What Is a Learning Theory?

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  • Written By: D. Waldman
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 13 March 2014
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A learning theory is the process by which humans and animals obtain knowledge and skills. The three basic categories used to classify leaning theories include behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. The wide range of different learning theories is a result of the common variables present when learning is taking place, such as age, emotional state, and learning environment. It is also relative to the exact methods being used to gain the knowledge.

A learning theory that falls into the behaviorism category is based on the observable results of learning. This type of learning theory can be observed when the subject is learning a new skill, as would be the case with a child learning to tie his shoes. This particular type of behavior-based learning is often a result of a perceived reward for successful completion of a task or punishment upon failure of a task. One of the most well-known examples of the behaviorism learning theory involves actions learned as a result of classical conditioning, perfectly demonstrated by the use of external stimuli to trigger a particular response, as with Pavlov's dogs.


A cognitivism-based learning theory focuses more on the attainment of new knowledge or skills being a direct result of existing knowledge and individual memory retention. It is also commonly referred to as brain-based learning. This learning theory implies that learning is more a result of individual brain function, as opposed to external stimuli and conditioning. An example of this class of theory would be an individual attempting to learn a new language. If the person already knows more than one language, any subsequent languages will theoretically be easier to master due to the fact that his memory already has the basic knowledge of how to successfully learn a new language.

One of the most complex groups of learning theories focuses on constructivism and relies on individuals being able to create new concepts and skills, rather than just retain knowledge that already exists. It also speaks to the theory that knowledge is relative and unique to each individual, based on personal experiences and interpretation. In essence, it is a learning theory with it's roots based in both behaviorism and cognitivism. Constructivism can be demonstrated by an individual taking a basic cooking class. While he may learn the individual cooking methods in the classroom environment, more advanced knowledge will come when he begins using the methods outside of class, combining a variety of techniques to create his own particular style.


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