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Learning Theories

This is a synthesis of 5 learning theories for MAT 5310

Anita Ellis

on 24 July 2015

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Transcript of Learning Theories

Humanism is a branch of psychology that has the idea that people want to fulfill their own potential.
Theoretical perspective that focuses on people’s collective efforts to impose meaning on the world.
Social Constructivism
Key concepts of the Theory
Theoretical perspective that focuses on mental activities to understand how people learn.
Key concepts of the Theory
Rationale for this design
Learning Theories
Anita Ellis, MAT 5310
Theoretical perspective in which learning and behavior are described and explained in terms of stimulus-response relationships.
• not all reinforcers are equal; some things will be more effective reinforcers than others
• timing is important: when learning a new behavior, subject needs regular reinforcement; as the behavior is acquired, reinforcement needs to become intermittent in order to avoid
(loss of behavior due to over-reinforcement) or
(loss of behavior due to lack of reinforcement)
Theoretical perspective that focuses on how people learn by observing others and how they eventually assume control over their own behavior.
Social Cognitive
Key concepts of the Theory
There is more to icebergs than meets the eye. A small portion of an iceberg is visible, above water. But beneath the water hides the bulk of these icy behemoths. Currents move them, and move around them. Though they appear to be still and unchanging, icebergs are in constant motion and change.

Learning, according to the 5 learning theories presented here, is like icebergs: some deal with the observable (Behaviorism and Social Cognitive Theory), while others deal with processes that are "under the surface" or internal (Cognitivism, Social Constructivism and Humanism). Learning is not static, is always changing. Different "currents" or themes swirl around them to connect some of the ideas (eg. reinforcement, or the effects of environment).
Learning is a change in behavior due to environment. Behaviorists refer to learning as “conditioning.”
Learning is an internal process that may or may not lead to behavioral change.
Constructing meaning is central to learning.
Learning is more than the assimilation of new knowledge by learners, it is the process by which learners are integrated into a knowledge community.
Learning is student-centered and personalized; the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator. Learning is self-directed.
B. F. Skinner
Internal mechanisms cannot be studied, but behavior can; by studying learning in animals, we can come to understand learning in humans as well.


Earlier theorists (eg. Watson, Pavlov) explored classical conditioning (stimulus-response); Thorndike explored operant conditioning, where behavior changes are in response to consequences (rewards and punishment).


He could change people’s behavior by changing their environment.


He developed and used a “Skinner box” to condition animals to perform complex tasks; used reinforcement and punishment.
A. Bandura
(1925 - )

behavior is directed toward certain goals, and is increasingly self-regulated.

rooted in behaviorism; increasingly incorporated cognition.

People think about the relationship between behavior and consequences. Observational learning cannot take place without understanding of the behavior-consequence contingency.


Bobo doll (1961) – children learn from observation.
Pros and Cons
Classroom Application
Pros and Cons
Classroom Application
Pros and Cons
Classroom Application
Classroom Application
Key concepts of the Theory
• Help students construct accurate understandings of the world around them; encourage them to discard any erroneous beliefs they may have previously constructed.

• Build on children’s early theories about the world, but be on the lookout for beliefs that may get in the way of more advanced understandings.
Classroom Application

Cultural Mediation [web log post]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_mediation.

Flamand, L. Limitations of Scocial Cognitive Theory [web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/about_5421206_limitations-social-cognitive-theory.html.

Flamand, L. Strengths of Social Cognitive Theory [web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/about_5437336_strengths-social-cognitive-theory.html.

Lev Vygotsky [web log post]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lev_Vygotsky.

McLeod, S. (2011). Bandura – Social Learning Theory [web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html.

McLeod, S. (2014). Lev Vygotsky [web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html.

North American Montessori Center. (2009, October 30). Maslow and Montessori: Hierarchy of Human Needs and the Prepared Environment [web blog post]. Retrieved from http://montessoritraining.blogspot.com/2009/10/maslow-and-montessori-education-of.html#.VDPq2fldWSp.

Reggio Emilia Approach. [web log post]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reggio_Emilia_approach.

Summaries of Learning Theories and Models. (2014) [web page]. Retrieved from http://www.learning-theories.com/

J. Piaget
Development always precedes learning.

Observations of his four children’s development and a reaction to behaviorism, which failed to explain what happens in the “black box” of the mind in learning.

Knowledge comes from a response to specific observations and experiences.

L. Vygotsky
Cognitive development varies across cultures; learning precedes development.


Marxism (emphasis on importance of social context)


Cognitive development stems from social interactions. It is impossible to separate learning from social context. One’s environment influences how one thinks and what one thinks about. Cognitive development results from internalization of language. Our past knowledge shapes how we interpret knowledge that we encounter. It is at the core of knowledge construction.

A. Maslow
M. Montessori

Conditioning does not adequately capture the complexity of human behavior

Human actions are directed toward goal attainment. Children should be respected as fellow human beings.

The existing education system is more of a hindrance than a help to development.

Children are profoundly affected by society and their immediate environment. Education assists the psychological development of the child. Children should be respected as fellow human beings.

