Sign In · New? Sign Up
Learn More Psychology
Access every article, download
guides, audio and more.
Join Today
Psychologist World

Theories of Learning

Theories in psychology of how we acquire knowledge and skills.

Theories of Learning

What is Learning Theory?

Learning is a process that combines emotion, perception, and environment. These factors are used to obtain, improve or change one's knowledge or ability to perform an action. That action may be mental or physical. Learning theories are basically a study of what occurs in the learning process. Learning theories attempt to explain how learning takes place. These theories are important as they help us find solutions to problems that may occur in the learning process. They may not provide the actual solutions, yet they lead us in the right directions, some times. They can be an invaluable tool in studying the learning process.

Learning Theories

There are three basic learning theories utilized today. Most ideas about learning can be placed in one of these categories. These three theories are behaviorism, constructivism, and cognitivism.


B.F. Skinner was instrumental in developing the theory of behaviorism. Other well known psychologist like Thorndike and Tolman were also involved in the process. There are three main factors that must be assumed for behaviorism.1

  1. Learning comes about by a change in one's behavior.
  2. Environment is what shapes the behavior.
  3. Learning is brought about by conditioning. Contiguity (time factor) and reinforcement (repeating is likely) are needed for conditioning.

Conditioning falls into two types:

  • Operant Conditioning
    You may often see people train their dogs to obey commands, this way. Whenever the dog does what they want, they give the dog a reward. That reward may be a pat on the head or some food.

    Operant means that certain behavior operates or acts on the environment, in a certain way. This type of conditioning may also include punishment instead of reward. For example, some animals will dig their way out of a fenced in area. If someone places electric fencing around the space, the animals will receive a shock, if they touch the fence. After a while, they learn to associate the fence with pain, and leave it alone.

    A behaviorist measures the changes that are brought about by the learning process. This lets them know how effective one type of method is.
  • Classical Conditioning
    A reflex action to some kind of stimulation results in classical conditioning. This is what occurs in the famous experiments of Pavlov and the dogs2. Pavlov was puzzled why the laboratory dogs drooled at certain times. There was no food within sight or smell.
    Pavlov finally realized that the dogs were drooling when they saw the lab coats of the people that fed them. He thought that somehow the dogs had connected the sight of the coats with the idea of food.
    He decided to sound a bell every time that the dogs were given food. In time, the dogs salivated when the bell rang, even if no food was around.


Behaviorism does not take mental action into account. It cannot explain how young children learn and become adept at language.3 Chomsky criticized behaviorism on its shortcoming with language learning. Behavior can also adapt to an environment.


Cognitivism has overtaken behaviorism as the most popular theory. Cognitivism does not refute that behaviorism works in some cases. However, they are adamant that states of mind also have a large effect on learning. They wish to study the inner workings of the mind.

Criticism of Cognitive Learning Theory

There are those that believe that cognitive learning theory does not tell the whole story. Those that believe in holism as Aristotle4 conform to the thought that the parts are equal to more than the whole. In other words, they feel there is much more going on than mental processes.

Piaget's Theory

Paiget's theory5 has two things that it attempts to answer. The first is to determine what children go through as they develop. In other words, are there specific points in their development along the way?

It also wishes to find out how these changes in states occur. What happens as they grow up, and why does it happen?

Piaget believed that children go through four different stages of development.

  1. Sensormotor
  2. Pre-operational
  3. Formal operational
  4. Concrete operational

The cognitive skills of the children will be limited at certain states and this will affect their ability to learn and remember what they have learned. He believed that there were three concepts in the cognitive process.

  1. Assimilation
    This occurs when a child notices something new. For example, he may enter a room that has been rearranged. This is the process of placing old information into new structures. They have a mental picture of the way that the room looked. They compare the new picture with the old picture and realize that they two are different.
  2. Accommodation
    This is somewhat different than assimilating. Current conditions must be altered to account for what has happened. If a child walks into a room and something is in his way, he must move it to be able to walk through the area.
  3. Combination of assimilating and accommodating
    This is also known as equilibration. A more complex method of thought takes place when both of these things happen.

Criticism on Constuctivism

Many cognitive learning proponents argue that it is like trying to re-invent the wheel and too difficult. However, there are two schools of thought on the issue.


  • Learning is a complex process that includes perception, emotion, and the environment. This can be physical or mental action in the process. Theories on learning are very important, as they may point to possible solutions to learning difficulties.
  • Behaviorism takes place on a primitive level and is often used for animals. The conditioning may be operant or classical. Operant conditioning involves a reward or punishment. Classical conditioning involves reflex action.
  • Cognitivism is very popular, and has replaced many behaviorism techniques. The inner workings of the mind are the most important part of this theory.
  • Constructivism uses assimilation and accommodation. There is also a process that combines both called equilibration. Assimilation is replacing old mental information with new. Accommodation involves altering current conditions to account for what has happened.
  • There are good things and bad things about all three of these theories and their methods. All may be a good choice, under the right circumstances.
  1. Skinner, B.F. (1991). The Behavior of Organisms. Copley Pub Group. p. 47
  2. Pavlov, I.; Gantt, W.H., Fol'bort, G.V. (1928). Lectures on conditioned reflexes. International Publishers
  3. Chomsky, Noam; Skinner, B. F. (1959). "A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior". Language 35 (35): 26–58. doi:10.2307/411334.
  4. Price, A.W. Aristotle's Ethical Holism (1980). Mind. JSTOR
  5. Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of The Child. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Most Read
Personality Quizzes
Self-Help Guides
Follow Psychologist World

More on Cognitive Psychology

Superstitious Pigeons

How Skinner's pigeon experiment revealed signs of superstition in pigeons.


More on Cognitive Psychology

Sign Up for Unlimited Access
Psychologist World
Join Psychologist World today for unlimited access to 2,200+ psychology theories, approaches, studies, experiments and guides:
  • Psychology approaches, theories and studies explained
  • Body Language Reading Guide
  • How to Interpret Your Dreams Guide
  • Self Hypnosis Downloads
  • Plus More Member Benefits

You May Also Like...