Major Learning Theories

Major Theorists (Scholars)

"John  B. Watson (1878-1958) - thought people learned through their actions, not their thoughts/motivations. 
B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) - believed learning was a result of conditioning with positive and negative consequences (operant conditioning).  
- Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) -  similar to Skinner's beliefs; however, Pavlov believed the learning was voluntary (classical conditioning). "

Key Concepts

"Behaviorism as a theory implies ""Readers are only responding to stimuli,"" making learners a passive recipient whose thoughts, ideas, and motivations are irrelevant to the learning process (Aldhanhani & Abu-Ayyash, 2020, p.381).

Classical Conditioning - the involuntary association between a stimulus and a response. 
Operant Conditioning - the voluntary association between a stimulus and response. 
- reinforcement is used to increase or decrease the behavior. 
Type of reinforcement: positive, negative, punishment, continuous, intermittent, extinguishing "

psychological perspective on human functioning that emphasizes the critical role played by the social environment on motivation, learning, and self-regulation


Examples in Practice or contexts in which it would be helpful

"Students are more likely to work harder & more likely to be more willing to work for things that make them feel good (Zhou & Brown, 2015).
Forming behavior contracts.
Forming consequences for missing work, etc.
Environment dictates what & how much is learned (Ertmer & Newby, 2013).
Break down task into smaller components (Aldhanhani & Abu-Ayyash, 2020).

Utilizing theory to address educational problems in higher ed student recruitment context, specifically engagement:
Encouraging engagement from students over whom I have no authority as a visitor in their classroom and someone who wants them to look more closely at my institution. With behaviorism, I can prompt desired behaviors with external stimuli, i.e. incentivizing paying attention and actively engaging with quiz questions and prizes for right answers as well as offering any answer at all."


This theory reduces learners to being primarily passive recipients of information, negating everything to do with their thoughts, ideas, and any motivations they might have. Only that which is observable is considered worthy of study/analysis. Clearly, this excludes many variables known to be valuable in understanding learners and the manner in which they receive instructional content, such as assessing background knowledge. 
-It ignores the internal aspect and oversimplifies behavior
-It suggests there is no free will
-It does not address behavior without external stimuli
"Principles of conditioning are not universal" (Zhou & Brown, 2015, p. 10)


Zhou & Brown, 2015
Aldhanhani & Abu-Ayyash, 2020
Ertmer & Newby, 1993

Major Theorists (Scholars)

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)
John Dewey (1859-1952)
Bartlett (1932) – Schema theory
Louise Rosenblatt (1978) further extended the application of the Schema theory | Transactional/Reader Response Theory

Key Concepts 

“Constructivism is a theory of learning that emphasizes the active construction of knowledge by individuals” Gunning (2010, as cited in Tracey et al., 2017). Learning occurs by integrating new knowledge when the individual is actively engaged in the learning process. Schema Theory credited by Bartlett is also another application in the field of reading where people organize everything by what they know in a schemata (Tracy & Morrow, 2017).

Examples in Practice

  • Inferencing- a process of filling in the gaps within comprehension
  • Reciprocal teaching/collaborative learning
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Metacognition graphic organizers “Thinking about my thinking”
  • Inquire-based learning
    • Questioning
    • Formulating a hypothesis
    • Problem-based approach
    • Collect data to test a hypothesis
    • Draw conclusions
  • Scaffolding—the assistance that adults and more peers provide during learning episodes, breaking down the problem into steps, modeling by example, and allowing the student to grow in independence as a learner (Slavin (1997, Tracey, et al., 2017).
  • Webbing
  • Vocabulary activities
  • Anticipation guides


Society and the environment are not the same., so students' or learners' developmental structures “enter and leave various stages according to which they are located or have not developed the logical or conceptual equipment to be able to tackle certain types of problems through experience, therefore lacking fundamental concepts” (Phillips & Soltis, 2009).


Phillips, D. C., & Soltis, J. F. (2009). Perspectives on learning. Teachers College Press.
Tracey, D. H., & Morrow, L. M. (2017). Lenses on Reading, third edition: An Introduction to Theories and Models. Guilford Publications.

Major Theorists (Scholars) 

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Key Concepts

Knowledge exists in its active, working form and we put it to work to draw new connections between ourselves and the world that will resolve the complexities we face. 

Examples in Practice or contexts in which it would be helpful

In the classroom, middle school is a trying age. They test limits and push boundaries. Sometimes a different approach is necessary and remembering that they are learning how to become adults is part of the process. I know that in any career, including STEM careers, you have to be able to work with other people to get things done. Even if you work for yourself, you still have suppliers and customers you need to work with. It is important for students to think about their place in the community and give them the tools they need to be able to collaborate with others. Therefore, it is important to talk about the "human" side of a career and help give them tools they will need like respect, responsibility, and how to handle transitions.


