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The Top 10 Learning Theories

Bob Little 

October 30, 2015

All of us have been on the receiving end of learning theories, even if we haven’t always fully appreciated that fact. As a member of the L&D profession, you apply them on a daily basis. So here’s a brief résumé of an admittedly subjectively compiled top ten of learning theories.

1. Behaviorism

Based on the principle of stimulus-response, behaviorism assumes the learner is passive, merely responding to external stimuli. “Learning” is evidenced by a change in the learner’s behavior.

External stimuli cause all behavior. So behavior can be explained without considering internal mental states or consciousness.

The learner begins as a “clean slate.” Subsequent behavior is shaped by positive (applying a stimulus) or negative (withholding a stimulus) reinforcement. Any reinforcement increases the probability that the previous behavior will be repeated, while punishment reduces the probability that the previous behavior will be repeated.

2. Cognitivism

Cognitivism believes that the mind’s “black box” needs to be opened and understood. It views the learner as an information processor – somewhat like a computer. During the 1960s, cognitivism, which focuses on exploring mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem solving, replaced behaviorism as the dominant learning theory.

Cognitivists see knowledge as symbolic mental constructions, or “schema.” Learning is a change in the learner’s schema.

3. Constructivism

Constructivism – which is allied to social and situational learning theories – views learning as an active process in which learners build information to create subjective representations of objective reality. These representations are subjective because new information is always linked to people’s prior knowledge.

Reacting against the didactic approaches of behaviorism and programmed instruction, constructivism argues that learning is an active, contextualized process, comprising building – not acquiring – knowledge. Personal experience, allied to ideas about the learner’s environment, helps build that knowledge. Learners constantly test these ideas through social negotiation and, since everyone’s an individual, each person approaches building knowledge differently, and interprets it differently.

4. Humanistic learning theory

Allied to motivational learning theories, humanism views learning as a personal act that contributes to fulfilling a person’s potential. Championed by such learning theorists as Abraham Maslow, humanism has given us the term “self-actualization” as well as the concept of the teacher as facilitator.

Like cognitivism, humanism emerged in the 1960s. It focuses on human dignity, freedom and potential. One of its central pillars is the assumption that people act with “intentionality” and values. This contrasts with behaviorism, which says that all behavior is the result of applying consequences. The humanist view also opposes cognitive psychology’s belief that discovering knowledge and constructing meaning is central to learning.

A key humanist view is that it’s vital to see the learner as a whole person, especially as he or she grows and develops over his lifespan.

5. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This hierarchy grew from Maslow’s quest to understand what motivates people. In 1943, Maslow said that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. Having fulfilled one need, they seek to fulfill the next one, and so on.

The most widespread version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. These are physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization.

6. Experiential Learning

David Kolb published his learning styles model in 1984. From this, he developed his learning styles inventory.

Kolb’s experiential learning theory operates on two levels – a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles. Much of Kolb’s theory focuses on the learner’s internal cognitive processes.

In his view, learning involves acquiring abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations. In his theory, the impetus to develop new concepts is provided by new experience.


A design theory developed by Dr John M Keller, ARCS is a mnemonic that stands for Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction. ARCS is a problem-solving approach to designing learning environments that stimulate and sustain students’ motivation to learn. In two parts, the ARCS model is a set of categories representing the components of motivation, followed by a systematic design process to create appropriate motivational enhancements for learners. ARCS is also claimed – and acclaimed –by humanists, so it could also be seen as part of humanism (see above).


ADDIE is a mnemonic that stands for the five stages of instructional design: Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. ADDIE is a high-level framework that helps provide context for what an instructional designer does.

9. Elaboration theory

Like other design theories and models, Charles Reigleuth’s elaboration theory (published in 1979) tries to bridge theory and practice in education, aiming to reveal the relationships between educational theory, designed learning programs, and practice.

Reigleuth’s view is that content that must be learned should be organized in an order from the simple to the complex – while providing a meaningful context within which to integrate subsequent ideas. Elaboration theory proposes seven major strategy components: an elaborative sequence, learning prerequisite sequences, summary, synthesis, analogies, cognitive strategies, and learner control.

10. Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a way of classifying thinking according to six cognitive levels of complexity. This hierarchical model argues that Knowledge, Comprehension and Application are more “basic” than Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.

These six steps can be seen as a stairway that learners are encouraged to ascend to achieve a higher level of thinking. Once a learner has mastered a higher level of thinking, then she is said to have mastered the lower levels.

First published in 1956, Bloom’s Taxonomy’s six steps have been updated to meet 21st century demands. They’re now said to be: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating.

This highly subjective “top ten” – compiled with help from learning-theories.com – means that there’s no place for Robert Gagne’s theory (that there are several types or levels of learning, each of which requires different types of instruction) and countless other well-known and well-loved learning theories. So this list is by no means exhaustive – but, hopefully, it’s a useful start.

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