Theories Of Learning

Below are some of the more common theories of learning.

Malcolm Knowles' Andragogy:

Knowles was one of the first researchers to claim that adults learned differently than children. He used the terms "andragogy" and "pedagogy" to highlight these differences. Among them:

Instructor-led Learners have a need for self-direction
Instructor is the expert Learners learn best when they have a measure of control over the experience
Learners have little experience Learners have prior experience, and expect to recognize links between new material and that prior experience
Instructor expected to impart wisdom/knowledge/skill Readiness to learn is directly related to learner needs
Instructor is responsible for all aspects of the learning process Learners are most ready when they have the ability and immediacy to apply new knowledge
Learning is content-centered Learning is more problem-centered, or context-centered
Motivation is external Motivation is internal

Bloom's Taxonomy:

Benjamin Bloom organized learning outcomes into three categories: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective (or knowledge, skills, and attitudes). He then arranged outcomes in each category into a hierarchy, from the simplest behavior to the most complex. When educators talk about "Bloom's Taxonomy," we generally refer to the outcomes from the cognitive domain as they were described in "The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain," edited by Bloom. The cognitive hierarchy is visually represented by what's known as "Bloom's Wheel."


Kirkpatrick's Levels of Evaluation:

Donald Kirkpatrick developed four levels at which all learning/training should be evaluated:

  1. Reaction - Measures how the learner feels or reacts to the learning event. It is one form of customer satisfaction survey. Often called "smile sheets" in corporate training environments.
  2. Learning - Measures how the learner improves in knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) from the beginning to the end of instruction.
  3. Behavior - Later measures of how the learner improves performance.
  4. Results - Measures the effect of learning on business outcomes

JJ Phillips has suggested a fifth level, Return on Investment (ROI), which essentially applies level four measures against costs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs:

To explain the foundations of motivation, Maslow contended that people have complex needs that they strive to fulfill, and that over time, their needs change and evolve. He categorized these needs into a logical hierarchy, often presented as a pyramid with five levels, each representing a specific type of need. According to Maslow, the needs on the higher levels of the pyramid are relevant only if those needs on the lower levels have been met. In education, this means learners are motivated by a variety of factors, and those factors may be difficult to discern.


Gagné's Nine Events of Instruction:

Robert Gagné developed his theory in support of the concept of an ideal teaching sequence that enables learners to retain concepts, skills, and procedures because they are presented in a way that enhances and supports how the mind works. According to Gagné, in order for learning to be effective, it must be based on the way that learners process information and move it from sensing to processing to storing in short- or long-term memory.

Gain Attention Stimuli activates receptors Short video/audio recordings; brief demonstration
Share Session Objectives Creates expectations for learning Write objectives on the board or a flipchart
Stimulate Recall of Prior Learning Retrieval and activation of short-term memory Can be complex or simple, depending on the material to come: Re-cap TDA, question, discussion
Deliver Content Perception and evaluation of content Present in a way that ensures learners meet objectives; how that is done has more effect than almost any other part of the process
Provide Guidance Encoding for storage in long-term memory Guided interactivity
Elicit Performance Enhance encoding and verification Allow learners to practice in a safe environment, often includes small group activities
Provide Feedback Reinforcement and assessment of proper performance Objectives, time, difficulty of content, learner variables and other factors influence the feedback scheme
Assess Performance Retrieval and reinforcement of content Test, checklist, or other method to determine whether learners have met all objectives
Enhance Retention and Transfer Retrieval and application of skill to new context Job aids, references, handouts, etc.

Learning Brain Model:

W.E. "Ned" Herrmann combined several models of how the brain functions to create a four-quadrant model for learning, using the left and right hemispheres and cerebral and limbic systems:

  • Upper-left cerebral
  • Lower-left limbic
  • Upper-right cerebral
  • Lower-right limbic

Accelerated Learning:

The goal of Accelerated Learning is to involve the right and left hemispheres and cortex and limbic sysems of the brain to make learning a more natural activity. Seven general principles guide Acclerated Learning:

