Learning Theories: Comparative Perspective Research Paper

Educators have offered different explanations of how learning takes place. The lack of consensus on the ideal learning method has led to emergence of many learning theories. Leonard (2002) defines learning theories as the “conceptual frameworks that describe how information is absorbed, processed, and retained during learning” (23). Some educators argue that learning is simply a change of behavior.

Others feel that change of behavior is too simplistic to encompass all that learning entails. To them, learning is complex and thus employs high mental faculties. Several factors influence how human beings acquire knowledge. The cognitive and emotional state of the learner plays a major role in determining people’s worldview (Lefrançois, 2012).

Additionally, the physical environment has a profound effect on people’s absorption and retention of new knowledge. This paper will extrapolate three learning theories: behaviorism, cognitive, and constructivism. It will further put the theories side by side and explain their differences.

Behaviorism theorists argue that learning takes place through conditioning (Skinner, 1976). To them, learning does not involve mental activities. To measure whether learning has taken place, what one needs to do is to establish whether there has been a change in behavior. Operant and classic conditioning underpins the theory. Pavlov, a psychologist, developed and popularized Classic conditioning.

By carrying out experiments with dogs, he established that human beings and animals respond in a specific way to certain stimulus. B.F Skinner reinforced this school of thought through operant conditioning. He taught a pigeon to dance and concluded that a response follows every stimulus (Turner, 2007).

If this response attracts a reward, it becomes more frequent. The implication for learning is that to encourage or discourage a behavior, teachers can use positive or negative reinforcement. This is the basis on which educators advocate for the use of rewards and punishment in learning.

Cognitive theory explains that a child’s cognitive ability develops with age. Jean Piaget developed and popularized the theory. Piaget and Roberts (1976) aver that children “build cognitive structures and mental maps for understanding and responding to physical experiences within their environment” (56). Educators must therefore desist from “suffocating” learners with complex knowledge that is not in tandem with their cognitive levels.

An infant’s capacities are limited to simple reflexes but they develop and become more complex as the child’s grow. In the early life of a child, abstract learning is difficult to conceptualize. Teachers should focus on concrete things especially those that the child can manipulate using motor skills.

The complexity of learning materials should increase commensurate with the child’s cognitive structures. The child’s mental map accommodates new learning and creates equilibrium between what the child is capable of absorbing and the experiences emanating from the environment.

Constructivism theory is more philosophically grounded than the two theories discussed above. It argues that human beings understand the world through reflection on current and past experiences. Leonard (2002) avers that each human being generates “his own rules and mental models which he uses to make sense of his experiences” (34). In learning, therefore, people create space for new experiences by simply making a change to their mental models.

People search for meaning through reflection. Learning is not a mere regurgitation of knowledge but a deep search for meaning in every thing human beings do. Before teaching, a teacher should establish the perception of the learner in the particular discipline or subject. The teaching should not just focus on the whole but also on the parts (Lefrançois, 2012).

The theory discounts the use of tests for assessment. According to constructivists, learning is a product of individual’s reflection as he or she interacts with new knowledge. As such, examinations cannot be effective in establishing whether learning has taken place.

Comparative Perspective

Educators consider behaviorism theory the traditional approach in teaching and learning. The teacher is the source of knowledge and the learner is the recipient. The teacher delivers the knowledge directly to the learner. If the information is complex, the teacher has the discretion to provide it to the learner through contingencies that incorporate rewards and reinforcement.

Ritzer and Sage Publications (2005) aver that in behaviorism, “students learn without teaching, in their natural environments, but teachers arrange special contingencies which expedite learning, hastening the appearance of behavior which would otherwise be acquired slowly” (64). Examinations are an indispensable item in learning for behaviorist theorists.

Their aim is to measure whether there have been any changes in the behavior of the learner. Educators motivate learners through rewards and reinforcement. If a learner errs, punishment comes in handy to bring about behavioral change.

The learners task in this approach is acquire facts and master skills. An educator must praise and reward learners who make small accomplishments. Behaviorist theorists employ progress charts to monitor learners’ improvement. The educator can apply his authority to punish learners who show little or no behavioral change.

In constructivism, learning takes place through problem solving and discovery. It is not structured. It instead unfolds in a natural and uninhibited manner. Human beings have an innate curiosity. If given the liberty, they are capable of discovering things by themselves as long as there is motivation. Learning is neither teacher-centered nor at the direction of a teacher or an authority. The approach, in the eyes of behaviorist theorists, lacks “meaningful learning” (Turner, 2007).

