Learning Theories In Psychology

young girl doing homework at kitchen table

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While definitions may vary, learning is often thought of as a relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience. It is influenced by various biological, cultural, social, and emotional variables.

Several different theories have emerged to explain how people learn.  Some of the main theories of learning include:

  • Behavioral learning theory
  • Cognitive learning theory
  • Constructivist learning theory
  • Social learning theory
  • Experiential learning theory

This article explores these learning theories, including how each one explains the learning process.


Basic Principles of Social Learning Theory

Behavioral Learning Theories

During the early part of the twentieth century, many psychologists became increasingly interested in turning psychology into a more scientific endeavor. These psychologists, known as behaviorists, argued that psychology needed to study only things that could be measured and quantified to be more scientific.

A few different behavioral theories emerged to explain how and why people behave the way they do. Behavioral theories are centered on the environmental influences on the learning process. Environmental influences include associations, reinforcements, and punishments.

Learning Through Association

Classical conditioning suggests that learning occurs when an association is formed between a previously neutral stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

In experiments conducted by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, a natural stimulus (food) was paired with the sound of a bell. The dogs would naturally salivate in response to food, but after multiple associations, the dogs would salivate to the sound of the bell alone.

In classical conditioning:

  • Learning occurs by forming associations between naturally occurring stimuli and a previously neutral stimulus
  • The neutral stimulus must occur immediately before the naturally occurring one
  • Focuses on automatic, naturally occurring behaviors

Learning Through Reinforcement

Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning that involves strengthening or weakening a behavior by using reinforcement or punishment.

Operant conditioning was first described by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. It is sometimes also referred to as Skinnerian conditioning and instrumental conditioning. Skinner believed that classical conditioning simply could not account for all types of learning and was more interested in learning how the consequences of actions influence behaviors.

Like classical conditioning, operant conditioning relies on forming associations. In operant conditioning, however, associations are made between a behavior and the consequences of that behavior.

In operant conditioning:

  • Learning occurs when behaviors are followed by either reinforcement or punishment
  • The consequences must quickly follow the behavior
  • Focuses on voluntary behaviors

When a behavior leads to a desirable consequence, it becomes more likely that the behavior will be repeated in the future. The behavior becomes less likely if the actions lead to a negative outcome.

Cognitive Learning Theories

The cognitive approach to learning focuses on how attention, memory, and information processing contribute to the acquisition of knowledge. One of the best-known cognitive learning theories is Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Piaget described four stages of intellectual development that occur in childhood.

These four stages explain how a child learns about the world and processes information.

  • Sensorimotor stage: During this period of cognitive development, children learn about the world primarily through their senses.
  • Preoperational stage: This stage is marked by the emergence of language and learning through pretend play.
  • Concrete operations stage: During this period, kids begin to utilize logic but still think about the world very concretely.
  • Formal operations stage: At this point, kids begin to use deductive reasoning and can understand abstract, hypothetical ideas.

Constructivist Learning Theories

The constructivist approach to learning characterizes learners as active participants in the process who play a role in constructing their knowledge. Constructivist theories of learning were influenced by the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

Vygotsky's sociocultural theory stressed the importance of collaboration and social interaction in the learning process.

Two important concepts of constructivist learning theories are the more knowledgeable other and the zone of proximal development:

  • More knowledgeable other: Vygotsky described the more knowledgeable other as anyone with an understanding or ability level higher than the learner. This can often be a teacher or adult, but it can also refer to peers with more knowledge about a specific concept, task, or process.
  • Zone of proximal development: Vygotsky described the zone of proximal development as the range of knowledge or ability that a person can display with the help of the more knowledgeable other, but that they are not yet capable of performing independently. Gradually expanding this zone is how people can learn and improve their skills over time.

Social Learning Theories

Psychologist Albert Bandura suggested that much of learning takes place through observation. Children observe the actions of those around them, particularly caregivers and siblings, and then imitate these behaviors.

In social learning:

  • Learning occurs through observation
  • Observations can take place at any time
  • Focuses on the give-and-take interaction between social, cognitive, and environmental influences

In his well-known Bobo doll experiment, Bandura revealed just how easily children could be led to imitate even negative actions. Children who watched a video of an adult beating up a large inflatable doll were likelier to copy those actions when given a chance.

Bandura noted that learning something does not necessarily result in a behavior change. Children frequently learn new things through observation but might not engage in such behaviors until they need or are motivated to utilize the information.

Experiential Learning Theories

This learning theory focuses on learning via hands-on experience. The theory was formally introduced by psychologist David Kolb but was influenced by the work of other theorists, including Jean Piaget and John Dewey.

According to Kolb, there are four stages in experiential learning. The first two, abstract conceptualization and concrete experience, relate to how people grasp experiences. The final two, active experimentation and reflective observation, refer to how people transform experiences.

Modern Views

Such theories are typically not used in isolation. Instead, modern educators and psychologists draw on information from a variety of theories to develop effective educational strategies and psychological interventions that help people acquire new skills and knowledge.

For example, while behavioral approaches are no longer as dominant as they once were, they still play an important role in educational and therapeutic settings. For example, teachers continue to use behavioral strategies such as positive reinforcement and token economies to help shape the learning process.

The goal of learning more about these learning theories is to help adapt educational and therapeutic interventions to best suit an individual's needs.

All learners are different, so drawing on various approaches, such as incorporating behavioral, constructivist, and experiential strategies can help maximize learning opportunities and improve educational outcomes.

A Word From Verywell

Behavioral, cognitive, constructivist, social, and experiential learning theories are among psychology's best-known and most influential. Such theories have played a part in influencing education, therapy, and parenting approaches. 

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hugar SM, Kukreja P, Assudani HG, Gokhale N. Evaluation of the relevance of Piaget's cognitive principles among parented and orphan children in Belagavi City, Karnataka, India: A comparative study. Int J Clin Pediatr Dent. 2017;10(4):346-350. doi:10.5005/jp-journals-10005-1463

  2. Eun B. The zone of proximal development as an overarching concept: A framework for synthesizing Vygotsky’s theoriesEducational Philosophy and Theory. 2017;51(1):18-30. doi:10.1080/00131857.2017.1421941

  3. Kolb DA. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall; 1984.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."