Theories of Learning

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Theories of Learning

Whether you are a student or a working professional, the consistent strive towards learning is an imperative thing all of us should implement in our lives. Lifelong learning helps you drive through any massive change in your life and having an innate curiosity towards everything assists you in expanding your mind’s horizons. There are different learning methods and educational theories you can implement to make the learning process more effective. Various psychologists and researchers have consistently worked on exploring the process of learning starting from fundamental concepts like how an individual absorbs, processes, and retains knowledge. This blog brings you a detailed analysis of some of the prominent theories of learning that will help you understand the different influences and factors that play a key role in the learning process.

Quick Read: Learning Skills For Students

Major Theories of Learning 

Theories of Learning aim to delve deeper into how people acquire, retain as well as remember something they learn. These theories can be utilised to devise key strategies and tools to facilitate the learning process into a smoother and more effective one. Here are the major types of theories of Learning that you must know about:

  • Behaviourism
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Constructivism
  • Social Learning Theory
  • Socio-constructivism


The fundamental concept of behaviourism is that the process of learning depends on the change in behaviour that arises due to the reinforcement, acquisition, and application of relationships between stimuli from the environment and perceptible responses of the person.  In behaviourism, the useful tools of learning and behaviour modification include the ideas of positive and negative reinforcement as well as a punishment and reward system. As one of the popular theories of learning, Behaviourism can be broadly defined in four parameters which are as follows:

  • The learner must begin with perceiving their mind as a clean slate and their learning behaviour is shaped by positive and negative reinforcement 
  • Behaviourism assumes that the learner is essentially passive and responses to environmental stimuli. 
  • Positive and negative reinforcement can significantly increase the recurrence of an event.
  • Punishment can also potentially decrease the possibility of an event occurring again.

Must Read: Behavioural Skills

Cognitive Psychology

Explored by theorists and psychologists in the late 1950s and is the most prominent branches of Psychology, Cognitive psychology is also one of the major influential theories of learning. It encapsulates the five general principles of learning through the application of cognitive psychology in education. It generally focuses on the context and mental state of students. This theory is mainly based on the basic principle that states “what students construct depends on the context”. Cognitive psychology emphasises on the complex mental phenomenon which was previously ignored by behaviourist theories. The five general principles of Cognitive Psychology theory are as follows:

  • The Context Principle  
  • The Change Principle
  • The Constructivism Principle
  • The Distribution Function Principle 
  • The Social Learning Principle 


This theory was developed in the late 20th century and corresponds to perceiving knowledge as the outcome of the experience mediated by one’s own knowledge and experience of others. Constructivism is mainly based on the concept of self-learning and sees learning as an active process during which an individual produces their own subjective version of reality. As one of the uniquely designed theories of learning which are inclined more towards subjectivity, some of the general principles of Socio-constructivism include, 

  • Scaffolding, which means learning is based on previous experiences; 
  • The learner has active participation in the learning process;
  • Critical thinking causes the construction of one’s own understanding. 

Social Learning Theory (SLT)

Social Learning Theory (SLT) emphasizes how learning is effectively facilitated in a social context. It is one of the prominent theories of learning that essentially focuses on the social environment of an individual and explores how an individual acquires new knowledge through imitating, observing and modelling the behaviour and reactions of the people around them. Some of the general principles of SLT are 

  • Imitation: Copying the behaviour of others
  • Identification: Perceiving yourself as someone else and wanting to copy them e.g gender, age, etc
  • Modelling: imitating a role model or a role model exhibiting similar traits
  • Vicarious reinforcement: Observing others being reinforced or imitating the behaviour to achieve the same results
  • Mediational processes: Cognitive factors (attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation) occurring between stimulus and response

Key Differences

Now that you are familiarized with these five theories of learning, let’s sum up their basic features and observations by exploring the key differences between them.

Basic ComparisonBehaviourismCognitivism Social Learning Theory (SLT)
Key TheoristsWatson & SkinnerVygotsky & BrunerShell & Wilna
of learning
Learning leads to a significant change in behaviour.A relatively permanent
change in mental representations or associations due to the learning experience. It is the building of connection in the pattern of thoughts or behaviour through a process of
assimilation and accommodation. 
Acquisition of those behaviour patterns which society expects mostly occurs by observation and modelling within
a social context. It also has shared control over behaviour, environment and the internal events that influence one’s perception.
Impact on BehaviourChange in behaviour can be observed.A change in mental representation
which can be displayed through the behaviour 
Behaviour does not have to be displayed at all to show learning. 
Role of any internal process during learningMental processes are not importantLearning occurs internally through changes in mental structureLearning occurs internally in terms of the social context and through imitation, modelling or observation

Recommended Read: Introduction to Motivational Theories

Thus, we hope that this blog assisted you in understanding the five influential theories of learning. Interested in pursuing a degree in Psychology or any of its related specialisations? Book an e-meeting with our Leverage Edu experts and we will help you in finding the best programme and university as well as guiding you through the application process to ensure that you get successfully shortlisted!

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