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Theories of learning

A number of theories have been developed about how people learn. This section provides an introduction to some well known explanations of learning that may have relevance for guidance.
Here is an article offering a trainer's perspective on adult learning from Jane Artess (2003), working at that time for MMU: How adults really learn – or what we think we know about how they learn!

Summaries of seven selected approaches to how people learn follow (contribution by Jenny Bimrose, 2003):

Differential Psychology

Differential psychology emphasises the importance of individual qualities, attributes and abilities in the learning process. Important factors include:

prior knowledge;
personality factors (e.g. effecting the ability to learn);
values (associated with learning);
learning styles & preferred learning approach.
According to Gibbs (1994), most of these factors assume the existence of stable individual traits, such as ability or learning style, which affect the nature of the outcome. These operate independently of the context in which learning takes place. This framework probably represents the most commonly used for teaching and learning, perhaps because it offers a clear indication of what should be taught and how achievement should be assessed. Additionally, it explains differences in the ability to learn, through variations in 'mental ability'.

This particular approach to learning has stimulated much of the interest around the testing movement - whether this is about predicting potential or testing achievement. Additionally, it provides the rationale for 'didactic' teaching methods - based on the notion that 'learners' should be presented with facts to be learned, remembered and then applied. This approach to learning, therefore, makes assumptions about the learner, in particular: they have no prior knowledge and can acquire knowledge by being told (lacking knowledge but able to learn).

A crucial feature is that individual traits are all important in determining learning outcomes and need to be considered when designing sessions. Equally important is the notion that the learner's mind represents an 'empty vessel' waiting to be filled upon. This approach to learning is one-way, since teaching is not regarded as a dialogue, rather, a process whereby the expert instructs the learner. When learners are unable to learn effectively, the problem is with the learner (i.e. it is because of their poor ability and/or lack of attention).

This theory of learning has attracted many criticisms, with various writers condemning the 'inert' knowledge, the 'dead weight of facts' and the 'banking model of education' (Gibbs, 1994).

Two particular criticisms include:

the lack of research demonstrating that styles and abilities do interact with teaching methods in ways that are practicable and usable;
the implication that when learning outcomes are inadequate, it is because the learner is lacking. For example, they are unmotivated, of low ability, don't value learning, etc.
A variation of this approach is the 'staff-development' model (Gibbs, 1994), where the focus is on the teacher and on the development of teaching skills. Here, learner inadequacy is located with the teacher, with great emphasis placed on the expertise and skills of the teacher.


Gibbs, G. (1994) Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford.
Olson, D.R. & Torrance, N. (1996) The Handbook of Education & Human Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.


This approach has been very influential in developing our understanding about learning. For Behaviourists, learning represents a process of 'stimulus-response' (S-R learning). This is referred to as 'conditioning' and there are two variants: 'classical' and 'operant' conditioning.

Classical conditioning occurs when the learner is conditioned to give the same response to a particular stimulus. Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, developed a surgical technique whereby a dog's salivary secretions could be collected in a tube attached to the outside of its cheek, so the drops of saliva could be easily measured. In the course of his experiments, Pavlov noticed that the dogs would often start salivating before any food was given to them (that is, when they looked at the food or saw the feeding bowl, etc.). He called the sight and smell of food the 'conditional' stimulus and the salivation the 'unconditional' response.

Then Pavlov introduced a second stimulus - a bell. After presenting the food and the sound of the bell to the dogs together on several occasions, he presented the sound of the bell alone. He discovered that this new stimulus consistently produced the same unconditional response (salivation). By associating the food with a conditioned stimulus (in this case a bell) - which normally does not produce the response - Pavlov had discovered the basic principle of what became known as classical conditioning.

The first attempt to apply Pavlov's findings to humans was made by J.B. Watson, the founder of Behavioursim. Controversially, Watson succeeded in inducing fear in a young child through association (i.e. by classical conditioning).

Operant conditioning occurs when the learner is conditioned to give a different response to the same stimulus. Skinner regarded the learner as more of an active participant than Pavlov or Watson. In operant conditioning things are much less certain. Behaviour arises from with humans (or animals) rather than resulting from external stimulus and is regarded as voluntary. So, new behaviour (and learning) doesn't occur instantly, but has to be 'shaped' - by using 'positive' and 'negative' reinforcement. This shaping occurs all the time in verbal communication (for example, smiling to encourage others to smile back).

Overall, Behaviourists are relatively unconcerned with processes that are internal to the individual. They are more concerned with the reaction to a particular stimulus. Cotton (1995) argues that, although much of the early research in this area was carried out on animals, the principles of learning that come from the research have been applied to human learning (for example, skills training, assertiveness training). In the school setting, techniques like giving house points, stars or ticks and praise from the teacher come from this theory of learning.


Cotton, J. (1995) The Theory of Learning: An Introduction, London, Kogan Page.
Desforges, C. (ed) (1995) An Introduction to Teaching: a Psychological Perspective, Oxford: Blackwell.