There are not structured examinations but rather direct tests that correspond to the learners’ skills. The role of the teacher is to reduce threats in the learning environment and make it challenging. This way, learners will become critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

The teacher merely facilitates the learning process as learners work in groups. He asks thoughtful and provoking questions that stimulate discussions. Learners brainstorm and arrive at original solutions and present them in a way of their choosing.

In cognitive theory of learning, learning is a product of well-formulated strategies. The learners’ aim is to acquire facts and master concepts. They observe the teacher as he demonstrates and explains facts. The teacher employs his own strategies to capture and retain the attention of the learners.

Visual aids are very important in the learning process. The learners observe graphics and use them to derive meaning through analysis and synthesis. To enhance retention of information, learners can use mnemonics and other retrieval cues. Schunk (1991) propounds that the approach applies learning strategies such as “review, examine, ask, do, and summarize” (34).

According to behaviorist theorists, the major factor that influences learning is the environment. Brain affects learning because it involves internal emotions that cannot be measured. Conditioning is the main way through which to understand learning.

Inevitably, therefore, rewards and punishment influence learning. If educators motivate learners for their small accomplishments, learners will achieve more behavioral change. An ideal teacher will transfer facts and skills to the learners and assess their understanding through examinations.

Constructivist theories believe that learning motivation influences learning. The role of a teacher is to motivate the learner to develop solutions rather than memorize documented solutions. Apart from motivation, experience also influences learning. The theory propounds that learners come into the learning process with their own experiences; they are not blank.

The task of the teacher therefore is not to deposit knowledge on the learners but provoke and elicit discovery of new knowledge. Schunk (1991) further asserts that teacher is an influence “that performs a minimalist role geared towards most learning for least teaching” (45). The major influence in this approach is experience and motivation.

Cognitive theorists hold that cognitive structures and mental maps influence learning (Piaget & Roberts, 1976). As a child grows, his cognitive structure develops to be able to absorb abstract materials. The child’s developmental stage inevitably has an influence on the learning process.

For instance, children who are below two years in age are in sensor motor stage. They can only interact with its environment at a physical level. Their construct of abstract reality is low. Curriculum developers must therefore formulate a curriculum that is appropriate to children’s cognitive level.

Behaviorist theorists acknowledge the role of the brain in learning but their major preoccupation is with what one can observe directly. They consider what is manifest, not the thought process that leads to an action. Emotions have no place in learning according to theorists who propound this learning approach.

Rather, students can learn a behavior and unlearn those behaviors that are not acceptable. Rewarding response contributes to learning more than the brain does. Reward and punishment thus form the basis for this theory. Taylor and MacKenney (2008) assert that knowledge “is separate to the human mind and the teacher must transfer it to the learner” (45). While brain is important in retaining “deposited” knowledge, the teacher must enforce acceptable behavior.

Cognitive theory of learning recognizes that the brain is very important in the learning process. According to Taylor and MacKenney (2008), mental processes come first in learning. He argues that with “effective cognitive processes, learning is easier and new information can be stored in the memory for a long time” (35). If the learner adopts ineffective cognitive process, it would be hard to learn and retain new information.

The educator should use good instructional strategies to suit the brain processing sequence of the learner. The theorists propound that the brain is “wired” to receive knowledge in a hierarchical order. The instructor should therefore present information to the learner starting from the simple to the complex. The level of complexity should be in tandem with the learner’s cognitive levels.

Constructivist theorists believe that the brain is important for discovery of new knowledge and reflection. Because they are endowed with a brain, human beings can learn without a teacher. The human brain is capable of arriving at solutions with proper guidance. The role of the teacher is therefore to provide the learner’s brain with the needed motivation to pursue knowledge. To constructivist theorists, knowledge is indivisible from the human brain.

To a behaviorist theorist, a learner applies knowledge to change behavior. The educator is the source of all knowledge and he deposits this knowledge to the learner’s empty mind. The knowledge is meant to achieve behavioral change.

The teacher rewards good behavior until he accomplishes the level he intends to with the learner. To test acquisition of knowledge, the teacher administers examination. In other words, the learner applies new knowledge by changing behavior. Learners apply knowledge in a way that has observable indicators.