Reggio Emilia approach
diagram courtesy of
Key concepts of the Theory

Positive Reinforcemen
t (praise, signals, good grades, rewards, etc) is highly effective. Be sure to know your students to determine what is reinforcing for them. Be consistent. Avoid using food as a reinforcer; try to encourage the development of intrinsic reinforcers.

A token economy
is an effective strategy for a challenging class, or to develop group skill or behavior learning. As students display appropriate behaviors, they earn tokens, which can later be cashed in for a larger, more desirable reward (eg. free time, preferred activity, etc.)

A contingency contract
is a formal agreement between a student and teacher identifying behaviors the student will exhibit and the reinforcers that will follow.
• effective in shaping and teaching/learning behaviors.
• to a certain degree, encourages motivation for learning.
• applicable in advertising, video games, prison reform, classroom management

• too rigid and limited to be a learning theory: cannot explain how the mind contributes to learning; behaviorists see the mind as a “black box”.
• ignores innate knowledge, sensation, perception, cognition and other internal mechanisms.

Reinforcement and Punishment in
The Family Guy
An example of a token economy in an elementary school setting.

A group contingency
is a contingency contract between a teacher and a group of students. Reinforcers are only applied when the whole group has demonstrated the desired behavior. Also reinforcing are visuals such as charts (eg. a thermometer, a game field, an elevator shaft) or jars (for ping pong balls, jelly beans, marbles) -- as the behaviors are more consistently demonstrated, the class can visualize their progress (eg. the elevator or mercury “rising”, sports team “advancing” or jar filling toward the larger reward or goal).

We learn from
live models
(people whose behavior is observed in person) and
symbolic models
(real or fictional characters from media sources who influence behavior). To be effective, a model must demonstrate competence, prestige and power and behavior relevant to the learner’s situation.

Effects of modeling
observational learning
(learning as a result of observing a behavior),
response facilitation
(learning as a result of observing someone else being reinforced for behavior),
response inhibition / disinhibition
(decreasing behavior as a result of punishment or observing someone being punished).

Conditions for effective modeling:

(how much attention is paid affects how effectively a behavior is learned);
(remembering what one paid attention to);
(reproducing the image);
(having a good reason to imitate)

: belief that one is capable of executing certain behaviors or reaching certain goals; affects choice of activities, goals, effort and persistence.

: process of setting goals for oneself and engaging in behaviors and cognitive processes that lead to goal attainment.

Reinforcement / punishment:
Be explicit about which behaviors lead to what consequences; be careful not to vicariously reinforce undesirable behaviors or punish desirable ones; be consistent; follow through; give explicit feedback.

Cognitive modeling:
Model not only how to do a task, but the thinking process behind it; describe what we’re doing as we model new behaviors; explicitly teach self-regulation and self-reinforcement; use exemplars..

Behavior modeling:
Expose children to models they are likely to perceive as prestigious and competent; actions speak louder than words – model desired behaviors for students.

make real-world connections with learning; associate learning with their situations; provide mechanisms through which students can track their own progress toward mastery of a behavior or skill; have students tackle more difficult tasks in small groups; allow students’ input into establishing goals.

Have students imitate behavior immediately after observing it; provide feedback in order to improve their performance.

Set initial task difficulty at students’ self-efficacy levels, and gradually increase challenge.

• Provides a reasonable balance between behaviorism and cognitivism.
• Real applications: self-efficacy, observational learning and reciprocal causation.
• Allows for cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary analysis and application.

• Loosely structured; too broad to fully implement.
• Minimizes emotional responses; ignores biological and horomonal responses.
• Neglects maturation effect on behavior and learning.
• Neglects psychological problems (such as schizophrenia) where subjects are not responsible for certain behaviors .

Pros and Cons

an organized set of facts about a specific topic.

occurs when the schema doesn’t match experience or predict the future.

occurs when the schema explains past experience or predicts future events.

involves accommodation and assimilation

changing an existing schema or concept to fit new experience.

: making room for a new experience (incorporation)

• When important details are difficult to fill in logically (eg. exceptions to grammar/spelling rules), make sure students learn them well.

• Look for under/over-generalized understandings of concepts.

• Show students how concepts are interrelated.

• Determine whether students have appropriate schemas and scripts to understand the topic at hand.

• Active inquiry learning and discovery learning.

• Developmentally appropriate instruction.

• Allow for opportunities for social interaction (collaborative activities).

The development of schema through different life stages.
Accommodation and Assimilation of Schema
• encourages deeper thinking by challenging ideas.
• encourages strategies and activities that are more stage-of-development-appropriate.

• ignores cultural effects
• difficult to assess schemas as they are not objectively verifiable.

Cultural tools:
used by learners to construct meaning; often acquired in the course of development and passed on to subsequent generations.

Cultural mediation
: higher mental functions are developed through social interactions, through which a child learns the habits of mind of his/her culture (including speech patterns, written language and symbolic knowledge). This affects how the child constructs knowledge.

a teaching tool which allows educators to adjust the support offered during a teaching session to fit the learner’s current level of performance.