A Cognitive Approach to Learning

Much work based on cognitive approaches to learning originates from the work of Jean Piaget and his colleagues (the 'Genevan School'). Their model of learning suggests that the thought processes of the child develop through four distinct stages:

Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years): babies start to distinguish between themselves and objects outside their bodies.
Pre-operational stage (2 years to 7 years): objects are classified by single features (e.g. something with four legs can be a 'horse' or a 'dog').
Concrete operational stage (7 - 11 years): children can classify objects by several features and can think logically about objects and events - but need practical examples to understand the differences.
Formal operations stage (11 years and upwards): children can think logically about abstract propositions. They become concerned with the future, together with conceptual and ideological problems.
According to this theory of learing, thought processes depend on the ability to create, hold and modify internal representations of things that are experienced in the environment. These internal representations are called 'schemas' and can be complex. Learning is therefore defined as the acquisition and modification of new schemas in response to new needs.

A crucial aspect of this model is the emhasis on what the learner already knows. It emphasises how active the leaner must be if restructuring (new learning) is to take place. Frequently, individiuals will find that their ability to handle a new experience with existing schemas simply does not work, yet they resist changes to their schemas. For example, the learner may simply choose to ignore information. Only when genuine cognitive transformation takes place can learning be regarded as having taken place.


Cotton, J. (1995) The Theory of Learning: An Introduction, London, Kogan Page.
Desforges, C. (ed) (1995) An Introduction to Teaching: a Psychological Perspective, Oxford: Blackwell.
Gibbs, G. (1994) Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford.

Humanistic Psychology

The best vantage point for understanding behaviour is from the internal frame of reference of the individual him/herself
Rogers, 1951
Carl Rogers (1951) developed his client-centred therapy in response to what he regarded as the impersonal approach of the behaviourists and psychoanalysists. His ideas have resulted in the 'student-centred' learning approach to the theory of learning. According to this school of thought, the teacher/lecturer is no longer seen as the expert who can hand down knowledge and understanding to the learner. Rather, s/he 'facilitates' learning. The priority for learners is to learn how to learn - only then will the teacher/lecturer be able to support or 'enable' learning by making appropriate experiences available.

This approach overlaps with Kurt Lewin's work on group dynamics and experiential learning. It requires a new approach to be adopted by the teacher/learner, with aach individual learner considered to be unique. Their current level of understanding has to be assessed before learning can take place. A set of performance criteria and competencies can then be identified and experiences can be identified which will both enhance prior learning and lead to new learning.

According to Johnson & Johnson (1997:54) experiential learning involves the acceptance of a number of principles which need to be understood and followed, including:

People will believe more in knowledge they have discovered themselves than in knowledge presented by others.
Learning is more effective when it is an active rather than a passive process.
Effective experiential learning will affect the learner's cognitive structures (action theories), attitudes and values, perceptions and behavioural patterns.
Acceptance of new action theories, attitudes and behavioral patterns cannot be brought about by a piecemeal approach - one's whole cognitive-affective-behavioural system has to change.
It takes more than information to change action theories, attitudes and behavioural patterns.
It takes more than firsthand experience to generate valid knowledge....there needs to be a theoretical system that the experience tests out, and reflection on the meaning of the experience.
Behaviour changes will be temporary unless the action theories and attitudes underlying them are changed.
Changes in perceptions of oneself and one's social environment are necessary before changes in action theories, attitudes and behaviour will take place.
The more supportive, accepting and caring the social environment, the freer a person is to experiment with new behaviours, attitudes, and action theories.
In order for changes to be permanent, both the person and the social environment have to change.
It is easier to change a person's action theories, attitudes, and behavioural patterns in a group context than in an individual context.
A person accepts a new system of action theories, attitudes and behavioural patterns when he or she accepts membership in a new group.
So - learning by experience becomes the process of making generalizations and conclusions about your own direct experiences. The process of experiential learning is shown diagrammatically below:


The learner reflects on his/her concrete personal experiences and examines their meaning in order to formulate a set of concepts or principles to help understand such experiences.

Experiential learning results in personal theories about effective behaviour and continuously recurs as these theories are tested out and confirmed or modified.


Cotton, J. (1995) The Theory of Learning: An Introduction, London, Kogan Page.
Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, F.P. (1997) Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, (6th edition), New Jersey, Prentice-Hall International.
Rogers, C. (1951) On Becoming a Person, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Psychoanalytic Approach

Freud's seminal work on personality provided a model with three components. These are the:

Id: a basic, instinctive force which expresses itself either as Eros, the love instinct (with an energy referred to as the 'libido'), or as Thanatos, the destructive or death instinct.
Superego: a basic, instinctive force which is a drive towards the individiual's ideal self. This super conscientiousness is as extreme as the id.
Ego: this part of the personality tries to keep a balance and sits between instinctive forces of the superego and the id.
A key idea in Freud's personality theory is that the individual is in conflict, due to the demands made by different parts of the personality.

