapt to students’ diverse learning styles and academic needs. In addition to helping students absorb the information being taught, learning theories can also help teachers manage students’ behavior. This empowers educators to create an atmosphere that’s more inclusive and conducive to learning — a skill that’s essential whether teaching online or in a traditional classroom setting.
There are significant differences between most theories of learning. However, what all of them share in common is that they seek to understand and explain the learning process so that educators can act accordingly, taking approaches to teaching that are appropriate, effective, and efficient.
So how and when did this field get started? While humans have been pondering the process of learning and the nature of knowledge throughout history — notably including philosophers like Plato and Descartes — the first formal research on learning was conducted by psychologists during the 1800s. As fields like psychology have continued to develop, various learning theories have been proposed over time, from the principles of Cognitivism developed during the 1950s to the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) proposed by David Kolb in 1984. More recently, Connectivism has emerged as “the 21st century’s new learning theory.”
There are numerous theories of learning, with new ones sure to emerge in the future while others fade and become obsolete. And although most sources tend to identify three to five core theories — a few of which, like Behaviorism and Constructivism, are discussed in detail here — some identify as many as 31 learning theories in total! (For instance, some of the theories not covered in this guide include Pragmatic Education Theory, Self-Determination Theory, and Flow Theory.)
One of the most significant learning theories is the theory of social learning put forth by psychologist Albert Bandura in 1977, when his influential book Social Learning Theory was published. Continue reading to learn more about Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (SLT) and its continuing impact on contemporary approaches to education.
Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (SLT)
Social learning proposes that individuals learn through the observation of “models,” such as friends and family members, movie and television characters, or — most significantly for educators — their teachers and other authority figures at school. According to Social Learning Theory, observers process and think about what they witness being modeled, which — combined with environmental factors — results in the assimilation and imitation of positive or negative behaviors. During the 1980s, Bandura broadened and renamed his theory to “Social Cognitive Theory,” or SCT, which you can read more about here.
SLT (and its offshoot, SCT) remain relevant to contemporary educators at all grade levels — not to mention brands and corporations. For example, according to one study, “Due to the affinity that Generation Z learners show toward technology advances and supporting social learning tools, the overall teaching-learning experience was perceived [as] more positive and rewarding.” The same research, which was published last year in Frontiers in Education, found that “social learning tools can enhance the teaching-learning experience of generation Z learners.” Some organizations, such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), are even dedicated to advancing social learning as a driver of better and more equitable educational opportunities for children.
What Are the 5 Major Learning Theories?
A variety of learning theories have arisen within, and impacted the course of, the field of education. But these theories aren’t just abstract ideas, or academic concepts — on the contrary, they’re practical approaches to education that teachers can put into use in order to help students learn more effectively at every age.
That’s an important topic that we’ll discuss more later on in this guide, where we’ll share a few tips and strategies for utilizing theories of learning in the classroom. For now, let’s look at some key differences between five of the most prominent learning theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Connectivism, Constructivism, and Humanism.
Founded by John B. Watson (but widely associated with Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner), Behaviorism is the idea that — like Bandura’s Social Learning Theory — children learn by observing the behavior of others, whether adults and authority figures or friends and peers their own age. In Behaviorism, the learner’s mind is a “blank slate” ready to absorb knowledge — and repetition and reinforcement play a key role in communicating with students.
For instance, the teacher will use either negative or positive reinforcement, which respectively means subtracting (“negative”) or adding (“positive”) something, in order to reinforce the desired behavior (or discourage an undesired behavior). An example of positive reinforcement might be rewarding or praising a behavior like volunteering during group discussions.
Introduced during the middle of the 20th century, Cognitivism shifts away from Behaviorism to place a heavier emphasis on the internal thoughts of the observer, as opposed to merely observing others’ behavior and responding to stimuli. In contrast to Behaviorism, Cognitivism holds that learning chiefly takes place while the student is working to break down and organize new information in their mind.
Journaling is frequently suggested as a helpful classroom exercise that uses the principles of Cognitivism. We’ll explore some additional ways of applying Cognitivism and other learning theories at the end of this guide.
According to Constructivist Learning Theory, or CLT, students learn new information by building upon — or in other words, constructing — knowledge they’ve already gained. This represents a more active approach to learning, as opposed to an approach like Behaviorism, where students arguably take a more passive role in learning.
Cognitive Constructivism is associated with Jean Piaget, while Social Constructivism is linked to pioneer Lev Vygotsky. You can read more about the differences between Social and Cognitive Constructivist Theory here.
Founded by pioneers like Carl Rogers, James F. T. Bugental, and Abraham Maslow (whose famous “Hierarchy of Needs” you’re likely already familiar with), Humanist Learning Theory (HLT) is a learner-centric approach to education. Humanist Learning Theory places a heavier emphasis on the learner themselves — and their untapped potential — rather than the methods of learning or the materials being taught. Built on the premise that humans are fundamentally good and will act appropriately if their basic needs are met, HLT prioritizes meeting the unique emotional and academic needs of each learner so that they are empowered to take greater control over their own education.
Connectivism, as we mentioned above, has been called a learning theory for the 21st century. But, other than its relatively recent introduction as a theory of learning, what makes Connectivism so useful and relevant to the modern student — and educator?
Critically, Connectivist Learning Theory makes effective use of technology, which is an essential tool for learning — particularly among Generation Z students and future generations. Connectivism also places a strong emphasis on the ability to find and sift through information in order to conduct reliable research. Some examples of a Connectivist approach to teaching might be to have your students write a blog or launch a podcast together — activities that merge technology with group and community interaction.
