In this document, the Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center from the University of California explains three major theories of learning: behaviourism, cognitive constructivism, and social constructivism.
- Behaviourism is based upon the understanding that people learn through external reinforcements and positive or negative consequences. This theory believes that behaviour is learned through repetition and association. For example, when students are repeatedly rewarded by their teacher for studying, then they will learn to study.
- Cognitive constructivism, also known as cognitivism, views learning as an active process in which knowledge is constructed through the use of symbols. This theory focuses on the mental processes behind the acquisition and retention of information by the human brain. Cognitivism recognizes that student’s existing knowledge and level of cognitive development will influence their ability to process, store, and retrieve given information. An example of this theory in the classroom is starting a lesson with a review quiz.
- Social constructivism, also known as constructivism, views learning as a collaborative and interactive process. This theory believes that students will be more engaged in learning when they are able to actively interact with the problem at hand and with others, making learning more meaningful to them. It encourages student exploration and values student’s previous knowledge and opinions. An example of this theory in the classroom is letting students learn about a concept through groupwork where they can engage with their peers and learn from one another.
I experienced all three of these learning theories in many different ways throughout my own education. My grade 12 chemistry teacher utilized behaviourism when he would give out coveted “golden test tubes” to students who got 100% on an exam. In my elementary school English class, we always brainstormed our ideas about a topic before learning about it. We would draw a cloud around the topic and then write down all the other words we associated with or knew about that topic, which follows the cognitivism learning theory. In my high school drama class, we learnt about the Battle of Vimy Ridge by creating a series of tableaus together as a class to display our interpretation of what it may have been like to be one of the soldiers involved in the battle. We then presented the tableaus during our school’s memorial service. This learning experience used constructivism.
Although I believe it is always best to use a mixture of all three learning theories, I will probably use cognitivism the most in my own practice. One of my biggest goals is to help my students become intrinsically motivated, which will not come from behaviourism. I love the concept behind constructivism; I do plan to encourage my students to work on a problem with someone next to them during lessons and then allow students the opportunity to share and debate the best method of solving the problem. Realistically though, I think I will utilize cognitivism more in my classroom simply because it fits better with the subject of mathematics. I plan to use cognitivism in my future classroom by providing short reviews of the previous lesson before beginning something new to help activate student’s prior knowledge. I also plan to break up complex mathematic topics into smaller parts that are easier for students to absorb, understand, and retain.