Learning theory (education)

Celine Saade
By Celine Saade
Learning Theories

Learning Theories

It is widely accepted that people learn in different ways. Teachers usually ought to have one or more way to teach something in order to guarantee that their students grasp the knowledge that is being communicated. More precisely, learning outcomes and motivation could heavily be enhanced by an adequate teaching method in any given context. This essay will attempt to identify the ideal and optimal teaching strategies based on learning theories (e.g., Behavioral Learning Theory, Bandura’s Social Learning Theory). In order to do that, it is wise to choose two of the most recognized theories of learning in the literature and see which one would work the best in the given environment.

Behavioral Learning Theory

This school of thought came to life as a result of a reaction against introspective psychology which started with Freud. Watson and Skinner were the first who rejected the introspective methods arguing that they could not be reliable and objective. Instead, they acknowledge the importance of observable indicators that could help us explain human behavior and in turn lead us to tackle them in more scientific ways. The most popular experiment in regards to behaviorism was the Pavlov Dogs experiment. The experiment could be summarized by the following; after hearing a bell ring, Pavlov’s dogs would be given food. When the bell rang after a while, the dogs would salivate, anticipating the meal before they even saw it. In other words, objects that have to relationship whatsoever with food such as a bell, were able to induce a reaction that is typically observable when food is administered. This suggests that our experiences and our environment, according to behaviorism, are the drivers of our actions in any given context. In regards to the learning theory of behaviorism, the main two theories are classical and operant conditioning.

First, Watson argued that the classical conditioning process might explain most elements of human psychology and based on Pavlov’s experiment he proposed:
When a neutral stimulus (NS) is combined with an unconditioned stimulus (US) that has already evoked an unconditioned response (UR), the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS), evoking a conditioned response (CR) that is identical to the unconditioned response. In other words, in the case of Pavlov’s experiment, the NS was the bell ringing. When combined with the US that in this case is the sight or smell of food which already triggers the UR that is salivating, this reaction will be conditioned to the NS and in turn will become a CS that would trigger the CR that is the US in the first place. In conclusion, Classical Conditioning can be used to pair previously known concepts with new ones. This could be important in multiple learning environments as we will later explore.

Second, Operant conditioning, is a learning approach developed by Skinner in which he elaborates that the consequences of a response impact the likelihood of that action being repeated. In other words, behavior that is reinforced (rewarded) is more likely to be repeated, whereas behavior that is punished is less likely to occur. By using Thorndike’s law of effect, behavior that I followed by pleasant consequences will most likely be repeated in order to make that pleasant effect happen again. Likewise, with the same logic, a behavior that is followed by an unpleasant consequence will less likely be repeated. Skinner conducted experiences on rats where he would administer reinforces (food) every time the rat would pull a lever in an experimental box. He observed that the rat’s frequency of pulling the lever increases every time the rat is rewarded for doing so. This concept is referred to as Positive Reinforcement. On the other hand, Negative Reinforcement would be the termination of a certain unpleasant situation following a response. In other words, when we remove a certain unpleasant state following a certain behavior, we encourage the subject to repeat this behavior every time they find themselves in that state.

Moreover, when we attribute punishment following a certain behavior, we weaken the probability of the latter occurring. If we electrocuted a rat every time it pulled the lever, we minimize the probability of the rat pulling that lever in the future. Behaviorists discovered multiple patters for reinforcement that have different effects on the speed on which a behavior is either repeated or distinguished. These patters are identified by the rate in which the punishment or the reward is administered and which skinner suggests, have an important effect on the likelihood of the behavior being repeated. These factors are:

  1. Continuous Reinforcement
  2. Fixed Ration Reinforcement
  3. Fixed Interval Reinforcement
  4. Variable Ration Reinforcement
  5. Variable Interval Reinforcement

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory

The Social Learning Theory is defined by the fact that behavior could be learned and acquired through observation, imitation and modeling. Humans learn by observing and copying the behavior of others, according to social learning theory. Bandura came up with the term "observational learning" to describe this phenomenon. Moreover, it is not essential to have firsthand knowledge of anything in order to learn it. Bandura argued that if a person observed another character be it in real life or fictional enact a certain behavior, they will most likely, given the right circumstances, repeat this behavior. Albert Bandura put in motion an experiment where children were shown footages of different people interacting with a Bobo doll. He observed that when children were exposed to footages of people being physical and aggressive with the doll, the children were highly likely to repeat this behavior once exposed to these dolls. According to Bandura, there are four elements of social learning theory.

