Learning is one of the most important and prolonged processes of human life. Like breathing for physical existence, learning is essential for mental functioning. The educational process is most important during the early periods of development, that is why early tuition has to be properly organized. However, the quality of education for teenagers and adults has to be high as well. There is a variety of educational theories, each focusing on specific aspects of learning. Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and humanism are leading learning theories; they have both common and particular aspects. Studying and applying them is important to provide effective education.
Behaviorism is a broad and heterogeneous field that includes methods based on behavior and simulation researches. Behaviorists believe that learning is regulated by different influential factors of the environment. Such determinants as punishment or reward from the teacher are regarded as stimuli that influence students’ behavior. Behavioral patterns, praised by the teacher, become entrenched, and that is how education proceeds. This principle is central to all behaviorist sub-theories, among which are associative learning and operant conditioning.
Associative learning theory is based on the belief that information in human brains does not exist in isolation and suggests that learning is based on associational connections between the stimulus and the student’s response to it. This model includes connections primarily between mental and physical processes. This linking of psychological and physiological dimensions is expressed through mental reactions to stimuli. Principles of associative learning are reflected in classical and operant conditioning.
Operant Conditioning suggests that a certain pattern of voluntary behavior is supported with different stimuli. Both positive and negative reinforcements are used for preserving the desired pattern and avoiding the “unwelcomed” one. This model is based on the belief that punishment eliminates the desire to perform an action, whereas awarding stimulates it. Using positive and negative reinforcements (for example, a positive award is extra bonuses, negative- diminution of undesired duties) allows regulating students’ voluntary behavior.
Cognitivism as a psychological study focuses on analyzing cognition and different aspects of human brainwork. While developing, the cognitive theory was regarded as opposing behaviorism. However, these two theories have both common aspects and differences. The principal dissimilarity is that cognitivism is based on the belief in mental abilities, while behaviorism regards cognition as one of the behavior types, not the basic mechanism of learning. Cognitivism is a broad domain, consisting of different sub-theories, including cognitive load theory and elaboration theory.
Cognitive Load Theory
Cognitive load is the combination of environmental factors that influence the student. It includes information that has to be learned along with information from the surrounding environment. Cognitive load is divided into the intrinsic, extraneous, and germane load. Intrinsic load is the information that has to be learned; extraneous load refers to the result of ineffective techniques; the germane load is the result of successful learning. Learning is believed to be more effective when it corresponds with how information is naturally proceeded in the human brain (Rosser-Majors, 2017). Based on this belief, the method has its aim in “optimizing learning” and uses such methods as teacher gesturing, stress-suppressing, collaboration (Paas & van Merriënboer, 2020, p. 394). Considering the cognitive load theory helps to improve long-term memorization and make education easier and more productive.
Elaboration theory, also named Bloom’s taxonomy, is a method of ranking cognitive processes and skills. Knowledge is regarded as a fundamental (the simplest) skill, while synthesis is stated to be the highest form of thinking; other processes are ranked between them. The later version of the taxonomy is more specified and introduces different order and terminology of cognitive processes. Elaboration theory helps to grade educational activities and formulate tasks, drawing attention to the training of more complex cognitive processes.
Constructivism is closely related to cognitivism and focuses on the organism that responds to the stimulus. Constructivists state that the learning process is based on connecting new information with previous facts and impressions. This theory regards learning as a stimulus-organism-response (S-O-R) model and states the importance of previous experience (Rosser-Majors, 2017). Constructivism has been developed by talented psychologists, such as J.Piaget and L.Vygotsky, and is represented by various branches, among which are cognitive and social constructivism.
Started by Jean Piaget, cognitive constructivism states that learning is a process of active construction of knowledge. A person who is learning is not regarded as a passive participant, that is why a method of discovery learning becomes broadly used. Although the model suggested by cognitive constructivism is criticized by some specialists, its principles are recognized to be very important and useful for the development of educational psychology.
Social constructivism regards the social experiences of an individual as important factors that influence the process of learning. According to this model, social experience influences both the knowledge itself and cognitive patterns, studying habits, and methods. Moreover, environmental conditions influence the motivation and confidence of the student. Generally, an important role in this theory is assigned to social and cultural influence on the learning process of an individual.
Humanism suggests that behaviors of people, including learning, are influenced by their values. The student, viewed as a combination of personal traits, social experiences, and other factors, is regarded as the main determinant of the educational process. Learning is considered an act of self-fulfillment and personal development; therefore motivation, consciousness, and inquisitiveness are highly valued. Similar to constructivism, humanism regards a teacher as a person, whose goal is to facilitate education, and puts the student in the center of the process. Humanism includes such sub-theories as Waldorf education and experiential learning.
Waldorf education is a learning strategy similar to the Renaissance educational method. Its aim is the comprehensive development of personality and diverse knowledge. Specialists who support Waldorf education suggest that proper education includes not only general subjects as literacy and arithmetic but also respectfulness, peace, and other abilities. This method, criticized by some specialists, seems effective in developing fundamental (in the Renaissance doctrine) traits of an individual- spirit, soul, and body.
Experiential learning is a group of theories “based on a belief that learning occurs because of self-reflection and engagement in one’s development” (Rosser-Majors, 2017, ch. 6.3). Experiences and their effect on the educational process are very important in these methods. Experiences should encourage students’ curiosity, increase motivation, and be interactive. Ideas similar to experiential learning were introduced as early as in ancient philosophy and became popular in the twentieth century.
Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and humanism are basic learning theories; knowing them helps to optimize the educational process. They have common traits- for example, they rely on scientific facts and are aimed to improve the learning process. However, these methods “differ in explaining the learning process” and methodology of education (Arghode et al., 2017). For instance, behaviorism focuses on external stimuli and suggests that they guide the learning process. Cognitivism emphasizes cognitive mechanisms in education and proposes different patterns of organizing information for better presentation. Constructivism is close to cognitivism in relying on cognition but considers learning as connecting new information with known facts. Finally, humanism highlights personal attitude towards learning and regards education as self-realization. Differences allow these theories to cover opposing aspects of learning, which allows to study the process and improve education.
Educational theories provide a wide range of learning methods for increasing learning success. Association and concept mapping are learning strategies that can help students in their education. Association as a method (not identical to associative learning in behaviorism) offers to learn new information by relating it to the known facts. It helps to learn names, dates, phone numbers, and other details easier and faster. The advantage of this method is that new facts are not “crammed”, but connected with familiar details. According to Wheeldon and Faubert, concept mapping is “a procedure for organizing concepts concretely (drawn, in tables, etc.)” (as cited in Rosser-Majors, 2017, ch. 2.4). The graphic map as an illustrative representation of the main information is a helpful learning tool. Association and concept mapping are useful methods that make the educational process more successful.
Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and humanism are basic and well-developed learning theories. They are similar in aiming to study and improve the educational process but differ in methods and basic terms. Studying these theories is important to understand the process of learning better, as it helps to get acquainted with different aspects of the learning process and various methods to improve the effectiveness of education. That is why behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and humanism should be considered by those who want to ameliorate learning skills.
Arghode, V., Brieger, E.W. and McLean, G.N. (2017), “Adult learning theories: implications for online instruction”, European Journal of Training and Development, 41(7), 593-609. Web.
Paas, F., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2020). Cognitive-load theory: Methods to manage working memory load in the learning of complex tasks. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(4), 394–398. Web.
Rosser-Majors, M. L. (2017). Theories of learning: An exploration. Bridgepoint Education