In psychology and education, learning theories are attempts to describe how people and animals learn, thereby helping us understand the inherently complex process of learning. There are three main categories (philosophical frameworks) under which learning theories fall: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism.

1. Behaviorism

Behaviorism focuses only on the objectively observable aspects of learning and discounts the internal processing that might be associated with the activity. Learning is the acquisition of new behavior through conditioning.

There are two types of possible conditioning:

1) Classical conditioning, where the behavior becomes a reflex response to stimulus as in the case of Pavlov's Dogs.

2) Operant conditioning where there is reinforcement of the behavior by a reward or a punishment.

The theory of operant conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner and is known as Radical Behaviorism. The word ‘operant’ refers to the way in which behavior ‘operates on the environment’. Briefly, a behavior may result either in reinforcement, which increases the likelihood of the behavior recurring, or punishment, which decreases the likelihood of the behavior recurring. It is important to note that, a punisher is not considered to be punishment if it does not result in the reduction of the behavior, and so the terms punishment and reinforcement are determined as a result of the actions. Within this framework, behaviorists are particularly interested in measurable changes in behavior.

Educational approaches such as applied behavior analysis, curriculum based measurement, and direct instruction have emerged from this model.

2. Cognitivism

Since the Cognitive Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, learning theory has undergone a great deal of change. Much of the empirical framework of Behaviorism was retained even though a new paradigm was begun. Cognitive theories look beyond behavior to explain brain-based learning. Cognitivists consider how human memory works to promote learning. So for example how the natural physiological processes of encoding information into short term memory and long term memory become important to educators.

Once memory theories like the Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model and Baddeley's Working memory model were established as a theoretical framework in Cognitive Psychology, new cognitive frameworks of learning began to emerge during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Today researchers are concentrating on topics like Cognitive load and Information Processing Theory. These theories of learning are very useful as they guide the Instructional design.

3. Constructivism

Constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge. In other words, "learning involves constructing one's own knowledge from one's own experiences." Constructivist learning, therefore, is a very personal endeavor, whereby internalized concepts, rules, and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world context. The teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems. This is also known as knowledge construction as a social process (see social constructivism). We can work to clarify and organize their ideas so we can voice them to others. It gives us opportunities to elaborate on what they learned. We are exposed to the views of others. It enables us to discover flaws and inconsistencies by learning we can get good results. Constructivism itself has many variations, such as Active learning, discovery learning, and knowledge building. Regardless of the variety, constructivism promotes a student's free exploration within a given framework or structure.

4. Informal and post-modern theories

Informal theories of education deal with more practical breakdown of the learning process. One of these deals with whether learning should take place as a building of concepts toward an overall idea, or the understanding of the overall idea with the details filled in later. Modern thinkers favor the latter, though without any basis in real world research. Critics believe that trying to teach an overall idea without details (facts) is like trying to build a masonry structure without bricks.

Other concerns are the origins of the drive for learning. To this end, many have split off from the mainstream holding that learning is a primarily self taught thing, and that the ideal learning situation is one that is self taught. According to this dogma, learning at its basic level is all self taught, and class rooms should be eliminated since they do not fit the perfect model of self learning. However, real world results indicate that isolated students fail. Social support seems crucial for sustained learning.

Informal learning theory also concerns itself with book vs real-world experience learning. Many consider most schools severely lacking in the second. Newly emerging hybrid instructional models combining traditional classroom and computer enhanced instruction promise the best of both worlds.

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Author's Bio: 

This definition is part of a series that covers the topic of Learning. The Official Guide to Learning is Pat Wyman.

Pat Wyman is the best-sellling author of Learning vs Testing, and founder of the award winning website  She is an international learning consultant and coach, and highly sought after speaker, known as America's Most Trusted Learning Expert. Wyman conducts seminars and coaching workshops on her Instant Learning strategies, helping people learn at lightening fast speed while overcoming any learning blocks they may have.  Get your FREE personal learning style and 52 Instant Learning tips at

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