  1. Without a real atmosphere that encourages attention, the subject will most likely not engage in observational learning.
  2. Retention: The individual should be able to remember the observed event.
  3. Reproduction: The individuals should have time to rehears the observed behavior. However, some behaviors can be rehearsed mentally and enacted once the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Motivation: The individual needs to have some sort of meaning for their behavior in a sense where they could see a possible positive outcome if they ought to act out a certain behavior.

It is important to note that learning a certain behavior does not equate to practicing this behavior. For example, many children watch tv shows that show people killing other people, yet they do not go out in the real world killing every person they see. So, the Social learning theory seems to give human beings a more humanitarian aspect in the sense where a person chooses whether they want to enact a certain behavior or not based on multiple factors that could be external or internal.

What are the similarities and the differences between these two theories?

First of all, it is worthwhile mentioning that the social learning theory was somewhat influenced by the behavioral school of thought. We can observe a relationship between operant conditioning for example and the social learning processes by identifying if any rewards are being proposed. In other words, if a child watches a movie where the main character got rewarded for eating broccoli, this child might imitate this behavior based on observing the fact that the main character got rewarded for doing this behavior. So, it is not necessarily the case that the behavior was repeated by pure identification, the child realized that maybe if they reproduce this behavior, they would be rewarded likewise. Therefore, there is some contrast between the two theories in certain events where we cannot easily identify whether the subject learned the observed behavior based on purely observing it and repeating it from a social learning point of view, rather than just being motivated by the reward the character got from behaving a certain way.

According to these guys, Behaviorism usually attempt to prescribe some strategies that could be powerful for building and strengthening associations between the similes and the response (e.g., instructional cures, reinforcement, and practice. While they maintain that these prescriptions are generally reliable and mostly effective in facilitating learning which involves discrimination (recalling facts_, and association (applying explanations) aside of many other contexts. However, these principles do not really explain how individuals acquire higher level skills that require self-centered approaches and a much greater depth of processing (e.g., problem solving, critical thinking, language development). One possible function of the social learning theory in regards to this limitation, is that the social learning theory does not help us predict the circumstances in which the person would repeat the behavior. The learned behavior in other words, is subject to critical thinking and evaluation from the individual which in turn will decide whether this behavior should be enacted in a certain situation or not. This goes to say that the social learning theory takes into account individual differences and individuals’ degrees of critical thinking and motivation. Likewise, according to Winn (1990), The relevance of the consequences of those performances is emphasized in behaviorism, which claims that responses that are reinforced are more likely to repeat in the future. There is no attempt to determine the exact structure of a student's knowledge for example or to assess which mental processes are required to learn a certain task. To clarify, the learner is generally characterized as being passive and reactive to conditions in a specific environment as opposed to being active towards the environment. Like we have previously observed, the social learning theory highlights the importance of the individual interest in the observed activity and in addition proposes that the learner should be motivated and pay attention to the present observed behavior. This suggests that people generally need a reason or a certain meaning for a behavior to be learned. If a certain individual is not interested in a certain behavior, they will not learn it by observation. However, if this is what interest them, they will make sure to retain it and practice it. Therefore, the social learning theory proposes that individuals use a certain mental structure that helps them identify whether a behavior is worth learning or not, and if this behavior is indeed worth learning for whatever reason the individual saw fit, then they will engage in active observation, memory retaining, rehearsals, both mentally and behaviorally to finally lean the behavior and enact it in the required environment. Finally, in the social learning theory, the extent to which one could hold attitudes that disapprove of specific actions either for they are not in agreement with these acts from a moral perspective, the less likely on will engage in them according to the oxford handbook of juvenile crime and juvenile (Feld, & Bishop (2011). This goes to say that, unlike behaviorism, we ought to think of the human being as a thinking creature that has moral values in a sense which rats and dogs do not. We leave the floor for the human mind to take decisions regarding learning which are heavily influenced by values and personal choices. Usually, the learning outcome of subjects that are directly in accordance with people’s values result in higher learning outcome than those who simply are subjected to punishment or reward according to Brezina and Piquero, (2003) .

