• Introduction
  • The basics of learning theories
  • Behaviorism
  • Cognitive constructivism
  • Social constructivism
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Behaviorism: Behavior is a product of responses to different stimuli.
  • Cognitivism: Knowledge and behavior are learned by comparing previous experiences to new information.
  • Constructivism: Learning is a product of social interaction, environment and mental processing.


Learning is defined as “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning” (Ambrose et al. 2010). Learning theories describe how this process takes place. They explain how humans receive, process, and retain new knowledge. This can be anything from changing the way you think, behave, or move (motor learning).

Learning is highly related to prior experiences as well as emotional, cognitive, and environmental influences. Because of this, it also takes a considerable amount of time and repetition for knowledge/skills to accumulate. Learning is not just memorizing new information. It is about understanding and reflecting on complex ideas, making connections between new and past experiences, and using critical thinking in different contexts.

This post highlights the most common learning theories and what makes them important in the world of education. 

The basics of learning theories

Although there are various approaches to learning, three learning theories remain as the most well-recognized. They are behaviorism, cognitive constructivism, and social constructivism. Each of them has its distinct characteristics and history.

These three learning theories differ in how they view knowledge, learning, and motivation. These factors also have different implications for teaching.

  • Behaviorism sees the learner as a tabula rasa – a blank slate. This means that the learner passively absorbs knowledge from the teacher via responses to different stimuli.
  • Cognitivism believes that knowledge and behavior are learned by comparing the learner’s previous experiences to new information.
  • Constructivism sees learning as a collaborative effort that relies heavily on social interaction. Thus, learning is a product of your surroundings and your own mental processing.

Here are the three main learning theories in a nutshell. If you want a more in-depth look, scroll down to see their dedicated sections.

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Knowledge is a collection of responses to stimuliPassive absorption of knowledge & promoted by repetitionExtrinsic learning


Knowledge is actively built via mental processingActive assimilation of new informationIntrinsic learning


Knowledge is actively built via mental processing & social interactionActive collaboration & assimilation of new informationExtrinsic & intrinsic learning


Behaviorism stems from the works of behaviorists J.B. Watson (1878-1958) and B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), who rejected the idea that consciousness is both subjective and unquantifiable – a common theory among introspective psychologists at the time. Instead, Watson and Skinner believed that behavior can be quantifiable and objectively observed. They theorized that without the ability to measure what happens in the mind, scientific theories should focus on the relationship between stimulus and response. 

Behaviorists define learning simply as the acquisition of new behavior based on environmental conditions. Thus, all behavior is learned as a direct result of interacting with your surroundings, with inherited or innate factors having little influence on learning. For example, a dog will start salivating when they hear a bell if conditioned to do so (Pavlov’s dog). This makes behaviorism an extrinsically motivated learning theory. 

In education, behaviorism can be seen in positive or negative reinforcement depending on how learners act according to a specific stimulus. For example, a student who gets verbal praise after a correct answer or a good grade is more likely to learn the correct answers more effectively. A student who gets negative feedback after a wrong answer is less likely to learn it effectively. This is because people tend to avoid responses that they associate with unwanted consequences (negative feedback, punishment, bad grades, etc.).

Even though behaviorism used to be the most well-known learning theory in its time, and helped pave the way to understanding how humans learn, it has since been overshadowed by more contemporary learning theories.

Cognitive constructivism

Cognitivism emerged as a response to behaviorism’s rigid focus on observable behavior. This led educational psychologists to create ways to measure the learner’s thinking processes as they interact with the world. Cognitivists believe that knowledge is generated by actively connecting new experiences with prior information. This also means that learning is dependent on cognitive development, cultural background, personal history, and the learner’s understanding of their own behavior.

Because knowledge is constantly constructed on previous experiences, learning is often seen as a process of active discovery. In an educational setting this means refraining from repetition and memorization. Instead, more emphasis should be put on facilitating discovery and encouraging self-reflection in the learner’s thought-process. This guides the learners to use their previous know-how and construct new solutions and ideas.

Social constructivism relies heavily on the works of Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist. He proposed that intelligence changes as children grow. Cognitive development is not just about acquiring knowledge, but developing and constructing a mental model of the world. Piaget divided this cognitive development into four stages: sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage.

Social constructivism

Social constructivism was created by a Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Although Vygotsky considered himself a cognitivist, he rejected the idea that learning could be separated from its social context. He argued that all cognitive functions are a product of social interactions – not just the assimilation and accommodation of new knowledge. Therefore, knowledge is not just constructed, but co-constructed.

Social constructivism can also be seen as the process by which learners were integrated into a community. Because of this, Vygotsky also saw language and culture as essential in how people look at the world. 

According to constructivist theorists, humans construct their own perspective of the world based on social interactions, their own experiences, and previous knowledge. Since these experiences and perceptions vary greatly between individuals, learning can be seen as a process unique to each person. These same mental models are seen every day in our behavior; how we think, how we act, how we deal with conflicts, etc. In simple terms, learning is a constant process of adjusting to new experiences. 

Learning theories explain how humans receive, process, and retain knowledge.

Final thoughts

Learning theories can be seen as a set of principles that explains how people acquire, process, and attain new knowledge. Studying these theories helps us better understand the intricacies of how humans learn. 

Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism can be used as guidelines or educational tools. For example, they can help teachers choose the correct teaching styles, tools, techniques, and strategies to create a motivating learning atmosphere.

Did you learn anything new about learning theories? Let us know in the comments.


  • Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.
  • Perry, William G. (1999). Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Piaget, Jean (1968). Six Psychological Studies. Anita Tenzer (Trans.), New York: Vintage Books.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1976). About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.

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