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Reflection Paper #1

The Importance of Different Learning Theories in Education

Over the years many theories of how learning takes place have been

developed. Best known, and most frequently referred to are Behaviorism, Cognitivism

and Constructivism. Although similar in a few ways, their differences are what make

each of these theories stand on its own.

The first of these three theories to emerge was Behaviorism, with B.F. Skinner

best known for this work. This theory, as stated by On Purpose Associates (n.d.) is

defined as “Behaviorism is a learning theory that only focuses on objectively observable

behaviors and discounts any independent activities of the mind. Behavior theorists

define learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behavior based on

environmental conditions.” The key point of this theory is that repetition is the key to

success and reinforcement is the thing that modifies learning and modifies behaviors.

Skinner identified three kinds of situations that can modify a behavior per Roblyer

(2016): 1) Positive Reinforcement, 2) Negative Reinforcement, and 3) Punishment.

Although other theories have since been developed, the Behaviorist Theory still has its

place in the academic environment. For example, when my sister attended the Defense

Language Institute to learn Russian, she was taught with the “Army Method” (also

known as the AudioLingual Method) which is based explicitly from this theory. When

she correctly pronounced or wrote words in Russian positive reinforcement was given.

When correct answers were given, the result was not quite so pleasant. Additionally,

many software programs rely on the Behaviorist Theory and use “drill-and-practice

software to increase the frequency of correct answering in response to stimuli” (Roblyer,

2016, p. 37). A way in which this theory could be used in the classroom might be with

mathematics. A new concept in math, such as solving for the lowest common

denominator, is being taught. The teacher introduces the process and then the

students repeat the process with various numbers until the method has been reinforced

enough to create learning.

The next theory to develop was Cognitivism. AlleyDog.com (n.d.) defines this

learning theory as “Cognitive Learning Theory is a broad theory that explains

thinking and differing mental processes and how they are influenced by internal

and external factors in order to produce learning in individuals.” In this theory,

learning goes beyond the passive learning found in the behaviorist theory,

instead the learner learns by processing information, storing it, and retrieving it

later for use to assimilate new information (Keesee, 2011). Scaffolding would be

an excellent example of this theory in practice. In scaffolding a teacher connects

the lesson to previously learned information, using it as the foundation to expand

a student’s knowledge. An example of this in the classroom would be teaching

about how wildlife in Alaska survives the winter. If a student is from a warm

region of the U.S., or from a country that has never seen snow, the student,

especially younger ones, will not be able to understand the idea of snow or how

cold it is. However, by showing a video on snow, or bringing shaved ice (snow)

into the classroom for the students to see and feel, they will have a better

perception of what the animals in Alaska feel. The teacher is building the

“foundation” needed through scaffolding to teach the objective of the lesson.

The third theory to develop is Constructivism. According to AlleyDog (n.d.)

is, in basic terms, “the theory that we learn most effectively through experience.”

In his theory of Constructivism, Howard Gardner divided learning into eight types of

intelligence (Linguistic, Musical, Logical-mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic,

Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Naturalist). Teachers today use many of these to

differentiate instruction. However, the main point behind this theory, and that of other

constructivists is that learning is based on discovery. Here, the student controls the

learning while the teacher facilitates it, basically taking cognitivism one step

further. Instead of just assimilating new information, the student now is responsible for

interpreting responses based on experience. An example of this would be in the

science lab. The teacher gives the student a set lab to perform, but it is the student who

does the work, records the results and interprets them. Did they match the hypothesis?

Are they repeatable? How are differences found in replicate studies accounted for?

Students have the lead.

As mentioned initially, each method has its benefits in the classroom. To

become a better teacher I must be able to recognize the advantages and disadvantages

of each theory and determine which method is best suited to the subject or concept of

the days lesson. Personally, I use all three. When teaching pronunciation or new

grammar, behaviorist is the way to go! But once the student has the new words and

grammar down, I expand it with essays and discussions that include these building

upon what they learned to create new ideas and products using more cognitive

techniques. When summing it all up, although a bit more difficult in the foreign

language classroom, I can sometimes incorporate the constructivist theories by

providing projects for my students to do in relation to the new material. For example, if

the concept to be learned is reflexive pronouns I begin by introducing what they are

used for (such as I wash myself). Then we discuss what the pronouns actually are (me,

te, se, nos, se). We write sentences utilizing these new concepts and talk to each other

about our daily activities repeating these concepts until they are “learned.” I then

expand upon this by having the students write me a short “essay” about a typical day

during the school week from the time they wake up until they go to bed. Once I’m sure

they have the idea, they go camping! Okay, virtually! They create a campsite diorama

and give the class a 2 minute presentation of a camping trip they just went on. This

requires the students to be creative and use the pronouns in new ways that we haven’t

discussed, but now they have a foundation for it.

Knowing the ins and outs of each of these concepts has given me a better

foundation to assist my students by appropriately assigning tasks. As a result, my

students will be more successful as learners because I will have provided them with

techniques for learning more directly related to the material they must assimilate or

utilize for their own discovery.

Each theory is different. Each theory has its definite advantages. Learning is an

experience that combines all three of the theories, and as such, every teacher must

appropriately utilize the theories in tandem.


Berkeley Graduate Division. (2018). Overview of Learning Theories. Retrieved from
Graduate Student Instructor Teaching and Resource Center:
Education Degree. (2018). The Five Educational Learning Theories. Retrieved from
educationdegree.com: https://www.educationdegree.com/articles/educational-
Ertmer, P., & Newby, T. (2013). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing
Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance
Improvement Quarterly (26 (2)), pp. 43-71.
Keesee, G.S. (2011) Learning Theory and Instructional Design/Technology. Retrieved
from PB Works:
On Purpose Associates (n.d.). Behaviorism. Retrieved from Funderstanding:
Roblyer, M. (2016). Chapter 2: Theory into Practice: Foundations for Effective
Technology Integration. In Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching (pp.
32-62). Boston: Pearson.
Seel N.M. (2012) History of the Sciences of Learning. In: Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia
of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA