Learning Theories

Welcome to this mini-series on learning theories. We’re going to explore three of the top theories that explain how learning occurs, and how they have influenced how and why we train today. Though there are in fact many theories, they nearly all fit under one of the three categories we’re going to look at: Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. 

First up in the series, we’re going to look at Behaviourism.  

What is Behaviourism and why is it important? 

Behaviourists believe that learning is simply a response to outside stimulus. Learners’ minds are blank slates that need to be provided with the information to be learnt, and desired behaviours (or learning) can be elicited by either classical or operant conditioning. 

Classical Conditioning 

Also known as learning by association. This type of learning occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired together until either stimulus results in the same response.  

The classic example here is Pavlov who conditioned dogs to salivate when they heard a bell ringing.  

It’s important to note that this is passive learning; the learner isn’t actively trying to behave in a specific way, they subconsciously associate one thing with another.   

Operant Conditioning 

Also known as reward learning or learning by reinforcement. This type of learning occurs and is maintained by consequences. Positive reinforcement encourages the learner to repeat the behaviour, while negative reinforcement or punishment reduces the chances of the behaviour recurring. 

This theory was made famous my B.F Skinner and his rat in a box experiment. At first, the rat learnt that pressing a lever meant it was rewarded with food. This positive reinforcement ensured that the rat continued to behave in this way. That was until Skinner changed the mechanism, so that when the rat pressed the lever it was given an electric shock. This negative reinforcement ensured that the rat very quickly stopped pressing the lever.  

Where classical conditioning was passive, this type of learning is active. The learner actively changes their behaviour depending on the type of reinforcement offered. 

So, how does that all fit into modern day learning and development? 

There are numerous examples of where behaviourism has influenced instructional design. Operant conditioning-wise, think repetition, drilling and even quizzes where immediate feedback is given. Or more sophisticated L&D initiatives, such as gamification where performance points are awarded, and leader boards may be drawn up.  

Classical conditioning works well in schools or classroom environments for establishing rules and behaviour management. For example, getting pupils to quieten down simply by clapping three times. But it could be implemented in workplaces where employees work in high-pressure, or stressful situations. For example, keeping surgeons calm in an operating theatre by playing relaxing music.  

Though behaviourism methods are great for fact recall, automatic responses or performing simple tasks, they don’t encourage problem solving or creative thinking.  

Watch out for our next blog in the series to find out how the other learning theories address these areas.