Learning theory

The educational technology and digital learning wiki
(Redirected from Learning theories)
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Learning theories make general statements about how people learn (at least for a given class of learning types). Therefore learning theories are mostly descriptive.

As an example, situated learning claims that learning is strongly tied to the context and the activity in which it occurs. In order to learn a concept in a useful way it must be learned in the culture in which is has been developed and is used. Activity and perception are prior to conceptualization. The teaching and learning situation is characterized as cognitive apprenticeship. From that follows that the acitvity of learning must take place in an authentic situation.

Learning theories also can be prescriptive (tell how people should learn), but prescription is rather the role of pedagogical theory. DSchneider believes that it mostly a bad idea to blend learning and teaching theory. E.g. if one believes that knowledge is constructed one does not necessarily have to adopt a "constructivist" instructional design model. Different teaching strategies may have to combined.

In any case, learning theories play explicitly or implicitly a major role in instructional design models and the educational technology field. Conversely, we may argue that no instructional model and no technology is "innocent". They all view learning in certain way, i.e. from a very practical point of view they put constraints on what kinds of learning they support.

Major schools of thought

In the literature related to education (in particular in educational technology, it is not always easy to separate learning theory from educational theory.

Most introductory texts distinguish between three large families of thought.

  1. Behaviorism is interested in looking at behavior and observable changes. Therefore behaviorism in instruction focusses on generating new behavior patterns.
  1. Cognitivism is interested in looking at the thought processes behind the behavior. Therefore cognitivist learning theory stresses acquisition of (including reorganization) of cognitive structures.
  2. Constructivism claims that knowledge is constructed through the interplay of existing knowledge and individual (or social) experience. There are several variants, e.g.

The difference between behaviorist views and cognitivist views is that cognitivism makes explicit assumptions on how we store and manipulate informations and that education should be concerned by analyzing and influencing thought processes. The difference beween cognitivism and constructivism is that cognitivists like behaviorists are "objectivists", knowledge and tasks to be learned can be identified and performance can be measured. Constructivists, on the other hand believe that both learning and teaching is a more open-ended process.


(very shortly for the moment)

Gerry Stahl (2003: 6) provideded a graphical representation of how philosophical influences led various theories of leaning, in particular social versus individual theories. On the right hand side of the picture is a list of learning theories.

Influences on learning theories.png

Note: DSchneider would not qualify activity theory as a learning theory, but rather as a framework to analyse social behavior.

Learning theory and instructional design

this section needs much more work ....

DSchneider argues that many components (or rather sub-theories) of learning theory are relevant:

  • insights about motivation will help to produce designs that improve student involvement.


Websites that summarize learning theories
Overview maps
Indexes of articles and other resources
Materials specially prepared for courses


Textbooks and other Introductions

  • Orey, M. (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia. HTML
    • This is evolving e-book (Mediawiki) covering learning and cognitive theories and instructional theories and models.
  • Driscoll, Marcy P. (2004). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd edition). Allyn & Bacon ISBN 0205375197
    • Probably the best overall textbook dealing with learning theory and instruction)
  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., Cocking, R. R., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn – Bridging research and practice. Washington, DC: National Academy. Free Abstract/HTML/PDF
  • Harasim, L. (2017). Learning theory and online technologies. Taylor & Francis.
  • Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists... in their own words. Routledge.
  • National Research Council. How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005. Abstract/HTML/PDF (free)
Resources for Microlearning (learning theory in 5-10 minutes)
  • Sierra, Kathy, Crash course in learning theory, HTML, Blog entry
  • Sierra, Kathy, Crash course in learning theory, PDF


  • Stahl, G. (2003) Building Collaborative Knowing: Elements Of A Social Theory Of CSCL, In J.W. Strijbos, P.Kirschner & R. Martins (ed.), What we know about CSCL in higher education, Amsterdam: Kluwer.