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Critical Analysis of Learning Theories
and their Practical Implications

Human learning is multidimensional and for ages people have
utilized different methodologies consciously or unconsciously to improve their
understanding about everything. During this long journey, people have
differentially appreciated and understood the mechanisms of learning. Learning
theories have emerged and changed landscape of modern learning in a
revolutionary way. Many theories have been proposed but three theories have
most immensely influenced learning methodology over the last five decades. All
these theories are powerful and have potently affected the realm of learning in
modern curricula (Sotto, 2007: 126). We have evolved from a narrow spectrum of
behaviorism and cognivitism to a broader landscape of constructivism and its
derivatives. The objective of this document is to differentially evaluate these
theories in terms of their practical application in a class room environment
where we would be using them to effectively impart knowledge to our students.

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Behaviorism is a systematic approach to understand behaviors and to apply it to
promote human learning. It considers that every behavior is either reflex
rendered by a response to certain stimulus in the environment, or a consequence
of that individual’s own set of schemata based on reinforcement and punishment.
Behaviorism can be traced back to Thorndike who proposed the role of law of
effect and reinforcement in formulation of the behaviors. Ivan Pavlov and
Skinner worked on classical and operant conditioning and concluded that all
human actions at large can be inculcated into their behviors based on
reinforcement and punishment. For behaviorism to work we have to engage the

Behaviorism is based on reflex theory which says that all
human responses are result of an external stimulus and they exclude role of
inherent mental processing. Pavlov’s famous dog experiments clearly validate
the role of classical conditioning in our daily life. Skinner later proposed
that human behaviors can be controlled with positive and negative
reinforcement. It suggests that reinforcement works stronger than the inner
desires (Sotto, 2007: 35). As per behaviorism, the process of learning depends on two important
aspects: firstly the learner has to be effectively engaged and secondly, the learner’s
activity can be reinforced with reward. Pleasing rewards would strenghthen behavior
and bad reward would be counter effective (Skinner and Eliot).

The idea of reinforcement and conditioning is so powerful and
so practical that even in today’s world, where landscape of human thought has
completely changed, it is very much applicable. In our class rooms we still can
utilize the reinforcement and conditioning very effectively and we can manage
many of the student behaviors in early life. Our generation has at large been
trained in the realm of behaviorism (Elliot, 2007: 46, 47). Behaviorism
examines the change in behavioral schemata as the main outcome of the learning
process, which implies that behaviors define our thought process (Sotto, 2007:
37, 38). The most powerful point about this theory is that it yet remains
applicable even in the modern world especially in early life learning
psychology. Many of our behaviors fit well into the behaviorism. Despite being
effective there are inherent flaws too in this theory which relate to value of
cognition and higher order thinking. Behaviorism almost completely ignores the
value of higher order thinking capacity that humans possess.

The initial implication of behaviorism for teaching was to
teach programmed manuals. The students were given paragraphs to read and at the
end they were asked questions about it to check for their alertness and learnt
material. This process was conditioned with reinforcement and students were
asked to repeat the process till they achieved the required level of learning.
Though effective to certain degree it excluded the use of inherent thought
process (Sotto, 2007: 36, 40). The fruits of behaviorism remain very effective and strong but it has in
certain circumstances has failed to deal with many depth of the learning
process (Elliot, 2007: 47). Further to this, behaviorism also struggles to
account for the learning that takes place without reinforcement, such as the
learning of a language. (Elliot, 2007: 48).

Cognivitism was reflex product of behaviorism which stemmed from the value of using
human thought process more actively. It is based on the premise that human
learning functions better when newly imparted information is related with the
previously acquired frame of mind. The information is absorbed, analyzed and if
fits to the existing learning patterns, it is absorbed and goes to the long
term memory. This process of cognition is achieved through various techniques
like recall, sequencing, chunking etc. In other words, it was the limitations
of behaviorism that spawned the cognitive movement. Against the behaviorism’s
heavy emphasis on observable behavior, many scientists challenged the basics of
behaviorism. It is argued that people are neither machines nor animals in terms
of their responses to various behaviors (Matlin 1994).