Real life practices that include these two theories in the classroom

In this section, we will tackle one example from each theory respectively. First, the Social learning theory. Since we already established that children might enact a certain behavior if they observed it and deemed it meaningful, we ought to think about the person enacting the behavior in the first place. In other words, if a hero in a movie acted a certain way, the children might be more likely to enact this behavior than if a simple side character in the movie did it. This goes to say that a behavior that is performed by the teacher of the class will prove to be more meaningful for the child than if their peers performed this behavior. This goes to say that, when the teacher demonstrates how to solve a problem and uses certain thinking strategies out loud, the child might adopt these thinking strategies for they are coming from a “credible” adult. Therefore, teachers could instead of teaching the children how to think about a certain math equation, actually think about this equation out loud in order to show the students how one could use these thought process to solve a problem. If this method is implemented, we will observe that, whenever a student is exposed to the problem, they will start by repeating the words of the teacher to get in the right mindset to solve the problem. This method is deemed efficient only if the students regard the teacher as a positive influence and admire them.

When it comes to behaviorism, adopting a simple strategy regarding operant conditioning could prove to give great results. For example, a teacher could attribute Token points for every grade a student gets above 7/10. For example:
If a student gets 7/10, they receive 1 Token
If a student gets 8/10, they receive 2 Tokens
If a student gets 5/10, they lose 1 token (Punishment) etc…
In the end of the month, the top # students would receive a reward based on these tokens (Positive reinforcement). These rewards would vary according to the age of the students. If students are below 9, actual little toys could be used as a reward for points. If children are in a later stage of education, rewards such as making the next exam optional could be implemented (Negative reinforcement).

Real life past experiences

When I was younger, I used to look at my best friend at school who used to be a good basketball player play in the school team. He was always the center of attention and in the spotlight of the team. He was really good at it, and because of that he used to get a great amount of positive feedback from his peers and teachers. He sometimes, after matches, would get the popular kids at school to go talk to him and try to befriend him because he was obviously on the top of the “hierarchy” of students. I used to think to myself, wouldn’t it be cool if I could also be like him? I would get all the attention, I would enjoy playing with my friends and teammates, and finally I will feel great about myself. I invested in learning to play basketball and would sometimes ask him to do tricks in front of me so I would learn exactly what to do in order to be good. Time passed and I realized that I was playing better than my normal teammates in a matter of few months. I learned through observing him play over and over again. Every time he would show me tricks, I would be on full focus and try to enact them. One could argue that this is a pure and classic example of Social learning. However, I feel it was a mix of both Social learning and Operant conditioning, for my main source of motivation was the attention he was getting. Therefore, this example comes also to add to the limitation of the social learning theory whereas there was some behavioral aspects to this “learning by observation”. I ended up not getting the same attention as him for he was always far stronger. However, being good at this game made me more confidant and people saw this confidence in me and rewarded me morally for it.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71. https://doi.org/10.1002/piq.21143

Feld, B. C., & Bishop, D. M. (2011). The oxford handbook of juvenile crime and juvenile justice https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195385106.001.0001

Piquero, Alex & Brezina, Timothy & Turner, Michael. (2005). Testing Moffitt’s Account of Delinquency Abstention. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 42. 27-54. 10.1177/0022427804266559.

Winn, W. (1990). Some Implications of Cognitive Theory for Instructional Design. Instructional Science: An International Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(1), 53-69. Retrieved December 7, 2021 from https://www.learntechlib.org/p/164397/.

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Celine Saade
Celine Saade

Celine is a psychologist and a researcher. She likes delving into new topics and her main focus is on developmental and clinical psychology. Her motto is “I don’t empower you,I recognize you are powerful”

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