Conventional distinctions between the scientific and technological domains of inquiry may involve a false dichotomy. Values may not be the same for all people.


Waddington, D. I., & Weeth Feinstein, N. (2016). Beyond the Search for Truth: Dewey’s Humble and Humanistic Vision of Science Education. Educational Theory, 66(1–2), 111–126.


Humanism, Socioculturalism and Young Children in Regards to Making Sense of the Diverse World.

Humanism theory constitutes a person seeing learning as a natural desire with the goal of achieving self actualization. Humanism is how the individual learns and the personal relationship with the idea. It is the human potential and growth of the learner. Empathy can help guide students so that learning and understanding the world will be a better guide for them. This is in contrast to sociocultural learning. Sociocultural learning involves how the world influences individual development. Learning becomes a social process. Successful development occurs through interaction with people that possess more knowledge and/or skill than the learner. Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were proprietors of sociocultural theory.

WEB Dubois according to Christopher Cameron in his article has been quoted as saying in regard to Dubois, he began to count and classify the facts concerning the American negro and the way to his betterment through human interaction.”(Cameron). Dubois believed in the basic principles of African American humanism which were that humans are responsible for their own condition and changing the world. He believed that humans have grown or evolved from earlier times from the beginning of time educationally and socially. African American humans share an appreciation for black culture and the race which can help them better the world while changing it. African Americans that believe in humanism are mostly non believers. Surprisingly or not surprisingly Dubois was agnostic before teaching at Atlanta University in 1897. In his 1956 letter to his friend Herbert Apetheker, Dubois said of African Americans, "Absolute truth and his faith in human beings to use science and reason to change the world”(Cameron) Dubois and his lack of belief in Christianity said that he saw no evidence of God influencing human life but saw evidence of humans had influenced human life. Although this letter and article discuss Christianity and the idea of African American humanism on Christianity, the central concept is still the same. Humanism will affect how the person sees themself in the world and how their perception of how they interact with the world helps them to understand the world.

Lev Vygotsky believed that parents, teachers, peers, caregivers and all of society and the world can influence the cognitive development of a learner(child). He believed in the more knowledgeable leader that would guide the learner through strategies to help the learner acquire knowledge and understand a concept. He consistently discussed the ZPD, the zone of proximal development which was the ability of a learner to extend themselves beyond what they know. This zone incorporates what the learner gets from the interaction of those around them. In the study done in the article, A Sociocultural Framework for Studying Children’s Understandings of Racial/Ethnic Diversity, Caryn C Park discusses how Piaget’s developmental theories did not incorporate social and cultural factors when looking at development and gaining knowledge. Her study looked at how preschoolers during the observations understand and make sense of differences both racially and ethnically in the classroom. According to Vygotsky language is important because it influences the mental functioning in the way a person learns. He also believed that the language and speech that we use to discuss racial and ethnic differences is an important tool in how diverse learners learn. He also believes in symbolic tools when incorporating any socio-cultural activities. Park discusses some of these tools as skin colored crayons and not using language like melting pot when teaching preschool students. Park says that “a child is able to do in isolation(actual development)versus what she or he could potentially accomplish with the assistance of others(ZPD)(Park).

Park tested a group of preschoolers at Chelsea School on the metro west coast. The students were between the ages of 3-5. The racial makeup of the group was mostly European Americans and a few non white participants. The school itself is heterogeneous ethnically and diverse. After observing students on multiple occasions, Park recognized that the children with their teachers were able to stretch upwardly in their social interactions with other students. Their ZPD guided students to see the opportunities to use their own experiences to learn and expand their knowledge in regards to new information about racial and ethnic diversity. Park was able to analyze how the classroom’s physical environment, tools, symbols and language helped them to understand the diversity of their environment. She recognized her observations through the peer interactions between the preschoolers. The students however made connections to their environment in regards to the diversity of their lessons or the multicultural images in the classrooms. Can this be an assumption that with this age group they are innocent and are oblivious to differences ethnically. Park recognized there were no exclusionary behaviors and there were not any students that showed incidents of negative actions that were racially motivated. Within the study there were not any students that had a conflict due to racialized actions or racial symbolisms. The one finding that Park highlighted was that ¼ of the white students segregated themselves. Another quarter of the white students interacted with other cultures and races. Again can Park’s study prove anything due to the fact that the students were extremely young and had limited interaction with society as a whole individually.

