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What is Learning Theory?

In short, learning theories are abstract frameworks that describe how knowledge is received and processed during the learning experience. Learning theory informs the application of instructional design through models. Although there are multiple theories of learning, there are three principle foundations that influence most instructional design models today. These learning strategies include: behaviorist learning theory, cognitivist learning theory, and constructivist learning theory. See learning theory history, definitions, and practical examples below:

Background on Learning Theory

The basis for instructional design and technology lies in theory; well-designed and effective instruction is the tangible embodiment of theory.  Over the years, theoretical frameworks have been used as the grounding device to which all research, design principles, and the subsequent implications for instruction gravitate. Without theory, there is no uniform standard of measurement to differentiate between effectiveness and ineffectiveness, desirable and undesirable performance, positive and negative results.

Just as theory guides research and design, it can also limit and confine researchers. John Dewey cautioned educators of theorizing in lieu of observing direct and empirical investigations and results (Meiklejohn, 1966). Fitting observations and results into a preconceived theoretically abstract frame defeats the purpose of conducting the research, and prohibits the advancement of knowledge in the field.  Thomas (1997) warns researchers, “there is the danger that in compacting, trimming, and generally forcing the worlds with which we work into theoretical molds we distort and misperceive those worlds” (p.98). So, while theory plays an integral role in guiding and explaining research, it may also provide a default failsafe for researchers to point to when explanations are indescribable, unprecedented, or unexpected.  With this said, the discipline of instructional design and technology has used the language of theory to guide and explain for many years; and this language has evolved dramatically.

In order to better understand the differences between the types of theory being discussed, it will be beneficial to differentiate between the common and often interchanged terms of theory, theoretical framework, and paradigm. For the purposes of the article, theory will be used as defined by Warmbrod (1986): “a systematic ordering of ideas about the phenomena being investigated or as a systematic account among the relations of a set of variables.” Theory may be discussed through individual learning theories, such as the three commonly cited theories in this paper. A theoretical framework is generally a broader approach used to postulate a theory. A paradigm is an even more general concept that represents a scientific pattern.  A shift in paradigms refers to the evolution of a generally accepted way of thinking by the majority of its practitioners. An example of the use of these definitions would be to say within the paradigm of objectivism exists the theoretical framework of cognitive learning theory which may ascribe schema theory to a specific learning situation. Further, an instructional strategy of providing an advanced organizer could offer a specific cognitivist approach.

Instructional design and technology has undergone a paradigm and theoretical shift over the last fifty years. The discipline has transitioned from an emphasis on skills development, through an interest in knowledge acquisition processes, to a fixation on understanding through the personal construction of meaning.  These three theories are often labeled generically as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, however, behaviorism and cognitivism are part of a higher-order philosophical paradigm, objectivism, and this is considered the polar opposite of constructivism (Jonassen, 1991). Though these constructs are all uniquely different, they are built upon the predication of one another, and strategies from each theory may be implemented independently or in conjunction with other learning strategies derived from opposing theoretical frameworks.  For instance, a constructivist approach to solving a mathematical problem has a wildly different interpretation of how learning occurs than does a behaviorist, but the constructivist instruction may include a behavioral strategy.

A slow but noticeable shift has been taking place over the last century, and it continues to move glacially from objectivism towards constructivism and beyond still.  Wittrock (1974) attributes several reasons for this shift in paradigm including the personal freedoms of a technological society, the concern of longitudinal effects on learning, and the progressive idea of holding the instructional environment as well as the learner accountable.  From an instructional designer perspective, this shift has progressed from the direct communication of information to learners to the sculpting of a learning-conducive environment in which learners can construct and interpret their own individual meanings and realities. These theoretical frameworks are discussed in more detail below.

Learning Theories



B.F. Skinner is often credited as one of the founding fathers of behaviorism, though his research was preceded by important figures such as E.L. Thorndike, John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov. Sidney Pressey is also a historical figure in education during this era because of his contribution to behaviorism. His ‘teaching machine’ embodied the core tenets of the learning theory during the early part of the twentieth century: direct the learner, as though he or she operates simply as a basic organism that receives input from the machine. The mainstay of the behavioral approach to learning is the concept of stimulus-response with the sole emphasis being placed on behavioral results. Research suggests that behaviorally oriented activities and the highly structured environments they create benefit lower-ability learners more so than higher-ability learners (Cooper, 1993).  Knowledge is projected, or mapped, onto the learner, giving him or her less instructional control.

