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Part of Western Governors University

May 30, 2020

Teaching & Education

The five educational learning theories.

Felt letters - learning theories

No two students are alike, and the way every person learns will vary. Our brains are all unique, and our experiences all contribute to the different ways we learn. Psychologists have spent countless hours performing tests to better understand how students learn. 

Current and aspiring teachers need to have education to be prepared for teaching students every day. And an important part of teacher education is understanding different ways of learning. There are many solidified learning theories that teachers can learn from as they prepare to help students in the classroom. Teachers who understand learning theories can use different techniques in their classroom to cater to different kinds of learning. This can help all kinds of students find success in learning.

There are five educational learning theories that educators can utilize to help them enhance their classroom and make it a better learning environment for all students. 

Cognitive learning theory.

The cognitive learning theory looks at the way people think. Mental processes are an important part in understanding how we learn. The cognitive theory understands that learners can be influenced by both internal and external elements. Plato and Descartes are two of the first philosophers that focused on cognition and how we as human beings think. Many other researchers looked deeper into the idea of how we think, spurring more research. Jean Piaget is a highly important figure in the field of cognitive psychology, and his work focuses on environments and internal structures and how they impact learning. The cognitive theory has developed over time, breaking off into sub-theories that focus on unique elements of learning and understanding. At the most basic level, the cognitive theory suggests that internal thoughts and external forces are both an important part of the cognitive process. And as students understand how their thinking impacts their learning and behavior, they are able to have more control over it. 

The cognitive learning theory impacts students because their understanding of their thought process can help them learn. Teachers can give students opportunities to ask questions, to fail, and think out loud. These strategies can help students understand how their thought process works, and utilize this knowledge to construct better learning opportunities.

Behaviorism learning theory.

The behaviorism learning theory is the idea that how a student behaves is based on their interaction with their environment. It suggests that behaviors are influenced and learned from external forces rather than internal forces. Psychologists have been working on the idea of behaviorism since the 19th century. Behavioral learning theory is the basis for psychology that can be observed and quantified. Positive reinforcement is a popular element of behaviorism—classical conditioning observed in Pavlov’s dog experiments suggests that behaviors are directly motivated by the reward that can be obtained. 

Teachers in a classroom can utilize positive reinforcement to help students better learn a concept. Students who receive positive reinforcement are more likely to retain information moving forward, a direct result of the behaviorism theory.

Constructivism learning theory.

The constructivism learning theory is based on the idea that students actually create their own learning based on their previous experience. Students take what they are being taught and add it to their previous knowledge and experiences, creating a unique reality that is just for them. This learning theory focuses on learning as an active process, personal and unique for each student. 

Teachers can utilize constructivism to help understand that each student will bring their own past to the classroom every day. Teachers in constructivist classrooms act as more of a guide to helping students create their own learning and understanding. They help them create their own process and reality based on their own past. This is crucial to helping many kinds of students take their own experiences and include them in their learning.

Humanism learning theory.

Humanism is very closely related to constructivism. Humanism directly focuses on the idea of self-actualization. Everyone functions under a hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization is at the top of the hierarchy of needs—it is the brief moments where you feel all of your needs are met and that you’re the best possible version of yourself. Everyone is striving for this, and your learning environment can either move toward meeting your needs or away from meeting your needs. 

Teachers can create classroom environments that help students get closer to their self-actualization. Educators can help fulfill students’ emotional and physical needs, giving them a safe and comfortable place to learn, plenty of food, and the support they need to succeed. This kind of environment is the most conducive to helping students learn. 

Connectivism learning theory.

Connectivism is one of the newest educational learning theories. It focuses on the idea that people learn and grow when they form connections. This can be connections with each other, or connections with their roles and obligations in their life. Hobbies, goals, and people can all be connections that influence learning. 

Teachers can utilize connectivism in their classroom to help students make connections to things that excite them, helping them learn. Teachers can use digital media to make good, positive connections to learning. They can help create connections and relationships with their students and with their peer groups to help students feel motivated about learning.

How to apply learning theories in teaching.

Teachers can create specific strategies and techniques to apply these learning theories in their classroom. Teachers need to first focus on getting a well-rounded education to learn about all kinds of techniques for teaching and classroom management. Teachers need to understand learning theories to be prepared to utilize them in their classroom. An understanding of learning theories helps teachers connect to all different kinds of students. Teachers can focus on different learning styles to reach different students, creating teaching that focuses directly on student needs and aptitudes. 

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