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Three learning theories to think about in the classroom

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

To be sure that students are absorbing the information you are teaching them in lessons, it is useful to understand how students learn.

The question of how human minds acquire knowledge, however, has been heavily debated. Here are three different learning theories to consider in your approach to teaching.


This theory states that learning is achieved as a result of changes in behaviour after being exposed to a stimulus. This stimulus in a learning environment is provided by the teachers and is used to pass correct habits onto students within the classroom.

For example, a class may come to understand that when the teacher raises their hand they wish for the class to be quiet. Here, the stimulus is the raised hand and the change in behaviour is the students stopping talking.

Behaviourism suggests that students' minds are blank slates and they are ready to acquire knowledge that exists independent of them.

Equally, therefore, students learn through positive reinforcement. A student who receives good praise from their teacher after scoring well on a test will be encouraged to study hard on future tests as well, as a result of a desire to receive this same praise.

Negative reinforcement is enacted in this scenario when there is an absence of praise from the teacher after the student scores badly on the test. When they have no stimulus to respond to after doing something wrong, they have no motivation to change their behaviour so are unlikely to work hard for future tests.

Criticisms of this theory:

Some consider behaviorism to capture an incomplete account of human behaviour. Factors such as emotion, moral values and student expectations are not deeply thought out within the theory.

In addition, much of the initial research of the theory was done on animals, not students. When thinking about the foundations of behaviourism, people often point to Ivan Pavlov, whose experiment was on dogs' changes in behaviour in response to food stimulus.


Unlike behaviourism that sees knowledge existing outside of the mind of the learner, constructivism suggests that the knowledge acquired by students is made up of how they have chosen to construct it.

Instead of their minds being blank slates, students look to their previous understanding of a topic when learning about it and build upon this. As a result, learning is unique to every individual.

When you teach a student a subject, they will construct the information in their mind in their own, unique way. Their unique understanding is influenced by their own values, beliefs and previous knowledge.

Constructivism also states that learning information supports and is supported by other learning. When a student writes an essay on a topic their teacher has taught them, they are at the same time exercising their previous learning of things like sentence structure and grammar, and at the same time building on their understanding of these.

Criticisms of the theory:

One worry about the theory is that when a teacher brings its principles into the classroom, lessons may lack structure in order to allow for all types of learning. However, some students thrive with clear and consistent structure in the classroom, and structure may work to discourage any laid back approach they have to learning.


Cognitivism is another theory that sees learning as something that a student processes rather than it being a response to stimulus.

The theory suggests that there is a hierarchy of learning and students need to progress through each level.

When learning a new topic, students must progress through remembering it, understanding it, applying it then evaluating it.

In the classroom, teachers can boost learning according to this theory through the repetition of teaching a particular topic so students can easily recall the concept and what it involves. Then they must introduce exercises and activities about the topic for the students to complete to ensure they can understand and evaluate it.

Criticisms of the theory:

Cognitivism is sometimes considered difficult to put into practice in the classroom because it is very difficult to assess where every student falls in the journey of being able to remember right through to being able to evaluate a topic.

The theory does not take into account the prior knowledge and biases a student may have on a topic, as constructivism does, meaning progression along the levels may not be a direct and measurable path.

Contact Notting Hill College today to find a teaching programme suited for you.



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