Learning Theories: From Behavioral to Cognitive


The article describes existing learning theories, including behavioral, cognitive, adult learning, constructivist, humanist, connectivist, and learning styles. It examines each of the seven theories explaining their essence. Their consideration is significant as key aspects of different approaches can help develop the most effective self-education or class learning methods. The advantage of the most comprehensive view of these theories is the ability to find the most comprehensive and versatile learning strategy.


Psychologists and educators have been studying the mechanisms of human learning for many years in order to develop the most effective approaches. Different learning theories allow considering the learning process from various angles and include diverse strategies. The article examines seven learning theories including behavioral, cognitive, adult learning, constructivist, humanist, connectivist, and learning styles. Consideration of the existing approaches allows effectively using them for more comprehensive learning. Moreover, understanding their core aspects is the basis for the successful acquisition and retention of knowledge.

Behavioral Theories

Behaviorist approaches have been dominant in psychology since the early 20th century. The adherents of this school accepted only observable and measurable markers as scientific evidence, therefore, “such concepts as consciousness, meaning and emotions were excluded” (Illeris, 2018, p. 87). Thus, behaviorism considers learning as the result of emotional reinforcement (Aliakbari et al., 2015). Moreover, a positive emotional response in the learning process can lead to the encouragement of repetition and training as habitual behavior, which is the main method of achieving learning results. Behavioral theories include a number of approaches that are united by a shared idea.

Transponders or classical conditioning is based on the research of the Russian physiologist Pavlov. According to his theory, learning is a process of recurrent responding to conditioned stimuli (Aliakbari et al. 2015). This approach can lead to the elimination of negative emotions of fear and anxiety which can interfere with the achievement of a positive response. Thorndike’s connectionism theory states that “earning is the process of forming a connection between stimulus and response” (Barsi et al., 2020, p. 2027).

Thus, in order to achieve a learning result, students need to choose the correct answer associated with a certain stimulus, which will lead to its memorization and repetition in the future. The desired skills are acquired through trial and error, which ultimately leads to more frequent manifestations of a positive response and consolidation of knowledge.

Behaviorism reached its highest point with Skinner’s works of the second half of the 20th century. According to his theory, human behavior is “determined by the interaction between the individual constitution and the environment, with no room for individual freedom and learning totally dependent on the input” (Illeris, 2018, p. 88). The learning process in this case is considered exclusively a technicality in which a person correctly responds to certain external stimuli. A spontaneous action that brings the desired result is memorized and repeated in the future. Thus, behavioral theories imply that repetition of an action that brings positive emotional reinforcement in the form of a good outcome is the basis of learning.

Cognitive Learning Theory

In later periods, starting in the 1960s, cognitive science began to develop regarding learning. Cognitive science studies aspects such as perceiving, using language, remembering, solving problems, and reasoning. The main objective of the new approach was to examine the process by “stressing the importance of the understanding of basic structures and more student activity” (Illeris, 2018, p. 89). Thus, the cognitive theory is based on the study of the brain and mind during learning (Blanton, 1998).

In contrast to behaviorists, this school considers the acquisition of knowledge as the most efficient use of mental processes and brain resources. Cognitive theory presupposes learning as an outcome of mental construction (Pritchard, 2017). Thus, knowledge is built on the skills and understanding that a person already has, which is expanded and supplemented with new information.

One of the first to develop this theory was Jean Piaget, who emphasized that the most important aspect of learning is the connection of new elements with an already existing mental structure. In addition to studying the developmental stages in relation to age, the psychologist also proposed the ideas of assimilation and accommodation, which, in his opinion, are the basis of learning. Piaget believed that the human mental structure adapts to external changes in the form of new knowledge.

Thus, assimilation is the process of collecting new information and its accumulation, and accommodation is the process of adjusting the structure to new experiences and skills (Pritchard, 2017). New and already existing knowledge initially conflicts, to which a person needs to adapt, reaching an equilibrium. Thus, learning is considered as an active mental process, and not a passive receiving of new material. Students construct knowledge through their perception of the information from the external environment and mediation in the internal one.

Social cognitivism, situated learning, and metacognition play a special role in cognitivism. First of all, learning is considered a social process in which knowledge and skills are acquired through interaction, with the use of language. A person uses dialogue to expand his or her existing understanding and adapt mental structure, which happens in any social interaction. Learning is also situational, which suggests that certain knowledge acquired in one context not always can be applied successfully in another. Moreover, they can be linked to a cultural or social setting, making the most effective in a familiar environment. Metacognition refers to a person’s ability to be aware of and control their mental processes. Thus, these principles are the most important for the school of cognitive learning.

