ECS 203

Learning Theories

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.


  • Leanne Reiman

    Thank you for your post Sarah, and I really appreciated the examples of learning that you provided with each theory being utilized in the classroom.
    It must have been a very educational experience for your fellow classmates when they were able to see and to learn from the tableaus created to interpret the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and I think this project was especially important as it reminds us that we can never forget the incredible courage of those who have gone before us.
    In my future classroom, I am hoping to teach with the cognitivism theory though I don’t want to limit myself or my students to only one style of teaching/learning. There will no doubt be times when behaviorism works best, and I hope that there will be occasions when a project involves constructivism, such as a food drive (detailed in the comment section on my blog).
    With all that we are discovering about the content of a curriculum, have you noticed any areas where you might be limited in how you would like to teach your students?
    Thank you again for your well-written post, it is appreciated. Leanne

    • Sarah Stroeder

      Thanks Leanne! I think it is super important to never limit ourselves as teachers and ensure that we do utilize all three of these learning theories where appropriate. As a math major though, I definitely have felt at times like I have really limited options when it comes to how to teach my future students. I love the idea of letting students learn through exploration and, for example, using drama to teach students about a topic. Sadly, these kinds of methods don’t really translate well with learning math. I think what I have learned from this class is that the most important thing is to just be open to any news ways of teaching the subject. Like Katia mentioned the other day in class, you can achieve a higher level of thinking and learning by getting students to write their own math problems instead of always just answering the problems in the textbook. I think I could also change the way math is traditionally taught by allowing for more student discussion and letting students debate the various methods of solving a problem in order for them to better understand it and discover which method works best for them. I am discovering more and more through this class that there truly are endless possibilities. Thanks for the question!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *