Comparing learning theories

What is learning?

Learning is about how we perceive and understand the world, about making meaning
(Marton and Booth, 1997). But ‘learning’ is not a single thing; it may involve mastering
abstract principles, understanding proofs, remembering factual information, acquiring
methods, techniques and approaches, recognition, reasoning, debating ideas, or
developing behaviour appropriate to specific situations; it is about change.

A significant deficiency in learning and teaching practices today is the distinct lack of core strategies and design (e.g. applying appropriate learning theories) in delvering effective learning and teaching practices.

According to Fry, Ketteridge & Marshall, (2008), in psychology there are several schools of thought about how learning takes place, and various categorisations of these that include:

  • Rationalism (or idealism) is one such school, or pole, of learning theory still with some vogue. It is based on the idea of a biological plan being in existence that unfolds in very determined directions. Chomsky was a foremost member of this pole.
  • Associationism, a second pole, centres on the idea of forming associations
    between stimuli and responses. Pavlov and Skinner belong to this pole. Further details may be found in Richardson (1985).
  • In the twenty-first century cognitive and social theories are those used most widely, with constructivism being the best known.

Many ideas about learning in the early twentieth century tended to consider the
development of the individual in isolation, but by the 1920s and 1930s ideas looking at
the influence of the wider context in which learning occurs and at emotional and social
influences and affects became more common.

As per the EDX Instructional Design course (see WELCOME PAGE), the following learning theories are covered by the course:

• Behaviorism – reward & punishment
• Constructivism – argues knowledge is made by the learner, not simply received
• Cognitivism – assumes we can understand mental processes
• Andragogy

Further notes:
Humanism – respecting the individual as a person
Social constructivism – focuses on observation, imitation and agency

Comparing learning theories

Sources: Hassad, R. A. (2011)

Behaviourism Constructivism
A rigid procedural approach, aimed at using fixed stimuli and reinforcements to promote a fixed world of objective knowledge, measured primarily in terms of  observable behavior (Skinner 1974; Caprio 1994).

The theory that learning takes place through the use of feedback to reinforce desired behavior.

The instructor utilises active learning strategies to scaffold activities and tasks (so that students can progress from the simple to the complex), explore information, discover concepts, and construct knowledge and meaning.

A learning theory that asserts that each student constructs his own learning and knowledge.

Focuses on discrete and compartmentalized knowledge and skills rather than integration of knowledge, and conceptual understanding. According to Fosnot (2005, p. 13), in this context, instructors become “facilitators, provocateurs and questioners.”

This allows for the development of deep and conceptual understanding, that is, the ability to know “what to do and why” (Skemp 1987, p. 9) rather than surface knowledge (from rote learning associated with behaviorist pedagogy).

Defines knowledge as “temporary, developmental, socially and culturally mediated, and thus, non-objective”  Brooks and Brooks 1993, p. vii).

Centered around transmission
of knowledge from the instructor to the student (passive student and a top-down or instructor-centered approach)
The learner is an information constructor.

Construction of knowledge by the student (active student and a bottom-up or
student-centered approach). According to Askew et al. (1997), highly effective teachers possess a constructivist (or connectionist) orientation rather than a behaviorist (or transmission) orientation.A constructivist learning experience incorporates intrinsically motivating activities such as exploring, questioning, and problem-solving.

The main activity in a constructivist classroom is solving problems. Students use inquiry methods to ask questions, investigate a topic, and use a variety of resources to find solutions and answers. As students explore the topic, they draw conclusions, and, as exploration continues, they revisit those conclusions. Exploration of questions leads to more questions.

A key goal in selecting active
learning strategies is to facilitate cognitive apprenticeship (Singer and Willett
1993; Dennen 2004) through authentic activities (Leont’ev 1972), encompassing
projects, group work (including discussions), problem-solving situations, oral and written presentations, as well as other tasks which model discipline-specific real world activities, through expert demonstration and guidance (coaching). These activities should be structured and administered so as to provide stimuli for cognitive dissonance or conflict (Liu and Matthews 2005) which serves to promote inquiry, and challenges the individual to think critically and reason, resulting in learning that is deep and conceptual, and hence a meaning-making experience (Dennen, 2004).

Focuses primarily on observable behaviors, supposing that behavior (as an outward expression of learning) is a direct result of stimuli.




Emphasizes the mind of the individual, and views learning as simply the assimilation and accommodation of new knowledge by learners, in other words, merely a process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.

Active participants in the construction of their own knowledge.

Behaviorists believe that environment and experience are the only factors that influence behavior (or learning) Constructivists like Jean-Jacques Piaget realized that a student’s background, perceptions, and perspective affect his learning in that they are foundations to build upon.

Our minds are not completely blank slates – even when we are children. Instead, we have experiences and language we use to make connections with new information we are learning

TBC Vygotsky argued that we learn and develop through interactions, with language playing a key role; this type of learning is termed social Constructivism.
Behavioral motivation is essentially extrinsic, a reaction to positive and negative reinforcements. Cognitive motivation is essentially intrinsic — based on the learner’s internal drive. Social constructivists see motivation as both extrinsic and intrinsic. Because learning is essentially a social phenomenon, learners are partially motivated by rewards provided by the knowledge community. However, because knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, learning also depends to a significant extent on the learner’s internal drive to understand and promote the learning process.

Per Biggs, (1999) and with reference to Ku Lueven’s vision on learning and, specifically, deep and surface learning:

The learning process’s quality is determined by how students approach their learning. You can distinguish between students with deep and surface learning methods, more commonly known as Susan and Robert, Biggs, (1999).

Robert’s learning involves isolated knowledge, unconnected facts and ‘memorising’ subject matter. He learns through lower order learning activities, like memorisation and structuring. Susan, on the other hand, learns in a meaningful way. She really wants to understand the matter, and will use higher order learning activities like reflection and analysis.

In the following figure, Biggs, (1999), the horizontal axis shows two class situations: a class in which students have to participate passively, for example in classic lectures, in which the person speaking is mainly the teacher. On the right, a situation is shown in which students actively join in in class, through participatory thinking and action.

The vertical axis visually represents the different learning activities, ranging from lower order (at the bottom) to higher order learning activities.

delete - susan

According to Ku Leuven, whether students learn profoundly or superficially depends on the learning environment you shape.  As figure 1 above, it illustrates, Susans will always tend to perform higher order learning activities. Roberts, on the other hand, will only learn profoundly if they are challenged to do so (see the difference between A and B in the graph) in the learning environment you shape.

It is your task to design a learning environment which supports students’ learning processes and which stimulates students to learn profoundly. You can do this by activating them in class.

The objective of Ku Leuven’s education is to deliver independent learners. Powerful learning environments are aimed at gradually letting students take their learning processes into their own hands[4]. These environments are characterised by the following things:

  • A balanced learning content, taking into account both knowledge and skills.
  • A healthy balance of guidance and direction from the teacher and students’ self-direction (see learning activities).
  • A specific order of learning activities, from simple to more complex and diverse. In addition, it is important to provide students with a broad orientation before tackling details.
  • Authentic tasks and problems which are representative for future situations. For this, it is important for you, the expert, to model problem-solving methods.
  • Attention for collaborative learning.


Askew, M., V. Rhodes, M. Brown, D. William, and D. Johnson. 1997. Effective Teachers
of Numeracy. Report of a Study Carried Out for the Teacher Training Agency.
London: King’s College London, School of Education.

Biggs, J. (1999). What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development18(1), pp. 57-75.

Brooks, J. G. and M. G. Brooks.1993. In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA

Dennen, V. P. (2004). Cognitive apprenticeship in educational practice: Research on
scaffolding, modeling, mentoring, and coaching as instructional strategies. In
Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, ed. D. H.
Jonassen, 813−828. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. NJ.

Fosnot, C. T. 1996. Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice, Vol. I. New
York: Teachers College Press.
———. 2005. Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice, Vol. II. New York: Teachers College Press.
——— et al. 2007. Contexts for learning mathematics, K-6, Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann Press and Harcourt School Publishers.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2008). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: Enhancing academic practice. Routledge.

Hassad, R. A. (2011). Constructivist and behaviorist approaches: Development and initial evaluation of a teaching practice scale for introductory statistics at the college level. Numeracy4(2), 7.

Leont’ev, A. N. 1972. The problem of activity in psychology. Voprosy filosofii, 9:

Marton, F and Booth, S (1997) Learning and Awareness, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Skemp, R. R. 1987. The psychology of learning mathematics. Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates: NJ Hillsdale

Singer, J., and J. Willett. 1993. Lessons we can learn from recent research on teaching:
It’s not just the form, it’s the authenticity. In Proceedings of the American Statistical
Association Joint Statistical Meetings. San Francisco, CA.

Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.

References from Ku Leuven, one of the oldest universities in Europe:

Ku Leuven – Vision on Learning

Clement, M., & Laga, E. (2005). Steekkaarten doceerpraktijk. Antwerpen: Garant.

De Corte, E. (1996). Actief leren binnen krachtige onderwijsleeromgevingen. Impuls voor onderwijsbegeleiding, 4, pp. 145-156.

Janssens, S., Verschaffel, L., De Corte, E., Elen, J., Lowyck, J., Struyf, E., Van Damme, J., & Vandenberghe, R. (2000). Didactiek in beweging. Wolters-Plantyn.

Biggs, J. (1999). What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development18(1), pp. 57-75.