5 Educational Learning Theories (Explained in Plain English)

student at desk with paper and phone Main Learning Theories

Have you ever heard of the Marshmallow Test? An adult – I guess a psychological researcher because you need a master’s degree to give a kid a marshmallow and watch him eat it – places a big, fluffy, delicious marshmallow in front of a young child. She tells him, “I’ll be right back. While I’m gone if you don’t eat the marshmallow I’ll give you another and you’ll have 2.”

Most children, after trying to resist temptation, give in and chow down on the marshmallow. The researchers now have objective data to plot on charts and make conclusions. After a tough day in the classroom, this seems like a dream job!

 Psychologists have been studying how children learn for over a hundred years. If we can crack the code and uncover the secret to maximize student learning the whole world would be rainbows and unicorns.

I’m making light of what is actually critically important work. Children have been subjected to lecturing and memorization since the dawn of industrialization. This method of teaching, coupled with fear of the ruler on your insert-body-part led many kids to competency in reading and math.

Starting in the 20th century some psychologists that study child development have uncovered more effective ways of teaching. They have also discovered that there’s no one size fits all approach to educating children. 

Various studies and researchers gave birth to many learning theories, the 5 main of which we’ll look at today.

What is an Educational Learning Theory?

An education learning theory is a particular set of beliefs, based on scientific research, as to how learning takes place. A theory explains how children take in, process and retain new ideas and concepts.

There are dozens of published studies and theories on how children learn best. To date, these 5 educational theories have gained wide acceptance. They are:

1. Cognitive Learning theory – the internal and external impacts on learning

2. Behaviorism Learning Theory – students react to the behavior of others rather than internal drives

3. Constructive Learning Theory – Students build upon prior knowledge to process and understand new concepts.

4. Humanist Learning Theory – focuses on each individual trying to be their best self with the help of a nurturing environment

5. Connectivism Learning Theory – students learn by using their interests as a catalyst for learning

As a Teacher Why Should I Study Educational Learning Theories?

This seems like an “uh-duh” question. Of course, a teacher needs to know how children learn in order to effectively teach them!

The truth is that after teaching for a few years you will formulate your own learning theory. This will be different for each teacher. It will be based on the grade you teach, the environment you teach in and the types of kiddos that sit in front of you each day.

You can probably figure this out without ever hearing the name Eric Erickson (what was his mother thinking?) or Humanist Learning Theory. Just like a good cook might never own a cookbook. 

However, it’s easier to learn from others first. Once you have a foundation of knowledge developing your personal style of teaching will happen organically. 

So let’s look at the core tenets of each learning theory.

Overview of Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognition is a fancy word for learning. How do we think, understand and retain information? Short answer: lots of ways!

Cognitive Learning Theory states that students need to understand how to learn. Internal and external forces affect how well a child absorbs new ideas and concepts. Metacognition, the ability to think about how you think is an important component to learning. That’s the internal force. The external forces are known as social cognitive theory.

Together the internal and external stimuli build on existing schemata.

Social cognitive theory is the idea that nobody learns in a vacuum. The classroom environment, the students in the class and the teacher inspire or detract from learning. 

Cognitive Learning Theorists

Cognitive Learning Theory has been around for thousands of years. The Greek philosopher Plato studied the topic. He was passionate in his belief that learning, from birth to death, was necessary to a successful life.

“Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

Plato believed that a person’s environment builds their understanding of the world. Expand the environment and you create new realities and ideas.

Jean Piaget is a more modern theorist of cognitive learning. Piaget identified 4 developmental stages in a child’s growth:

  • Sensory-motor stage (0-2 years)
  • Preoperational stage (2-7 years)
  • Concrete operational stage (7-11 years)
  • Formal operational stage (11-adulthood)

These stages of cognitive development are universal across time and place. During each stage, a child’s thinking is different from the stage before and after. For example, a 5-year-old child cannot comprehend concepts of advanced math; their brains are not developed enough.

Learning is built upon prior memories and concepts. Showing students how to be aware of their thinking and creating a positive learning environment will help to maximize their success.

How to Use Cognitive Learning Theory in the Classroom

Understanding that children learn both through their own thinking processes and the environment around them is all fine and dandy. But what exactly should you be doing as a teacher to implement this theory?