Learning Strategies

An instructional designer should not rely on one single theoretical framework to guide design, nor should he rely on only one set of instructional strategies. The selection of the strategy should depend on the instructional situation and the learner. One example of a behavioral strategy is direct instruction (DI), which is essentially “modeling with reinforced guided performance” (as cited in Magliaro, Lockee, & Burton, 2005). In today’s digitally-driven learning environments, DI is appropriate for technology instruction, including the explanation of using technological tools. DI clearly represents a behavioral approach because it accentuates learning objectives, feedback, and learner practice. Often, direct instruction models or demonstrates the procedure in small increments and gives both examples and nonexamples.  Typically, behavioral strategies are associated with lower-levels of learning such as recall and are delivered mathemagenically rather than generatively, where the learner generates relationships between his or her own existing knowledge and the newly introduced information.

While there is not one single correct approach to all learning situations, instructional strategies that would be considered behavioral in nature are quite useful, and in some cases, inevitable.  Some other behaviorally oriented delivery models include Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) and Bloom’s (1971) Learning for Mastery (Burton, Moore, & Magliaro, 1996).  A behavioral strategy would be to model the task, perhaps through direct instruction, provide feedback in incremental steps, and allow the user to practice these skills independently.  The disadvantage to a behavioral strategy, though, is that the learner only understands the learning environment through the lens of responding to a stimulus.  Therefore, if the stimulus fails to evoke a response, the learner is left with no recourse because he lacks meaningful understanding of the problem.

Instructional Scenario
A computer teacher, Mrs. Randolph, is teaching an Introduction to Computers course in a high school in rural North Carolina.  Her audience consists of 16 year-old students, most of whom do not own home computers and have limited experience with using a computer. Her instructional objective is to teach the learners how to send e-mail with a file attachment.  Knowing the limitations of her learners, the highly procedural nature of the task, and the clearly measurable outcomes of the performance, she has designed and developed a computer-based unit of instruction that demonstrates the procedure to the learner, then asks the learner to complete the procedure on his or her own. Each step in the procedure is evaluated; if the learner chooses the correct option, he or she proceeds to the next screen, but if an incorrect decision is made, a red STOP sign appears on the screen, and the learner is returned to the previous step to reattempt the procedure until he or she is successful.


Cognitive theory diverges in many ways from the behaviorist framework.  While the behaviorist views the learner as a tabula rasa, blank slate, the cognitivist views the learner as an information processor, acknowledges the mental processes inherent in learning, and seeks to capitalize on them.  While behaviorists are content with behavioral outcomes, cognitivism seeks to understand the process of knowledge acquisition and “meaning-making” (Bruner, 1990).  The cognitive revolution, as it has been termed, gained momentum in the early 1950’s thanks to a number of figures such as Chomsky, Bruner, Ausubel, and Miller, and it began to acknowledge the existence of the “mind” rather than a tabula rasa, neglecting the performing of mental operations altogether (Jonassen, 1991).  The difference between viewing the learner as having a brain and having a mind is an important distinction that cognitivists make.

The field of cognitive psychology played an important role in the cognitive revolution.  It was a confluence of American psychologists frustration with behavioral psychology methods, the increasing accessibility to computers, the founding of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard by Bruner and Miller, and a number of influential articles by cognitive psychologists (including Miller’s 1956 article “The Magical Number Seven, Plus-or-Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information;” Chomsky’s 1957 book Syntactic Structures) that lead to an immigration from the traditional behaviorist mindset into a new cognitive era (Bruning, Schraw, & Norby, 2011).  Some major theories born out of the shift towards cognitivism include schema theory, situated learning, and cognitive load.

Learning Strategies

Behaviorist instructional strategies are concerned primarily with results.  Cognitivist strategies also underscore the importance of the learner’s observable behavior, but simultaneously promote mental processing and emphasize the effectiveness of the entire knowledge acquisition process to ensure meaningful learning.  Generative strategies such as annotating, summarizing, and paraphrasing a text are cognitive strategies that require the learner to build relationships between new information and prior knowledge (Wittrock, 1974).  In today’s educational landscape, there is a substantial amount of learning being designed for online (asynchronous and synchronous) and computer-based learning environments.  A key component of online learning is the ability to embed multimedia content.  Sweller, van Merrienboer, and Paas (1998) identify two major threats to learning in multimedia instruction, split-attention and redundancy, and suggest using worked examples and narrating content rather than providing text when coupled with an animation or diagram, so that the learner’s attention is not split between two textual inputs.  Mayer’s (2002) cognitive theory of multimedia proffers methods for reducing extraneous cognitive load in instructional materials. This is one of the many facets of cognitivism that make it uniquely different from behaviorism.

