Theories of learning

Understanding the various methodologies of knowledge acquisition improves teaching skills

Many educational theorists and practitioners suggest that an understanding of learning theories can help educators appreciate the role teachers play in the classroom.

While the learning theories summarised here - behaviourist, cognitive and constructivist orientations - are not exhaustive, they provide an overview to more commonly-held views and related ideas or themes.

Behavioural orientation

The old view was that behaviourism reflects the view that learning research only had value when examining observable behaviour.

Beginning with early work by Ivan Pavlov, the 19th-century Russian psychologist, and his views on "classical conditioning", the 20th-century US psychologist B.F. Skinner's contribution in the 1940s and '50s on "operant conditioning" displayed the belief that learning was achieved by offering encouragement when students do what is desirable and ignoring them when they are doing something undesirable.

Behaviourism reflected an attempt to change learner behaviour in a selected manner, and it is used in a classroom environment where teachers establish a learning environment expected to lead to a desired change.

A great deal of training today continues to reflect this approach with programmes in which learning tasks are separated into identifiable parts, with the learning tasks broken into segments or tasks.

Cognitive orientation

The cognitive orientation sees a teacher as someone who is more skilled than the learners and can therefore help them learn more efficiently.

In this environment, educators must consider participant needs, learning styles and the selection of activities needed to enhance learning ability. Therefore, a teacher's challenge is to adjust lessons to the uniqueness of each student based on the idea that each one sees and interprets learning differently.

Constructivist orientation

The constructivist orientation looks to the role of experience and the interpretation of meaning. Constructivism, in reflecting the role of the learner's experience, leads to views that reflect either individual constructivism in which learning results from a personal interpretation of what is being experienced, or social constructivism in which the views of others are incorporated.

Reflective practice is seen as the application of existing knowledge based on experience and an implied knowledge of the practices used. Reflective practice involves a commitment to problem finding and solving, reflection on what action should be taken and then taking action even if it means doing nothing.

Situated cognition is reflected in the idea that learning should be presented in realistic situations with assessment authentic or performance based. To meet this authenticity test, the approach taken should include aspects of the real world and problems that students experience. For example, it should include exercises and activities in which students need to decide between valuable or worthless input along with increased comfort levels with handling difficulties without knowing exactly what to expect.

Cognitive apprenticeship is based on the idea that learners progress through five stages, from developing a mental model through observation to being able to discuss in general terms what they have learned. This is based on choosing appropriate real-life situations and modelling by an experienced facilitator.

Cognitive apprenticeship methods bring students into authentic activities and social settings like those used in craft apprenticeship.

Understanding learning theories provides a theoretical base for the approaches that teachers may decide to adopt to meet specific student needs. In addition, a brief theoretical understanding of each theory and an appreciation of how they are reflected in face-to-face teaching can offer a framework in which teaching skills, student knowledge and content expertise can be combined for learning success.

Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through,  via his website, at  or on 081-834-8982.

About the author

Writer: Timothy Cornwall, PHD, DTM
Position: Writer