Learning theories are a set of principles that define how people absorb, process and recall information and knowledge. Over the years, there have been several theories about how learning takes place. There are three broad heads that include all major educational theories.
Major Learning Theories
The most popular behaviourist theories are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning occurs when there is a natural response to a stimulus. This is an instinctive biological response. For instance, learners exhibiting irrational fears - being afraid of public speaking or failure in educational settings. Reinforcing a response to the stimulus leads to Operant Conditioning. Reinforcement is in the form of reward or punishment and is a form of feedback.
1. Knowledge is constructed, rather than innate, or passively absorbed. The main idea is that learners build new knowledge upon the foundation of previous learning. This means that when learners gain new information, they process it to create meaning out of it. This creation of meaning along with old knowledge together forms new knowledge. Merely listening to information does not increase knowledge unless the person thinks about it and understands it.
2. Learning is an active process. Information is received passively by the learner. But, understanding and learning only occurs when the learner actively makes meaningful connections between previous and new knowledge. A person's active effort is what makes the information count as knowledge.
3. All knowledge is socially constructed yet personal. Learning does not happen in isolation. Social interaction with people is important for learning. Despite the social element, learning is still personal. This is because each person creates their own meaning of interactions and experiences, Our own ideas, values and thoughts help create these meanings. Since these are different for everyone, knowledge becomes personal.
Applying the Theories
This theory comes from the concept of Operant Conditioning and B.F. Skinner's work. Advocates of the theory believe that knowledge exists independently. For them, learning comes in the form of an experience that either creates new behaviour or causes a change in behaviour. Learning begins when the external environment provides a stimulus which leads to a response This response is repeated when there is a reward for it. Doing this multiple times then causes a change in behaviour. Over time, it becomes an automatic response. This response indicates learning. This method generally uses a system of reward and punishment to teach desirable behaviour.
This theory, however, states that learning does not just result from multiple endorsed experiences. Rather, it also involves the complex working of the human memory. Processing information results in learning. Changes in behaviour are a consequence of the learning.
The theory is broadly split into two – the Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) and Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT).
Social Cognitive Theory has 3 factors – personal, behavioural and environmental - that influence learning.
In the person-environment interaction, external factors influence ideas and thinking. External factors can include, for instance, supportive teachers and parents, stressful environments and even climate. For example, teachers support can make you more confident about yourself or your ability. At the same time, a stressful situation can make you feel shaky and may make you think you are not fit for the task at hand.
For the person - behaviour interaction, thoughts affect behaviour and this behaviour can also change thinking and mindset. For example, negative thoughts can make you act differently. This negative action can affect how and what you think.
In the behaviour – environment interaction, surroundings can affect the way you act and vice versa. The situation around can make you act a certain way. A state of panic can make you more nervous or unsure. Similarly, if you are panicking, it can affect your situation. It might make it worse for example.
Cognitive Behavioural Theory states that cognition (knowing) affects emotions and behaviour. Individuals have self-made concepts, and these affect the way they see the world and how they react to it. The concepts can be both, positive and negative. The theory also explains human behaviour through the Cognitive Triad – this is based on negative thoughts about (i) the self, (ii) the world/environment and (iii) the future.
This theory talks of personal construction of meaning by the learner. It states that people add on to previous knowledge by making meaning of new information they receive. Hence, by adding multiple blocks of information and learning, people build their knowledge. Past knowledge and new experiences merge to create new meanings. Constructivism has a few key principles.
Knowing the different types of learning becomes important when tutors plan courses. Based on these, they can design course content and methods of delivery. Using different styles can lead to more and improved learning. Using activities where students learn from each other and also self-learning can help students learn concepts better. Social experiments can help students create meaning when they come across views different from their own.
All theories have their advocates and critics. Hence, teachers do not have to choose one to use. They can use them together to give students the benefit of each. Also, consider the different kinds of learners there are in a classroom, Using combinations can help cater to all kinds of students.
Apart from these, there are also learning models and preferences that are useful for tutors. You can read more about them here.