Consideration of mental activity is essential for understanding the learning process and individual needs and approaches. Based on the aspects described, Wray and Lewis identified principles that are consistent with cognitive theory (as cited in Pritchard, 2017). First, students need to have previous knowledge which can be expanded with new information and skills in the process of adapting the mental structure. Secondly, the learning process should be based on social interaction in a group. Thirdly, it is necessary to consider the student’s previous experience and values, so that knowledge is effectively accommodated. Fourth, metacognition and awareness of the learning process must be encouraged. Thus, cognitive scientists consider learning as a transformation in the mental structure of a person, the assimilation of knowledge from the external environment, and its conscious individual adaptation.

Effective learning from the perspective of cognitive theory is based on the conscious assimilation of information and independent control of cognitive processes. The most important aspects, in this case, are the constant assessment of the knowledge gained, the search for solutions to emerging challenges, critical thinking, and discussions. Students need to be continually aware of the learning objectives and the methods by which they can be achieved. The basis of learning in the form of metacognition involves not following the proposed practices, but developing individual strategies in accordance with the existing mental structure and incorporating new knowledge into it.

Adult Learning Theories

Several key concepts are presented in the field of adult learning. All of them are based on the statement that adults learn in a completely different manner than children, which necessitates special approaches (TEAL Center staff, 2011). The first of the theories is andragogy, which is “attributed with helping educators and trainers understand adult learning” (as cited in Arghode, Brieger & McLean, 2017, p. 596). Malcolm Knowles has proposed a number of assumptions and corresponding practical applications for the most effective adult learning. These include striving to become a self-directed being, accumulating an extensive body of knowledge, adopting new skills to social roles, performance-centered learning, and intrinsic motivation.

Thus, according to the theory, adults, in contrast to children, define learning goals and identify specific skills which need to be developed. Moreover, they learn more effectively when solving specific problems than when memorizing content. Thus, Knowles’s theory is built on a mature awareness of the goals of acquiring certain knowledge and skills and the desire for “self-realization of the individual” (Loeng, 2018, p. 11). Although androgyny has been criticized for ignoring the teacher’s role in learning, it has been widely accepted.

A related model is self-directed learning, which is often used by adults. In this case, the student himself makes a decision regarding the goals, methods, and results of the process without the control of other people. This technique requires constant self-assessment, an adaptation of learning strategies, resources, and materials, as well as maintaining a positive attitude (TEAL Center staff, 2011). In this case, the teacher can act as a consultant through the encouragement of accurate self-evaluation of the student.

Another theory of adult learning involves the adaptation and transformation of previous experience and understanding while acquiring new knowledge. Transformative learning is “the process by which we transform problematic frames of reference (mindsets, habits of mind, meaning perspectives)” (Mezirow, 2018). In the learning process, students learn to solve specific practical problems, as well as communicate their needs and desires.

Thus, with the acquisition of new knowledge, a transformed expanded perception of previous experience and understanding arises, which helps an adult to pose questions and independently conduct critical thinking processes (Rothwell, 2020). Theories of adult learning differ in the fact that the choice of goals and methods is made by the student. In contrast to children, who acquire basic and general skills and knowledge, adult learning is aimed at developing specific aspects which are determined by their experience, social roles, and self-perception.

Constructivist Learning Theory

Constructivist learning theory is part of the cognitive approach to the learning process. As cognitivism, constructivists consider the process in terms of previous experience within which knowledge acquisition is built. However, cognitive science pays more attention to the direct use of mental resources in teaching, while the discussed theory focuses on the independent construction of understanding by students (Bada & Olusegun, 2015). Thus, constructivism considers the learner as the central active agent of building knowledge. A person perceives new information, revises it, and incorporates it into the existing understanding.

The theory is based on Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation, as well as Vygotsky’s ideas of social constructivism. Purwarno (2018) notes that “the basic premise of constructivist theory is that people are said to learn when they have gained experience from what they learn” (p. 87). In this way, students create their own meaning to the acquired knowledge based on existing experience and understanding. From a constructivist perspective, the learning process is based on the incorporation of the individual values ​​of the learners into the shared context and the exchange of information. The adherents of this approach are convinced that the result is influenced by both the attitude of the student and the environment in which he or she learns.

Each person also has a certain mental model, which is formed from his or her perception of the real world. Despite the fact that knowledge exists in the mind, the student constantly adapts it to his or her experience, which reflects new information and influence brought by it (Bada & Olusegun, 2015). This approach is also combined with adult learning theories, as students need to assess their needs and choose appropriate strategies according to their own experience. Moreover, their perception is transformed with the acquisition of knowledge. However, in this case, there is no focus on the student’s independent responsibility for the learning process and result. The teacher does not act as a consultant and assistant but guides the learning activities.

