Learning Theory: Definition and Types of Learning Theories

Updated September 30, 2022

Educators can use various learning theories in their classrooms to help their students learn. These theories help teachers connect with their students by implementing different learning methods, allowing them to focus on each student's individual strengths. If you're an educator or are considering a job in the field, discovering more about learning theories may allow you to better connect with your students and teach more effectively. In this article, we define learning theory, explain why it's important for educators, share the various theories, and provide tips on using them in the classroom.

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What is a learning theory?

A learning theory explains the different ways people learn by focusing on the internal and external influences that affect the learning process. As learning is complex, many theories explain the different approaches to learning. Typically, university students who study to become teachers learn various theories they can implement in the classroom. Using different theories can give students multiple opportunities to learn class content in the best ways for them.

Read more: Essential Teaching Skills and How to Develop Them

Why is learning theory important for educators?

These theories are important because they help educators teach students new concepts and skills. They have impacted course curriculums, transformed how teachers instil knowledge in the classroom, and changed the way many parents explain things to their children. These theories give a clearer understanding of the way students learn so that teachers can provide more comprehensive learning strategies and adapt to all students' learning styles.

Read more: A Guide to Developing Philosophies in Teaching

Types of learning theories

Here's a list of some common theories with strategies you can use in the classroom:

Behavioural theory

Behavioural theory, or behaviourism, concentrates on the concept that students learn information and behaviours from external sources in the environment rather than from internal ones. For example, when a teacher provides a student with positive reinforcements. Rewards are external forces in the environment that affect a child's learning. Behaviourism states that if you give students a positive reward for their behaviour, they are more likely to repeat it. Through positive reinforcement and repetition, students may learn to repeat that positive behaviour.

According to this theory, teachers also use negative reinforcements to motivate students to change their negative behaviour. If your class is unfocused and isn't completing their classwork on time, you can provide them with a negative reinforcement. For example, you might tell them you won't require them to complete their homework if all students finish their in-class assignments for the day. This reinforcement motivates students by taking away a task they prefer not to do, so they're more likely to work hard to complete their work in class. Here are some strategies you can use in your classroom:

  • Drills: Drills are repetitive ways of practicing and reinforcing the material students have learned in the classroom.

  • Guided practice: You can guide students through an example problem on a worksheet to model appropriate behaviour and how to complete the question step-by-step. This demonstration shows students an appropriate way to respond when working on similar problems independently.

  • Regular reviews: Regularly reviewing material can help students retain information. Teachers can reinforce students with positive praise when they're doing well.

Cognitive theory

Cognitive theory focuses on how internal and external forces can influence students' learning ability. This theory believes that students are active participants in their learning because they have their own knowledge, skills, and memories that can benefit them when learning. During cognitive learning, the learner sees something new, processes it internally, and then acts on it somehow. Typically, when students learn something new, they observe it, perceive it, and then interpret the information by categorizing it in their minds with other memories to help them remember it. Here are cognitive learning strategies you can use:

  • Discussions: Promote discussions amongst your students about daily lessons to encourage their own interpretation of the material and to expand their understanding by listening to the observations of others.

  • Reflections: Give learners a chance to reflect individually on what they've learned in class. They may write in a reflection journal to process their learning before memorizing it in their minds and progressing to new material.

  • Visualizations: Provide visual stimuli when possible to improve students' understanding of new ideas and to increase their likelihood of remembering them. Visualizations allow learners to categorize the new visuals with the information they've learned previously.

Humanistic theory

Humanistic theory, or humanism, focuses on the idea that students can benefit from education when teachers concentrate on ways to teach all aspects of a child. This theory focuses on engaging students' intellect, social skills, feelings, and practical skills in education. Humanist theory emphasizes student-centred learning, which gives the learner more input on how they learn.

The goal of student-centred learning is to create lessons with students' needs as the top priority. Teachers can implement this theory in their classroom by providing learners with different approaches to learning classroom content and multiple ways to practise it in the classroom. Some other humanistic learning strategies you can implement in your classroom include:

  • Choice boards: Students can use choice boards in most grade levels and subjects to complete tasks as directed by the teacher. Students can choose the tasks that allow them to highlight their skills and understanding of the material.

  • Cooperative learning: This learning strategy gives students a chance to work together on an assignment or project. Each student can find a role within the group that exemplifies their strengths to accomplish the task's aim.

  • Differentiated learning: Providing students with multiple ways to view the same content allows them to learn at an individualized pace. For example, try giving students the same article to read at different reading levels and choosing the one that helps them comprehend the material most effectively.

Read more: How to Make a Resume for a Teaching Position

Connectivism theory

Connectivism is a more recently developed learning theory that focuses on the idea that students learn best by navigating different digital networks and using technology to learn. This theory relies on utilizing those digital networks to increase students' learning mostly independently. Some strategies available to use connectivity in your classroom include:

  • Readily available technology: Providing students with devices, like laptops or tablets, and allowing them to use technology frequently in the classroom encourages them to do their own probing to learn.

  • Social networks: Students can use social networks to seek answers to their questions regarding their learning. They may also ask questions and connect with other people digitally who might respond to their questions to further their understanding of a topic they learned in class.

  • Student-centred activities: Connectivism concentrates on students learning information by researching it online. Focusing on activities where students do most of the learning on their own may help them take the initiative in their education.

Read more: 20 Careers in Teaching and Education (With Salaries)

Constructivism theory

Constructivism theory maintains that learners create an understanding of new concepts based on their prior knowledge. This theory believes that students can build new knowledge by discovering connections between old and new information. They link each new experience to a previous memory or event so that their understanding of the world is constantly expanding and changing. Since all learners have different prior experiences and knowledge, constructivism believes that learning is unique for each individual. Here are a few constructivist theory strategies that you can use with students:

  • Experiments: Consider providing learners with the freedom to conduct an experiment on a topic they've discussed and read about in class. This option allows students to perceive the content from a hands-on perspective to understand the material better.

  • Field trips: Going on field trips allows learners to see concepts learned in class in a real-world environment and link the two experiences. Then, they can form a better understanding of what they learned at school.

  • Research projects: Giving students a chance to research information on a topic they learned in class allows them to relate the new information to what they've already learned.

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Tips for using learning theories

Here's a list of tips for using learning theories in the classroom:

Ask students to create goals for themselves

After explaining the day's lesson, consider asking students to create their goals for the day. This task gives them their personal motivations for doing well in the lesson. They can understand what they're learning and why it applies to them.

Empower learners to track their progress

Students can track their grades by recording their scores when they receive their graded work. This task allows them to analyze their strengths and weaknesses and assess where there is room for improvement. It also allows them to reconsider their goals as they observe their grades change.

Encourage learning through real-world concepts

Consider giving students another way to understand classroom content by taking them on virtual field trips and allowing them to do classroom experiments. Explain how they can use concepts from the classroom in the real world. For example, you can explain how people use addition and subtraction to purchase goods from the store.

Read more: How to Become an Elementary Teacher (Step-by-Step Guide)

Encourage collaborative learning

Letting students work together to solve a problem or work on a project encourages them to collaborate productively. Collaboration also allows them to learn new concepts from different perspectives. When students work together, they also learn important communication and teamwork skills that they may use throughout their lives.

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