Supplemental Learning Theories
There are many additional learning theories that educators may be interested in exploring further. One example is andragogy — or, in everyday language, adult education — which follows different rules and principles than pedagogy (education for children). For example, pedagogy involves the teacher as a central leader of classroom activities, whereas andragogy leans more heavily toward self-direction and student-led learning. Another theory to consider exploring further is the “Learning as a Network” or LaaN Theory, which one 2012 study defined as a “new learning theory characterized by the convergence of KM [Knowledge Management] and TEL [Technology-Enhanced Learning] within a learner-centric knowledge environment.”
The Importance of Understanding Learning Theory
Why are learning theories important, and what value do they hold for educators and students? Put simply, they provide actionable insight into how learning occurs — insight which, ideally, should be used to drive and inform each educator’s approach to teaching and interacting with their students. Here are a few of ways that you and your students can benefit when you bring learning theories into your classroom or curriculum:
- Theories of learning can provide clarity and direction by offering a set of principles or guidelines to build your teaching approach around.
- The more theories of learning you’re familiar with, the more strategies you’ll have to connect with a diverse range of students who come from different backgrounds, learn at different paces, and face different academic challenges or obstacles.
- Learning theories facilitate clear communication between teachers and students (including nonverbal communication like body language, as we saw in the section on Behaviorism), along with parents, families, and school administrators.
- As learning outcomes improve, students will also build confidence and self-esteem.
Considering their value and significance, how are learning theories actually used by educators in the real world? Keep reading for tips on how to apply learning theories in the classroom.
How to Implement Learning Theories in the Classroom
Now that you’re more familiar with some core theories of learning, such as Humanism, you’re probably starting to think about how educators — including yourself — might put them to work in the classroom. So how can learning theories be applied to help teachers do their jobs more effectively so that students can achieve better outcomes? Here are 10 ways educators can implement various theories of learning more successfully.
- Ways to Apply Behaviorism
- Provide positive reinforcement, like rewards and recognition, to students who show outstanding improvement, effort, or performance.
- Repeatedly use body language and nonverbal or physical cues to reinforce and manage behavior — for instance, one educator suggests folding your arms and moving to a specific area of your classroom when your students are becoming disruptive to the learning environment.
- Ways to Apply Cognitivism
- Engage your students in group or class discussions.
- Encourage your students to identify links between concepts or events.
- Ways to Apply Humanism
- Identify ways to provide your students with more control over the direction and pace of their learning.
- Provide ample support, encouragement, and motivation to your students to help them build confidence and connect with the material.
- Ways to Apply Connectivism
- Bring more educational technology into the classroom.
- Teach students how and where to find quality information and conduct solid research — a critical skill that will aid them with tasks like writing and studying throughout their whole academic careers.
Study Learning Theories at National University
If you plan on pursuing a career in education, it’s essential to have a solid understanding of fundamental theories in learning, like Behaviorism, Constructivism, and Humanism. Deepen your understanding of these and other learning theories by enrolling in an online or on-campus education degree program.
National University offers a wide range of accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in education, including the Master of Arts in Education (MAE) and Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education (BAECE), which we’ve highlighted some details about below. Other education-related degree programs at National University include the Master’s of Early Childhood Education; the Master of Arts in Social Emotional Learning; and, similar to the BAECE, the Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Development with a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential.
Continue reading to learn more about the MAE or BAECE program at National University. You can also get in touch with our friendly admissions counselors to request additional information about the programs we currently offer through the Sanford College of Education, which is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).
Master of Arts in Education (MAE)
Sharpen your skills — and cultivate new ones — while increasing your earning power, contributing original research to the field, and deepening your understanding of the philosophical, psychological, and social foundations underpinning today’s education industry. The Master of Arts in Education at National University provides opportunities for graduate students to broaden and build on their undergraduate studies, whether they enter the program from our Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education or another field. With regional accreditation, fast-paced four-week courses, and the option to attend class online, our master’s degree program in education is flexible and convenient, yet challenging and rigorous.
Students who enroll in the Master of Arts in Education at National University may complete coursework such as Current Issues in Early Childhood Education, Best ECE Teaching Practices, Introduction to Higher Education Administration, and more, with complete course listings available on our program page. You can also contact our admissions office for additional information about the program, such as course requirements, requirements related to your GPA, information for transfer students or international students, and more.
Bachelor of Arts Degree in Early Childhood Education (BAECE)
Take the first steps toward a fulfilling career in academia, childcare, child psychology, or a related field with a regionally accredited Bachelor of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education. The BA in Early Childhood Education (BAECE) at National University is an NCATE-accredited degree program with options for students to complete coursework online, plus a range of financial support resources with additional benefits for servicemembers and Veterans.
Students who enroll in our BAECE program will complete courses such as Infant and Toddler Care, Early Language and Literacy, and Partnering with Families. In total, the program consists of 54 quarter-units (12 courses) of required coursework, plus 18 quarter-units (four courses) of elective coursework, along with four courses that are required as prerequisites to the major: The Growing Child: Zero to Eight; Child, Family, School, and Community; Diversity: Development and Education; and Health, Nutrition, and Safety. The BAECE program at NU culminates in an academic seminar or field experience component, where the student will actively practice the material covered in core classes like Children with Special Needs and Play as Pedagogy.
Want to learn more about enrolling in the online or on-campus BAECE program at National University, or transferring your undergraduate credits from another college? Contact our enrollment counselors for one-on-one support, helpful resources for applicants, and detailed program information.
The Bigger Picture
Every student learns differently. Theories of learning, like Constructivism and Connectivism, provide teachers with tools they can utilize to better meet the diverse academic needs of their students. By incorporating theories of learning into their teaching methods and course materials, educators can help students stay more engaged and achieve greater success in — and beyond — the classroom.
Make a positive difference in children’s lives while challenging yourself to elevate your career. Take the first steps by pursuing your degree online or on-campus at National University. Get started today by contacting our admissions office or completing your application online.