Humanist Learning Theory

Humanistic learning theory focuses on prioritizing human needs in the educational process. This applied not only to learning areas, but also to more basic aspects in the form of “biological and physiological, safety, belongingness or love, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs” (Guney & Al, 2012, p. 2336). The main idea of ​​the theory is the assumption that the satisfaction of lower desires leads to the emergence of higher needs such as knowledge and development. This statement assumes that the educational environment, first of all, should be comfortable for students. Providing basic needs later results in intrinsic motivation to achieve certain learning outcomes.

In contrast to the behaviorist approach, the humanistic theory suggests that human emotions influence the learning process. Moreover, students have an intrinsic motivation to learn which does not need to be stimulated by specific behaviors and repetition. Emotional reinforcements in this case are perceived as contrary to humanistic views, which propose to consider the causes of negative behavior and response. This approach argues that behaviorism, cognitivism, or constructivism do not pay enough attention to human emotions and their importance in the learning process. Thus, humanists suggest that meeting basic needs and providing psychological and physiological comfort ensures an ideal learning environment in which students focus on personal development and knowledge acquisition.

Connectivist Learning Theory

The development of learning theories is also occurring in the modern world, as the educational context is changing. The Connectivist approach “views learning as a network phenomenon influenced by technology and socialization” (as cited in Gerard & Goldie, 2016, p. 1). It explains how people use the World Wide Web to gain knowledge and share information. George Siemens, an educator who studies digital technologies in the learning environment, posits several key principles of connections.

Primarily, theory recognizes the importance of different opinions in the creation of knowledge. This belief gives value to the content created by the community, such as Wikipedia, which educators can use in their teaching process. Connectivism also defines learning as “a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources” (as cited in Gerard & Goldie, 2016, p. 1). This statement implies that the ability to use various resources to obtain more complete information about any topic is critical today.

The theory suggests that people can use artificial resources such as machine learning or various devices to achieve a learning result more efficiently. Proper interaction with computers can help students analyze massive flows of information, which is also an important modern skill (Buchori et al., 2017). Siemens also argues that the ability to know more is important, not existing knowledge. Utecht & Keller (2019) suggest that this thesis implies that a modern person needs to use existing experience for a critical assessment of the learning process. Students should be able to establish the right connections between ideas and concepts. It is equally important to maintain constant communication with other people to exchange relevant information.

Modern resources offer various data, among which students need to be able to find relevant and credible sources. Therefore, Siemens argues that the decision-making process is already learning. Students first decide what and for what purpose to learn, as well as what materials to use for this, which allows them to select useful resources and exercise critical thinking (Utecht & Keller, 2019). Thus, connectivist theory is the most modern and relevant educational approach. Instead of ignoring or abandoning technology, theorists suggest using it to facilitate learning processes and outcomes. Connectivism stresses the importance of constantly sharing information and finding relevant materials in a variety of data.

Learning Styles Theory

The learning styles theory assumes that all people have individual ways to learn effectively. In most cases, the preference for one style or another is chosen due to the learners’ self-report. There are many variations of these approaches: for example, in a 2004 study, 30 dichotomous learning styles are identified (as cited in Kirschner, 2017, p. 167). Styles can be based on different channels of perception or psychological traits identified by students.

The theory suggests that the use of individual characteristics of learners in the development of materials or organization of the educational process helps to achieve better results. Curry (1983) notes that literature on the topic identifies the “relationship between learning style and improved educational (teaching and learning) outcomes” (p. 4). However, modern researchers increasingly criticize the theory for inconsistency.

First of all, it is noted that learning styles “provide lists of preferences with no explanation as to the underlying cognitive, motivational and personality mechanisms that underlie the preferences” (An & Carr, 2017). The approaches presented in the framework of the theory describe certain qualities of students but do not offer a systematic approach to their effective use. Moreover, there are no guidelines on how to define specific features. Thus, learning styles based on the individual characteristics of students are abstract approaches that do not offer real educational models.


These learning theories have evolved over time and consider various aspects of learning mechanisms. Despite this, they all developed in connection with each other and use the common achievements of psychology and pedagogy. Although some theories currently look outdated as behavioral or underdeveloped as learning styles, each of them can be applied to find the most effective class learning or self-education method. The main point is that learning theories are constantly evolving, addressing the critical aspects of acquiring and retaining knowledge, even with changing external conditions.


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