Zone of Proximal Development:
range of tasks where learning takes place; acquisition of new knowledge is dependent on previous learning, as well as the availability of instruction. The lower limit of this range is the level at which the child is able to work independently. The upper limit is the potential skill the child can attain with the assistance of a more competent teacher.

The Zone of Proximal Development explained and illustrated in several environments.
• Collaborative work with peer groupings needs to be incorporated in plans; promote discussions or debates.

• Reciprocal teaching (teacher working with small group of students) where questioning, summarizing, clarifying and predicting are strategies used to develop understanding.

• Provide authentic contexts in which the students can learn.

• Use exemplars.

• Be explicit about the values you portray in the classroom.
Pros and Cons
• Learners are active participants in the learning process, not passive receptacles of knowledge.
• Encourages interaction between students and teacher.

• Lack of structure – some students require more structure in order to learn.
• With more of an emphasis on self-evaluation, students may fall behind in standardized assessments
with no benchmark against which to measure progress.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs
: Humans have 5 kinds of needs – physiological, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization. The first 4 are called “deficiency needs” as their lack of satisfaction creates a deficiency that provides the motivation required to meet those needs. The last kind of need is a “growth need” because the motivation is for personal fulfillment as opposed to filling a deficiency. If the more basic needs are deficient, higher levels of need cannot be met

energizes behavior toward certain goals, increases persistence in activities, affects cognitive processes, often enhances performance.

Reggio Emelio:
school in Italy, built upon these principles:
(1)children must have some control over the direction of their learning;
(2)Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, seeing, and hearing;
(3) Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that children must be allowed to explore and
(4) Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.

• Parents are viewed as partners in education, and the teacher as a collaborator and co-learner.

• The physical environment of the school is crucial, and known as the “third teacher”.

Planning and teaching
: Plan activities that keep students continually active and engaged; minimize competitors and other situations in which students might judge themselves unfavorably in comparison with peers; provide opportunities for independent work and decision making; Give students opportunities to make choices; find ways to combine academic learning with their social needs – discussions, debate, role playing, cooperative learning, competition.
• useful in understanding why students behave as they do at times
• useful in determining how learning might be affected by psychological or safety deficiencies

• vague definition of “deficiencies”: what is a deficiency for one is not necessarily for another.
• Quite a few exceptions exist: eg. people have been known to risk their own safety to help someone in danger.

Montessori Method vs. Traditional Schooling

Give students concrete mechanisms through which they can track their progress over time; evaluate student performance in a non-controlling way.

: Keep in mind that students are unlikely to work hard on classroom assignments if more basic needs have not been met (eg. physiological and safety); create an environment which encourages students to take risks; present rules and instructions in an informal, rather than controlling, way; build rapport with students so they feel liked and cared about.
Maria Montessori
• Children are profoundly affected by society and the immediate environment. Each child is born with creative potential and the right to be treated with respect.
• Prepared environments in the schools and at home helped to develop the child's potential.
• Children should be given the freedom to work and move around the classroom with guidelines that helped them to act as part of a social group.
• Children should be provided with designed materials that will help them to explore their world and enable them to develop cognitive skills.
• Mixed age groups encourage all children to develop their personalities socially and intellectually at their own pace.

What I take from this for my own teaching
Classroom Management:
Model the behaviors I expect my students to exhibit.
Explicitly teach behavior expectations and values; positively reinforce appropriate behaviors.
Be consistent.
Build rapport with students; get to know what is meaningful and of interest to them and incorporate those into means of reinforcement and classroom activities, when possible.
Provide meaningful feedback; show students what they have done well and what they need to do to improve performance.
Provide students with tools to measure their own progress as they acquire new knowledge and skills.
Planning and Teaching:
Plan activities to actively engage students.
Involve students in goal setting; allow them to make some choices in their learning (eg. summative task to demonstrate learning)
Make connections to the real world, and to other concepts.
Encourage collaboration and inquiry.
Plan for a variety of tasks that include group and independent work.
Use exemplars.
Be aware of cultural differences which
account for misunderstanding,
behaviors, etc.
Classroom Environment:
Have different zones in the class (eg. floor space for group meetings, desk/table areas for working, zones for inquiry, etc.)
Plan activities to allow for some movement between zones in the room.
Provide an enriched space for students to explore and develop concepts.
Allow for peer groupings.
Things that made me go "hmm"
Learning is complex and difficult to define. There are many aspects of learning ranging from behavior to cognition, from stimulus-response to constructing schemas. Each learning theory provides a little insight into a different aspect of learning, but do not give the whole picture. It is, in some ways, like looking at learning with a magnifying glass -- you see parts of it close up, but not the full, big picture.
I need to have more faith in the learner. I am not the absolute source of knowledge in the classroom universe. There are things that students can and should discover on their own, with some guidance from me. I am part of the learning process, but not a static piece of it. I am still learning too.
There is joy in learning, and it is up to me to provide the opportunity for my students to experience the joy.
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