Learning Theory

A theory that attempts to explain how people learn and modify pre-existing thoughts and behavior.


Associative learning—
A learning process in which a specific stimuus is associated with another stimulus or behavior through either classical or operant conditioning.
Cognitive learning—
An individual's ability to acquire and process information, reason, remember, and relate; primarily concerned with acquisition of problem-solving abilities.
A functional neuroimaging technique that maps brain activity by recording magnetic fields generated by the brain's electrical currents.
Operant conditioning—
A learning process in which positive or negative reinforcement at the time a specific behavior is exhibited will respectively increase or decrease that behavior by an individual who is either pleased or displeased by the reinforcement.
Vicarious conditioning—
The learning of various attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and emotions through obervation of others' reaction to a stimulus, rather than through the individual's direct exposure to the stimulus.

In contrast to theories of classical and operant conditioning, which describe learning in terms of observable behavior, learning can involve knowledge acquisition without observable performance. Intervening variable theories introduce such elements such as memory, motivation, and cognition. For example, in the 1930s, the drive-reduction theory of psychologists Clark L. Hull and Kenneth W. Spence, who sought to explain learning through motivation and behavior. The Hull theory introduced motivation as an intervening variable in the form of homeostasis, the tendency to maintain equilibrium by adjusting physiological responses. An imbalance creates needs, which in turn create drives. Actions can be seen as attempts to reduce these drives by meeting the associated needs. According to drive-reduction theory, the association of stimulus and response in classical and operant conditioning only results in learning if accompanied by drive reduction.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, learning theory was influences by cognitive theories such as those of social learning theorist Albert Bandura, who focused on observational learning, also referred to as modeling or imitation. It is commonly known that children learn by watching their parents, other adults, and their peers. According to Bandura, the extent to which children and adults learn behaviors through imitation is influenced not only by the observed activity itself but also by its consequences. Behavior that is rewarded is more readily imitated than behavior that is punished. Bandura coined the term “vicarious conditioning” for learning based on the observed consequences of others’ actions, listing the following requirements for this type of learning: attention to the behavior; retention of what is seen; ability to reproduce the behavior; and motivation. Cognitive approaches such as Bandura's have led to an enhanced understanding of how conditioning works, while conditioning principles have helped researchers better understand certain facets of cognition.

Cognitive learning in the twenty-first century is defined as learning that is concerned with acquiring problem-solving abilities through conscious thought. Cognitive learning theory looks at learning as a behavioral change related to an individual's intelligence and acquisition of information from the environment. Cognitive learning theory holds that successful learning depends on one's ability to learn and make sense of new information, or simply stated, the use of thinking to learn. This basic learning theory suggests that mental processes are influenced by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors as parts of an individual's learning process, eventually resulting in acquiring knowledge.

Modern learning research is ongoing and computers play an important role, both in the areas of computer-assisted learning and computer-based neural networks that are used to investigate how neurological processes function in learning. As computer technology has advanced, interest has grown in direct observation of brain function during the learning process. This has led to the area of study called educational neuroscience, in which neuroscientific tools such as event-related potential, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and magnetoencephalography are applied to conduct learning research. A theory of multiple intelligences has emerged in which learning is viewed as an interaction between different functional areas of the brain, whose strengths and weaknesses may vary considerably from person to person. Modern brain imaging techniques allow the brain to be observed directly during learning. which may provide evidence to support optimum learning strategies and shed light on learning disabilities at the same time.

See also Cognitive development .



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Sawyer, R. Keith. Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York, NY:Cambridge University Press, 2006.


O'Brien, M.“The influence of emotions, attitudes and perceptions on learning with technology.” Research in Learning Technology 23 (Mar 2015): 2156–7077.


Shuell, Thomas. Theories of Learning. updated Jul 2013. (accessed Aug 2015). http://www.education.com/reference/article/theories-of-learning/ . (accessed October 24, 2015).