Instructional Scenario

Mrs. Randolph, the high-school computer teacher, is teaching a new lesson in her Introduction to Computers course: How to format a Microsoft Word document for an APA research paper.  She begins by asking each learner to set a learning goal for him or herself and motivates them all by offering an incentive: bonus points will be awarded to those who turn in the Psychology class research paper written in 100% correct APA format. On the projection screen in the room, Mrs. Randolph models what a correct APA paper looks like, and describes each of its five components (header, title page, heading levels, parenthetical citations, and references page). The teacher then demonstrates each of the five components for the learners. At the end of each component, she asks that the learner describe the process in his or her own words in a journal. Upon completion of the demonstration, learners are encouraged to format a Word document according to APA format. Then, learners are paired with a classmate and asked to conduct a peer review on each other’s document and evaluate its quality.


It is not appropriate to compare the epistemology of constructivism to specific learning theories such as behaviorism and cognitivism.  This would represent a “categorical error” since constructivism is a broader philosophy that engulfs multiple psychologies, much like objectivism (Jonassen, Cernusca, & Ionas, 2007).  Constructivism strays from the previously discussed learning theories, stating that reality is constructed and ultimately determined by the learner; the role of the learner has assumed all responsibility, and the role of the teacher is relegated to designing the learning situation only. Importantly, the learning environment is learner-centered and traditional objectivist strategies such as the measurement of learning objectives and task analyses are discarded (Jonassen, 1991).  This view is fundamentally different from that of objectivism.  Constructivists assume the learner is intrinsically-motivated, that learning should be problem-based, and based on discovery learning; the learner constructs his or her own personal reality from experience and learning is a personal interpretation.

Learning Strategies

Constructivism distances itself from implementing specific instructional strategies; instead, designing instruction from a constructivist perspective entails designing “mental construction toolkits” embedded within a learning environment (Jonassen, 1991).  An example of a constructivist strategies include, among others, discovery learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning and inquiry learning, all of which can be classified as a “minimally guided approach” (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).  This minimal approach to instruction has been scrutinized for its subversion of grounded design

Instructional Scenario

The computer teacher, Mrs. Randolph, has decided to take a minimal guidance approach to teaching her students this semester. On the first day of class, she asks each learner to identify five learning goals related to computers that he or she hopes to accomplish this semester. The computer provides the instructional environment for the learner to explore, and at the end of the semester, the learner will demonstrate his or her expertise on the computer using a method of evaluation deemed appropriate by that learner.


There has been, and continues to be, a noticeable shift in learning theory from objectivism to constructivism and beyond. Fundamentally, what this means is that the teacher has been usurped as the expert, reassigned as a cognitive guide, and then fully excised from the process of meaning making, where the learner becomes the architect of reality. However, as discussed in the introduction, there is a danger in adopting one theory and being confined within its epistemological parameters. An effective designer taps into all theoretical frameworks to design instruction that suits the needs of the learners and the instructional situation.

While there is value in utilizing different instructional approaches, it should be noted that objectives really do matter. A behavioral approach may place too much emphasis on results-based learning, and a radical constructivist ignores the importance of learning objectives altogether, therefore erasing the accountability that comes with the failure of successfully meeting instructional objectives.  A moderation of all instructional approaches is key to effective and well-designed instruction.

So, while identifying oneself as a behaviorist, or a cognitivist, or a constructivist may be an interesting conversation starter, it should not directly influence the design.  Each design scenario requires a careful analysis of the learner, the task, and the resources available, and should not be blindly dictated by the designer’s philosophical truisms.  Lebow (1993) argues these classifications of instructional paradigms are mindsets, not fundamentally different approaches to design.  A good designer will carry a quiver of instructional strategies that span all theories and theoretical frameworks, and he or she should know when to use which strategy in each type of instructional situation, regardless of personal allegiance to a particular theory.  Throughout the decades, the shift in paradigms has gone from understanding “what the learner knows” to “how the learner knows” and “why the learner knows.”  Jonassen (1991) likens these two paradigms, objectivism and constructivism, to the relationship between the artist and the scientist.  The question, though, is not whether art and science are able to co-exist.  In fact, they can. The questions are how art and science can intersect, when to use art, and when to use science.

Article Contributed by: Alan J. Reid, PhD, Coastal Carolina University


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Curated By: Bilal Ramazanoğlu