1. Establish class rules and behaviors using positive reinforcements. Point systems, extra credit, student choice and formal recognition are powerful motivators to encourage kids to act and react in a manner that will lead to learning. One of my co-teachers uses a classroom economy, awarding “class cash” for everything from homework to answering questions. As you remove the incentives – hopefully – the conditioning will cause the learning behaviors to continue.

2. Build journaling into your class practices. Use writing prompts that encourage self-exploration. “If you could be any superhero who would you be and why?” “What is one action you regretted and why did you do it?” This builds social-emotional intelligence and fosters a habit of reflection.

3. Infuse pair/share into your lessons. This allows learners to organize their thinking out loud. And it allows one student a window into another’s thinking process.

Behavioral Learning Theory

This theory stems from the belief that student behaviors are caused by external stimuli more than their internal thoughts. Behavioral Learning Theory is used in many walks of life, from teaching young children to breaking destructive habits in adults. To implement this method one uses positive and negative consequences to steer behavior toward positive outcomes.

First Behavioral Learning Theorists

Ivan Pavlov is credited with being the father of behavioralism. His famous studies with dogs led to his conclusions.

Each time that Pavlov fed his dogs he would ring a bell at the same time; he introduced a second stimulus. When dogs smell food they salivate. After repeating this routine for a while Pavlov could get the dogs to salivate just by ringing the bell, without any food around. 

The bell became a conditioned response. This led Pavlov to conclude that learning can be enhanced by conditioning children. This is called classical conditioning. Teachers can use positive and negative reinforcement to encourage learning behaviors.

Another behaviorist was B.F. Skinner. Like Pavlov, he trained animals to change their behavior. Skinner’s mammal of choice was rats. He also used pigeons. Skinner built a box that contained a lever. When the rat activated the lever it would receive food. The rats and pigeons quickly learned to use these levers to obtain the positive reinforcement of food.

How to Use Behavioral Learning Theory in the Classroom

Behavior Learning Theory is the most common form of teaching. Teachers everywhere use techniques like praise, reward systems, continual feedback, positive reinforcement and non-punitive discipline.

It’s surprising how powerful little practices can be. I have one class this year that is particularly – ahem, energetic. To encourage the kids to settle down and start working I check their “do now” 5 minutes after the bell. It does help with some of the students.

One day I pulled out meme-style stickers (they’re awesome) and stuck one on each completed do now. All of a sudden a couple of my rowdiest kiddos (who don’t do the do now) started yelling (yes, yelling) “I want a sticker! Give me 1 minute, I’ll answer the question.”

They quickly started writing their responses just for a silly sticker. And these are 10th graders!

Constructivism Learning Theory

Constructivism Learning Theory posits that students learn by building on previous knowledge to attain new concepts. Learning happens through active construction (schema) rather than passively receiving information.

Early Constructivist Learning Theorist

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, is credited with formulating Early Constructivist Learning Theory. His research concluded that children gradually construct cognition by watching others. They use external social environments to build upon prior understanding.

Vygotsky’s experiments included observing a child with a more competent partner versus working independently. He devised a 2 zone schema: the zone of proximal development (a child can perform a task with guidance) and the zone of achieved development (the child can perform on their own)

How to Use Constructivist Learning Theory in the Classroom

In order to allow a child to construct and add to their prior knowledge guided interactions should be implemented. The first step is to assess what students can do on their own without help.

A math teacher in my school uses the traffic light method to check for understanding. Students hold up a green card if they totally understand, a yellow if they still have some confusion and a red for “I don’t get it”.

The goal is to work in the yellow area. Students have some competency but not mastery. Next, children should work at stations, in groups and have a choice of activities to guide them to the next level of competence.

Humanist Learning Theory

The Humanist Learning Theory is a close cousin to the Constructivism theory. It focuses on the individual and focuses on the whole child. The theory is based on the idea that all humans are inherently good. Each learner is unique and constructs new concepts differently. 

A holistic approach to teaching is used in the Humanist method. All needs are considered in order to maximize learning. For example, a hungry child is not going to perform at peak levels. Most schools in America now offer breakfast and lunch to fill this physical need. 