The works of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Edward Chase Tolman,
Jerome Bruner, and German Gestalt psychologists ensured the supremacy of
cognitivism over behaviorism. Edward Tolman is usually considered a pioneer in
initiating the cognitive movement (Bruner 1990, 2). These cognitive
psychologists investigated thought processing ina systematic way to explain
learning and change in behavior. The cognitive school of thought views (1)
learning as an active process “involving
the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which
humans process and store information” and (2) the learner as an active participant in
the process of knowledge acquisition and integration (Good and Brophy 1990,
187; Merriam and Caffarella 1999, 254; Simon 2001, 210). This theory describes the process of kearning as a mental activity which
involves inherent coding structuring and restructuring of the internal ideas
and concepts (Derry 1996; Spiro et al. 1992) and suggests that learning
happens best under conditions that are aligned with human cognitive
architecture (Sobel 2001). Cognistivism primarily deals with processing of information rather the
type or quality of information. Instruction should be based on a student’s
existing mental structures or schema to be effective (Ertmer and Newby 1993).
The concept of schema occupies a central place and has an explanatory power in
Piaget’s theory. Schema2 refers to a hypothetical mental structure for
organizing and representing generic events and abstract concepts stored in the
mind in terms of their common patterns. They can be considered “as a series of
interrelated index cards that represent different environmental patterns in
one’s mental structure” (Gillani 2003, 50). Schemata constantly get
restructured as one encounters new patterns in his or her learning experiences.
Three processes characterize the schemata acquisition and the changes in
existing schemata: (1) accretion, which refers to remembering new information
on the basis of existing schema without altering the schema; (2) tuning, which
happens when new information that does not fit the existing schema causes
schema to get modified in order to be more compatible with experience; and (3)
reconstructing, which is characterized by the formation of totally new schema
on the basis of previous ones that cannot accommodate new experience (Rumelhart
and Norman 1978).

Implications of schema theory for instruction can be
summarized as follows:

Provide unifying
themes for content, because information that lacks a theme can be difficult to
comprehend, or, worse, the learner may “accrete” the information to the wrong

Provide a relevant
context for learning in order to activate an existing schema.

Develop and apply
techniques for students to use to impose structure on what they learn and thus
make it more memorable, such as the use of information mapping or advance

Represent what the
experts know in order to facilitate the learning process and use case-based
reasoning for knowledge representation.

Make instructional
material meaningful by identifying the learner’s mental model and providing
conceptual models invented by teachers, designers, scientists, or engineers to
help make some target system understandable.

Choose texts with
“standard” arrangement so that they conform to student expectations.

Encourage students to
read titles and headings.

Point out the
structure of particular kinds of texts; for example, what are the common
features of published research articles?

Ask questions to
determine what students’ current schemata might be.

Pay attention to
student answers and remarks that may give clues about how they are organizing
information; that is, what schemata are they using? (Alexander 2003; Ho 2004)

Basic properties of a mode of instruction based
on cognitivism can be finalized as follows:

should be immense mental investment and mental engagement of the learner which
remains an important requisite for the learning.

learner should be trained to use metcognivitism in from of self-planning and

remains quite effective to utilize hierarchical analyses to identify and
illustrate prerequisite relationships

There should
be lot of stress on structuring, organizing, and sequencing information to
facilitate effective processing

remains imperative to inculcate the process of recall for effective processing
of the information (recall of prerequisite skills; use of relevant examples, analogies) (Ertmer and
Newby 1993)

Constructivism- The theory of Constructivism suggests that learners construct knowledge
out of their experiences and ideas. The theory was initiated by Jean Piaget who decribed that people construct
new information and knowledge through their previous experiences, accommodation
and assimilation. This process paves the path for generation of new concepts.  (Elliot, 2007). The idea of learning as socially constructed formed the main aspect of
Constructivist theory and this influenced classroom practice enormously by
bringing about the development of collaborative learning programs. (Elliot, 2007: 48) There is a dynamic interaction of the students and
teacher’s views and ideas; there is complex interplay of the ideas of which
those ideas are accepted which relate the student’s prior experiences. The teacher
has to play a very dynamic role in this process. Vygotsky believed that there
are significant implications on classroom management when it is suggested that
learning is optimized through talk and co-operation.

Critical Analysis and Conclusions

All the learning theories and their derivatives have strong
standing and utility in our learning process. Figure 1 and Table 1 give a
differential overview of the learning theories. The teacher has the
professional obligation to choose the right type of learning theory which fits
well to the needs of the learners and the learning material. This process is
dubbed as ‘Eclectacism’ and has strong role in effectively teaching ur
learners. Various concepts would be more appropriately learned through
cognitivism. Behaviors may be better learned through behaviorism and the
psychomotor skills may be better learned through constructivism. So it remains
the responsibility of the teachers to impart knowledge effectively and
obviously chosing the right learning approach is one of those.

The table below gives the comparison these two techniques:






What the learner does in response to external
stimulus (Observable)

How the learner reorganized the new information into
the pre-existing schema (internal)

How the learner interprets the new information and
applies to their own reality (constant evolution)


Learner is reactive

Learner is Proactive

Learning is very proactive

Type of

Basic definitions, 
explanation of concepts, recall

Higher level reasoning and information processing;
emphasis on memory and organization

Higher level problem solving and critical analysis;
emphasis on real-world scenarios


Pretest, comprehensive checks; facilitate learning through practice
and repetition

Corrective feedback, use of analogy, metaphor, concept mapping and
discarding irrelevant information

Apprenticeships, clinics, collaborative learning, encourage
application of knowledge in a newer setting

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