Key learning theories in education

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Key learning theories in education

Three 20th century schools of thought have shaped today’s educational landscape: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. An understanding of the principles of these theoretical approaches can help us become better educators and implement effective learning strategies for students. The following chart summarizes the key concepts of each of these theoretical frameworks, and the ways in which they can be applied to teaching and learning.

  • Behaviourism
  • Cognitivism
  • Constructivism
Perspective on learningLearning is observable behavioural change that occurs in response to environmental stimuli.
How it worksPositive or negative stimuli (rewards and punishments) become associated with a behaviour. Through this process of conditioning, people learn to either repeat or avoid behaviours.
Strengths of the approach
Learning can be clearly defined and carefully controlled
Students can gain mastery/automaticity
Application in teaching
Use of clearly defined learning objectives and lesson plans
Establishing rules
Bonus points/participation points
Drilling/rote work/repetition
Verbal reinforcement (‘Good job!’)
Perspective on learningLearning is the acquisition of knowledge and the development of understanding as a result of unseen mental ‘processing’, i.e. thought, reflection, problem-solving, etc.
How it worksKnowledge is acquired schematically and symbolically and involves changing mental models or schemas.
Strengths of the approach
Highlights thought processes, and ways to organize and enhance them
Provides guidance for teaching at different developmental stages
Application in teaching
Scaffolding: providing structure, organization, and sequences
Classifying or ‘chunking’ information
Linking concepts, e.g. concept mapping
Drawing analogies
Use of diagrams and infographics
Perspective on learningLearning involves creating one’s own subjective knowledge by interpreting the world and restructuring one’s thinking.
How it worksLearning is a natural process of discovery, where students hypothesize about their environment and test these hypotheses through social negotiations, building on previous knowledge.
Strengths of the approach
Promotes higher-order thinking, self-management, and teamwork
Student-centred learning
Students can tackle real-world contexts and problems
Fosters creativity
Application in teaching
Case studies
Research projects
Problem-based learning
Brainstorming
Collaborative learning/group work
Journalling and reflection
Discovery learning
Simulations