Freud did not write much specifically about learning, but principles derived from Freudian psychology have been used in education and training. For example, Freud's approach provided the basis of extremely influential interpretation of group interaction (known as the 'Tavistock Model'), which is relevant for understanding how groups operate within education and training contexts. This suggests that a group operates simultaneously at 2 levels (Bion, 1961):

The 'Work Group'....meets to perform a specific and overt task.
However, this is often obstructed (or diverted) by the powerful emotional drives of the second 'shadow' group that from time to time takes over. The shadow group may appear to be working on the task but it is actually governed by powerful yet unconscious forces arising out of fears for individual or group security. This is called the 'basic assumption group' because its members behave 'as if' certain things were true, even though they are not.

The 'Basic Assumption Group'......behaves as if it shared the following tacit assumptions or motives:
Dependency: obtaining security and protection from one individual on whom it can depend (e.g. the leader);

Fight/Flight: preserving itself from destruction - either attacking (fight - scapegoating some other person in the group in order to avoid a difficult problem) or avoiding the task (flight - takes the form of withdrawal, passivity, dwelling on the past or jesting)

Pairing: two individuals form a bond in which warmth, closeness and affection are shown. Frequently, this happens when the group is bored, lost or resentful. In learning groups, 'pairing' can take 3 possible forms: a) 2 participants provide mutual support for each other, to the exclusion of the rest of the group; b) 2 participants engage in an intellectual battle, with each partner representing a different side of a conflict that has been preoccupying the group; c) the leader/tutor may pair with the group as a whole and collude with them in their wish to avoid work.

The purpose of the 'shadow' or 'basic assumption' group is to replace uncertainty with something more concrete. In unstructured groups, greater uncertainty will develop. The less structured the activity, the more likely it is that uncertainty will develop. Bion's ideas enable us to make sense of responses to uncertainty (initially subconscious), which can happen any time.


Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in Groups, London, Tavistock.
Cotton, J. (1995) The Theory of Learning: An Introduction, London, Kogan Page.
Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, F.P. (1997) Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, (4th edition), New Jersey, Prentice-Hall International.

Neurobiological Approach

This is a scientific approach to learning that relates behaviour to the electrical and chemical events taking place inside the body. It emphasises the need to understand activities within the brain and nervous system, together their effect upon behavioural and mental processes.

Cotton (1995) argues that this approach is very helpful for understanding learning. In particular, it emphasises the need to be aware of the sensitivity of, for example, the ears, eyes and noses. It also enables the teacher/lecturer to decide on how to attract and maintain attention, since it provides an understanding of how the brain functions - including channels of communication and processing of information.

Useful knowledge about information processing which is central to other approaches to learning (e.g. the cognitive approach) is based on physiological data. Additionally, most of the advances in the scientific understanding of memory, brain processes and resulting behaviour are also of direct use to other approaches to learning.

On a positive note, the suggestion that the normal human brain has an almost infinite capacity is important: it means that almost everyone is educable. Given enough time and the right opportunities, everyone can learn anything.


Cotton, J. (1995) The Theory of Learning: An Introduction, London, Kogan Page.

The Phenomenographic Model

Gibbs (1994) argues that the phenomenographic model is highly influential in the learning literature, with the concepts of 'surface' and 'deep' learning (together with their relationship to the quality of the outcome) that derive from this approach a much-quoted source (Marton and Saljo, 1976). In this theory, learning is considered from the point-of-view of the learner, rather than the teacher. The focus is on how students interpret content - expressed as the relationship that the 'knower' (i.e. student) sets up with the known (i.e. learning material).

Usually, learner interpretations can be expressed hierarchically, with some learners having partial or distorted conceptions of the intended topic and others having sophisticated ones. Learners may 'understand' (more or less) the teacher's perspective, but they genuinely learn only what they have interpreted, or constructed, from their own perspective. Their approach to learning is expressed in how they go about that construction. Consequently, in this theory of learning, the student's understanding of the learning task and their construction of learning is crucially important.

This approach also emphasises the importance of context. It argues that learning (and teaching) are dependent on the context in which learning takes place. Marton (1988) is reluctant to consider learning as a process that is, in any way, independent from learning - arguing that teaching and learning are integral and inter-dependent.

Phenomenography derives from phenomenlogy - which takes as the only reality the student's immediate perception of the task. Overlap with other (student and teacher) perceptions are not considered relevant. Gibbs (1994) suggests that there are two consequences arising from this:

a) individual personality factors are of marginal importance, since they may affect the immediate phenomenal space of the student, but how they do so is not relevant;

b) it becomes impossible to generalise across teaching/learning situations. If each individual's perspective is unique, it follows that an infinite number of perspectives exist.


Gibbs, G. (1994) Improving Student Learning:Theory and Practice, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford.
Marton, F. (1988) 'Describing and improving learning', in R.R. Schmeck (ed), Learning strategies and learning styles. New York: Plenum.
Marton, F. & Salijo, R. (1976) On qualitative differences in learning - I: Outcomes and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.