In constructivism, the learner applies new knowledge to solve problems by discovering solutions. As highlighted earlier, this learning approach is learner-centered. The teacher creates a challenging situation and allows learners to brainstorm and discuss the solution. He then complicates the issue so that in the end, the learner arrives at a solution after deep thinking. The learner then integrates the new knowledge into the old knowledge and obtains a holistic understanding of an issue.

In cognitive theory, new knowledge builds on the old knowledge. As the learner grows, his cognitive abilities increase. Cognitive development puts one in a better position to absorb complex and abstract knowledge. Learners apply new knowledge to “enhance their logical and conceptual growth” (Turner, p.23, 2007). Human beings construct reality as they interact with the environment and other people.

To facilitate the learning process, different theorists design their instruction to suit their purposes of education. Behaviorist theorists are interested with behavior change and their instructional design aims to achieve that purpose. Turner (2007) observes, behaviorists, prepare the instructional design “to arrange contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn” (56). The design is teacher-centered and systematic.

The teacher provides direction to learners who passively participate in the process. The design is objectivist and focused on an individual. The theory lacks the holistic aspect of other theories because of its focus on behavioral observation. The theorists integrate rewards and punishment in the design. A teacher gives compliments and rewards for small achievements from learners. The design premises on the fundamental believe that learners can learn and unlearn behavior.

The proponents of constructivism theory recognize the importance of the conditions under which learning takes taking place. The physical and emotional environment plays a big role in shaping the instructional design. Human beings have an innate curiosity. Instructional design therefore recognizes that the learner is the most important person in the learning process. The design is therefore learner-centered.

For testing, the design aims to match the skills acquired by the learner to the items assessed. The design is natural and holistic in several ways. The proponents of this theory discourage standardized curriculum because it makes it impossible to incorporate learner’s experiences in the learning process. The design glorifies reflection, discovery of knowledge, and problem solving.

Learners brainstorm in groups and the teacher’s roles is to provide a holistic environment that is not only challenging but also stimulating. Turner (2007) argues that a good design should “reduces the quantity of teaching while leaving everything unchanged” (54). The design is non-directed and learner-centered. It emphasizes the role of cognitive operations in the learning process. Additionally, it pays special focus to the group rather than an individual.

Modern educationists consider constructivism theory more holistic than behaviorism theory. Educators in this approach formulate their strategies in a manner that encourages learners to analyze rather than regurgitate knowledge. The classes are usually lively and interactive with the students doing most of the talking. There are not standard tests as learners judge their own progress.

Cognitive theorists believe that cognitive and mental structures are very important in learning. As Taylor and MacKenney (2008) assert, the instructional design must be “developmentally appropriate curriculum that enhances their students’ logical and conceptual growth” (43). It is therefore incumbent upon the teachers to take the experience of learners into consideration. The environment plays a big role in shaping the instructional design.

The cognitive age of a learner determines the curriculum’s content. For instance, educators should not introduce abstract knowledge to children who have not grown out of the sensor motor stage. Rather, they should structure knowledge hierarchically. The design envisions a situation where instructors will start with easy information and increase the complexity as the learners becomes acquainted with it.


The paper has addressed three learning theories: behaviorism, cognitive, and constructivism. Each theory is unique in the way it envisions the learning process. Each theory also has its own merits and demerits and it is upon education stakeholders to decide the theory that suits their circumstances. The presence of many learning theories is evident of the attention that philosophers, psychologists, and educationists have attached to the learning process.

There is no consensus as to the best theory because each works best under specific situations. For instance, constructivism theory would be inappropriate for learners with special needs. This is because learners with disabilities require specialized attention. However, behaviorism theory has become unpopular because of negating the role of brains in learning. The theories offer insightful information on how to understand and enhance the learning process.


Lefrançois, G. R. (2012). Theories of human learning: What the professor said. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Leonard, D. C. (2002). Learning theories, A to Z. Westport, Conn: Oryx Press.

Piaget, J., & Roberts, G.-A. (1976). To understand is to invent: The future of education. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Ritzer, G., & Sage Publications. (2005). Encyclopedia of social theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Learning theories: An educational perspective. New York, NY: Merrill Publishing Company.

Skinner, B. F. (1976). About behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.

Taylor, G. R., & MacKenney, L. (2008). Improving human learning in the classroom: Theories and teaching practices. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Turner, S. (2007). Learning theories. Chandni Chowk, Delhi: Global Media.

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