From the small chunk of results from Park’s study we can conclude that the parents of these students may have guided them in learning and understanding of the diverse world. It is my assumption that the parents of these world knowledgeable students may have taught them empathy in regards to others. Dubois believed that humans have the potential within themselves not with outside factors to be good. Can the preschoolers have this potential already at their young age? Can the influences of their teachers and their diverse environment help them to expand their ZPD and make sense of this diverse world. I developed a black history month curriculum for our teachers to use as morning breaks. The teachers show the students a video and there is a discussion that closes out the break. Students will need to bring their own connections and understanding of the information(humanism) and the teacher will discuss the lesson to help the students expand and understand the lesson in order to incorporate it into their knowledge (sociocultural theory). Although these two theories are contrasted, in both the Park study and in my BHM curriculum they can work concurrently.

Cameron, Christopher (2023). How WEB DuBois Helped Pioneer African American Humanist Thought. University Press of Mississippi. http/

Noel, La Tonya & Whaley, Arthur L. (2012). Sociocultural Theories, Academic Achievement and African American Adolescents in a Multicultural Context: A Review of the Cultural Compatibility Perspective, Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 81(1), pp. 25-38. Https:

Park, Caryn C(2011). Young Children Making Sense of Racial and Ethnic Differences: A Sociocultural Approach, 48(2).



Additional Learning Theories

Links to resources:


A breakdown of social cognitive theory (relatively youth friendly!):


Loosely related in Bandura’s definition of social cognitive theory is behaviorism, followed is an article looking at moral development (also part of the personal aspect in the social cognitivism triad):


Epistemology is the theory of knowledge that involves using different methods, checking validity, and scope. It includes the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

The two most important aspects of this theory are critical thinking and reflection. When exploring different types of knowledge, it is important to look at the process of how people make sense of the information they have and integrate that information into what becomes knowledge. Learning theories examine what motivates people to learn, and what helps or hinders that learning.

We have learned about many different learning theories, and what has been helpful is to understand the concept behind each and apply parts of each to different dynamic learning situations in the classroom especially when focusing on how different students learn.  As we look at how education has changed we can focus on specific needs of our students.

When taking individualized learning and putting it into practice teachers can adapt their lessons to accommodate the needs of each student and find a method so that the students can learn at their own pace.

When I think of putting a lesson into practice I will use traditional learning resources in combination with on-line tools, allowing students to find content that applies to them and learn at their own pace. By using technology with hands-on projects, this will aid the students in designing their own investigations, so they can come up with a problem, critique it, and then solve it, either on their own or in a group. This can be applied to different subjects, such as math, reading, language arts, and science or a combination of those. In an individual lesson this encourages creativity and interest. So putting this into practice I think of an example where we studied the sinking of the Titanic. We posed the question, what happened to the Titanic. Students had to do some on-line research investigating what caused the Titanic to sink. They were able to look at the fact that the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable. It was the most modern ship of its day. The Titanic had all the modern conveniences for first class passengers to travel across the ocean and get to the United States in record time. After doing research they would learn the history behind the famous ship and then the science as well. A question incorporating science might be how the Titanic moved so quickly across the water. So in addition to studying and answering questions in relation to how the Titanic sank, they could investigate and explore the science of getting the ship to move at record speeds using steam, and the problems they encountered. The last part of the assignment used their language arts skills as they were required to write a report based on their research. They could demonstrate their learning by other means, for example, writing a poem, doing a skit in a group, or giving a presentation.

Some limitations of constructivism include the lack of structure, because some students need a structured environment in order to be successful. Students also need organization and order. Another limitation is that some teachers may lack experience in using this theory and putting it into practice, it takes a lot of time to prepare. Some students might not have enough prior knowledge to help them to successfully complete the tasks.

Some limitations of epistemology are that it does not address issues centered around reality or ethics. An example is when students are limited in reasoning and having difficulty analyzing ideas and drawing conclusions.



Individualized Learning; The future of education. (2024). Stand together. https;//

Labbas, R., (2013) Epistemology in Education; Epistemological Development Trajectory. Journal of International Education and Leadership, V. 3, N.  2

Student Presentations 

Short presentations on various topics related to learning theories. 

Graduate students' presentations on a variety of learning theory topics are on the page

Student-produced slides presentations explaining learning theories can be found on this page: 


Members of the course "Psychology of Education," ED 504, Northern Michigan University, Winter 2024, supplied the content of this webpage. Students include: 

  • Jennifer Anderson
  • Zachary Celello
  • Erika Greeley
  • Jenny Irvine
  • Thomas J
  • Karina Johnson, NMU Theatre & Dance Faculty
  • Tyler J Markle
  • Heather Mitchell
  • Stacee O'Dell
  • Jenny Prom
  • Mallory Scanlon
  • Kari Strand, Science Teacher at Wakefield Marenisco School District
  • Kenyatta Wilcox

Additional students contributed as well but did not wish to be individually named.