Humanist Learning Theorist

Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and James F. T. Bugental are the founders of Human Learning Theory. Maslow and his later cohorts believed that behavior theories had a negative perception of the learner. Positive and negative reinforcement was needed to get them to do the right thing.

Maslow, in contrast, believed that all humans are good and will do the right thing if their needs are met. By striving to consider the physical, emotional and cognitive facets of a student you will naturally receive a better outcome.

An outcome of Maslow’s findings was a distinct hierarchy of needs. It starts at the bottom with basic needs for food and shelter. At the pinnacle of a person’s success is self-actualization. This is the very best achievement a person can hope to attain.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

How to Use Humanist Learning Theory in the Classroom

School districts throughout the United States have been working toward serving the whole child instead of simply academic education. In New York City, where I teach, all students get free breakfast and lunch, have access to services such as counseling and speech therapy and medical assistance, such as a nurse or clinic in the school.

Since the pandemic started these efforts have been ramped up to include social-emotional learning (SEL) and motivational programs. 

As a teacher, the most important thing you can do to address the whole child is one-on-one relationship building. I use the 2-10 technique. Starting at the beginning of the school year I target a couple of students in each class. Whenever possible during class I will spend 2 minutes getting to know those 2 kids. While they’re engaged in independent work I’ll stroll over and chitchat about their families, likes, dislikes, etc. I do this for 10 days, then choose 2 other students (hence the 2-10, 2 minutes a day for 10 days).

Another technique for infusing the Humanist approach is to give students choice when possible. One example I like is the tic-tac-toe activity. Students complete a reading passage and then choose to complete any 3 activities in a row from a grid of 9.

Another idea is to list 6 short responses on the board. Students can roll a die to see which one to do. Any kind of gamification engages their fun radar and amps up the lesson.

For more on Social Emotional Learning check out this article.

Connectivism Learning Theory

The fifth Learning Theory is Connectivism. This is the newest of the bunch. It states that humans learn by forming connections of all kinds: with each other, through roles and obligations and hobbies. All inputs into our brains coalesce to form new learning.

Connectivism Learning Theory address technology and social media in education. According to psychologists technology is rewiring our brains. The amount of information we are exposed to every day has expanded exponentially in the digital era. These factors must be addressed in the learning environment.

Today’s students will not train for and hold one job for their whole adult lives. Most will cross over to different markets and fields several times. Lifelong learning will be a necessity. The ability to take competencies from one area and apply them to another will drive success.

Connectivisim Learning Theorists

Stephen Downes and George Siemens develop the concept of connectivism toa address learning in a global digital world.

“Exponentially developing knowledge and complexification of society requires nonlinear models of learning (process) and knowing (state). “

It is no longer useful to teach in a linear fashion, one concept building on another. Downes and Siemens explain there are new skills needed to thrive in today’s world. For example, being to identify what is and is not important is crucial in a world of too much information. The ability to make connections across different fields and concepts is necessary.

How to Use Connectivism in the Classroom

There is a myriad of ways that a teacher can adapt her classroom to meet the new expectations addressed in Connectivism Learning Theory. Group collaboration and discussion should be implemented on a regular basis.

Use all technology at your disposal to enhance student learning. Students can start a blog and listen to podcasts. They can gather different perspectives using social media. 

I started a Twitter account to communicate with my students. It works well to send reminders for homework and projects as well as to give shout-outs to kids who did really well in some way.

Gamification is another technique. Have you tried Kahoot in your class? It’s sooo fun! Kahoot is a free platform where you can create questions and students compete to answer correctly and quickly. And there are so many premade games and quizzes you’ll probably find one to fit your needs and save time.


These 5 learning theories are not the only ones out there. There’s Transformative Learning Theory, Social Learning Theory, and Experiential Learning Theory just to name a few. 

Most of the traditional research on student learning and behavior is still relevant today. Add the ideas of connectivism and there are many tools you can tap into when teaching.

Keeping these theories top of mind when planning lessons will help to ensure that you’re maximizing your students’ ability to learn how to learn. That, my friends, is the secret to success in the 21st century!

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

Recent Posts