  1. Affective State - Eliminating excess stress, fear of failure, and negativity greatly enhances learner receptivity.
  2. Beliefs Toward Learning - Many people believe that learning is difficult, often because of a diminished view of their own intelligence, learning abilities, and performance potential. These beliefs are often a more significant cause of underperformance than a lack of intelligence or skill.
  3. Information Networks - Provisions for connecting new material to prior knowledge, and for applying new material increase the integration and retention of learning.
  4. Nonconscious Learning - Since much learning occurs outside of the learner's consciousness, techniques that work with more of the mind can help maximize people's natural potential for learning.
  5. Learning Cycles - To stimulate an optimal learning state, we can use shorter segments, which are better processed and retained than longer, continuous learning segments.
  6. Multisensory Input - Since individuals have many different ways of processing information and experience through the senses, multisensory instruction enhances information processing and provides reinforcement through non-dominant sensory modalities.
  7. Learning Readiness State - In a relaxed state, the brain produces more alpha waves, which characterize a calm but alert state conducive to rapid assimilation of information and effortless learning.

Neurolinguistic Programming and Learning:

Learners often distinguish between external experience and internal experience, and preferences fall into three categories, referred to as the VAK Model:

  • Visual - intake by seeing
  • Auditory - intake by hearing
  • Kinesthetic - intake by doing and touching

Some people primarily intake information through one category, while others use a combination of two or three. A large majority of learners are Visual or a combination of Visual and Kinesthetic. These styles are simply an individual's preferred method for receiving new information, and these preferences determine how learners assimilate, sort, retain, retrieve, and reproduce new information.

Multiple Intelligences:

Howard Gardner suggests intelligence is more multifaceted than traditionally believed and that traditional measures don't accurately measure all of its facets. Gardner also claims that intelligence is not fixed. He defines intelligence as:

  • A measurable aptitude
  • An aptitude that people use to create and solve problems
  • An aptitude valued by the culture

Gardner's growing list of intelligences include:

  • Interpersonal - aptitude for working with others
  • Logical/Mathematical - aptitude for math, logic, and deduction
  • Spatial/Visual - aptitude for picturing and seeing
  • Musical - aptitude for musical expression
  • Linguistic/Verbal - aptitude for the written or spoken word
  • Intrapersonal - aptitude for working alone
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic - aptitude for being physical
  • Emotional - aptitude for identifying emotion
  • Naturalistic - aptitude for being with nature
  • Existential - aptitude for understanding one's purpose

Gardner believes that most people are comfortable in three to four intelligences and generally avoid the others.

Problem-based Learning:

A learner-centered learning model in which learners solve problems and reflect on their experiences. Characteristics of Problem-based Learning include:

  • Learning is driven by challenging, open-ended problems
  • Students work together in small groups
  • Teachers take on the role of "facilitators" of learning

In PBL, learners are encouraged to take responsibility for their group, and to organize and direct the learning process with support from a tutor or teacher. Advocates of Problem-based Learning suggest it can help learners improve content knowledge, and develop skills in communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning.


Behaviorism is most concerned with discovering the relationship between stimuli and responses to predict and control behavior, including learning. Behaviorism is generally based on three assumptions: 1) Learning is demonstrated by a change in behavior; 2) The environment helps shape behavior; 3) Contiguity and reinforcement are central to the learning process. Learning is the acquisition of new behavior through classical or operant conditioning.


  1. Sets up objectives that are clear and unmistakable
  2. Ensures behavioral practice, not just theory
  3. Works best for helping learners to acquire behavioral skills
  4. Is highly specific
  5. Is observable (learners know when they have succeeded)

The primary instructional techniques of behaviorism include prompting, cueing, behavioral modeling, simulations, role play, skill drills, and positive reinforcement.

Cognitive Theory:

According to cognitivists, learning occurs primarily through exposure to logically presented information. The theory is generally based on two assumptions: 1) The mind is an information-processing system; 2) Prior knowledge plays an important role in learning.


  1. Is faster than other methods
  2. Treats people as adults
  3. Doesn't waste people's time
  4. Builds a base of information, concepts, and rules
  5. Provides the rationale upon which action is based

The primary instructional techniques of cognitivism include diagrams, films, panels, interviews with subject matter experts, class presenatations, readings, debates, and case studies.

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