3.2.2 An Overview of Learning Theories

It can be difficult to understand snippets of theory without having an idea of the context that these theories come from. The next activity asks you to read and takes notes on a brief overview of some of the main strands of learning theories. The overview is intended to make it easier to understand the important aspects of two particular theories that are discussed later in more detail.

Study Tip: Note-Taking

Note-taking is an important aspect of study in general, and writing things down in note form is an important way of gathering evidence. In this course you have already used a variety of note-taking approaches to gather evidence about your own learning. You might even have used mind mapping. There are two important aspects about notes. First, they need to be concise. There is little point in just copying most of the material you are basing your notes on. The second aspect is that your notes have to be useful—they have to do what you want them to do. So if you are writing notes in order to write an essay, they are only useful if they help you with your essay. For this activity, your notes are the basis for your reflection on the possible usefulness of the theories.

Before doing the activity you should watch the pencast below, which introduces a method of note-taking that you might like to try.

Click here to view “Using a table to take notes.” [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Activity 3.8: Exploring Learning Theories

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes for this activity.

This activity:

  • Provides an overview of some of the main strands of learning theories.
  • Prompts you to consider how these theories may help you to understand your own learning.

Read the overview of learning theories that follows twice. On the first read-through, take notes on what you see as the main points. When you read the overview again, consider and take notes about whether it helps you understand your own learning in any way. You may find it useful to use a table for your notes, formatted as shown in the pencast you have just watched.

An Overview of Learning Theories

Many theories see learning as what happens when an individual animal or human being responds to something that happens. This has been described as the way that a biological organism responds to its environment.

Some theories see these responses as being outside our control; as being automatic. A good example of this is Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. This theory argues that all animals (including humans) have little or no control about what they learn in response to what happens to them. Pavlov tried to show this in famous experiments that caused dogs to learn to salivate when a bell was rung, not just when they were given food. This is known as classical conditioning.

Later theorists such as B.F. Skinner argued that individual human beings, and other animals, played an important part. Different reactions meant that different learning might take place in response to external events that appear to be similar. It is worth noting that both Pavlov and Skinner saw learning simply as the result of responses to events in the environment. There was, according to them, no need to think about the events.

This was challenged by some theorists, including Albert Bandura. He argued that learning did occur as a result of people (or animals) thinking about events and attempting to make sense of them. There is an emphasis in Bandura’s learning theory on the importance of observational learning. As its name suggests, observational learning is “learning through watching the [behavior] of another person” (Gross, 1996, p. 173). This is sometimes referred to as “modeling.” In this form of learning, the observed model is the key aspect of the environment that is required for learning to take place. The focus is still on how an individual learns, but the inclusion of another person into the picture means that learning is no longer seen as a straightforward response by the learner to the environment.

The next type of learning theory is called insight learning. This is associated with Wolfgang Köhler, who argued that the chimpanzees he studied could change how they saw a problem when they were supplied with a previously missing ingredient, such as a stick to reach an object (Gross, 1996, p. 174).

These theories are seen as the basis of learning theories in psychology. Despite their different stances, they all tend to see learning as something that is concerned mainly with what goes on within an individual. With the possible exception of Bandura’s learning theory, they pay little attention to the way that the learning occurs as the result of interaction between people.


It would be interesting to think about which task you found easier. Did you find it easier to extract the main points of the content, or did it seem more straightforward to work out whether it was useful or not?

In terms of content, the overview broadly suggests that there are a number of learning theories that the environment “makes” the individual learn. However, there are some important differences about the way that the theories see individuals. Some (like Pavlov) do not give much of a role to the individual. By contrast, Köhler suggests that a chimpanzee might have the capacity to solve problems. It is true that these problems were in the “environment”—but the chimps’ responses were not determined just by the environment.

It is difficult to guess what you might think about the relevance of these ideas. Perhaps the notion that learning occurs because of the way we interact with our environment is a good place to start. There are important consequences in taking this view. It sidesteps the debate about whether only “intelligent” people can learn—instead, it seems to say that we all have to interact with our environment, so we will all learn. It also seems to imply that these interactions are all different, even unique. This would suggest that our learning is unique to us. That makes it hard to say that some people are better learners than others. You might also accept that if our environment is an important (perhaps central) aspect of our learning, then it is important to create environments in which good learning can occur. If someone’s environment makes him or her feel stupid, then some very unhelpful learning has taken place.

So, these theories may be useful when it comes to how our beliefs about ourselves as learners are shaped. These beliefs are clearly important—if we believe that we are incapable of doing something, it is less likely that we will succeed in doing it. This “self-fulfilling prophecy” can also work to our advantage if we can have confidence in our qualities, skills, and knowledge.

Activity 3.9: Reflecting on Your First Encounter with Learning Theories

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes for this activity.

This is a required activity for Challenge 8: The Reflection Challenge.

Having just read about some of the learning theories that have been developed within psychology, now seems like a good time to reflect on what you felt about Activity 3.8 and how you approached the task. Make a new entry in your Learning Journal with the title “Activity 3.9.” Add the sub-heading “Feelings” and enter some notes about what you felt and thought about being asked to read “An Overview of Learning Theories.” For example, did you think the title suggested that it might be demanding? You might have thought that it was important to try and remember details in case you would need them for an assignment. On the other hand, you might have thought, “This might be interesting;I wonder how it links up with the rest of Learning to Learn?” If so, note this in your Learning Journal entry.

Next, add a second sub-heading—“Approach”—in your Learning Journal entry. Make some notes under this heading about how you went about reading and taking notes on the overview.


Your feelings about reading “An Overview of Learning Theories” will be personal to you. It will be interesting to review them at the end of this unit, once you have had more experience of reading about learning theories.

Your approach to the task will also be personal to you. Perhaps you felt that you had to read in great detail and make notes on just about everything. If your notes on the overview are almost as long as the overview itself, it is possible that you have taken this approach. If you were able to highlight just two or three key points, and connected these to other learning, then your approach to reading the overview may have been different.

One way to approach a reading task is to use techniques of scanning and skimming. You were asked to read the overview twice. Your first reading could have used scanning, where you let your eyes run quickly over the text to see what points seem likely to be important. The second read-through could use skimming. To do this, you return to some of the points you identified in your scan-read and make sure you are clear about them and how they relate to each other.

Activity 3.8 required you to use two different styles of writing—academic writing summarizing the content of “An Overview of Learning Theories,” and reflective writing outlining those theories’ relevance to your own learning. Activity 3.9 also required you to adopt a reflective writing style when making an entry in your Learning Journal. In the next section you’ll explore these two types of writing in more detail.

3.2.1 Why Theory Might be Useful

3.2.3 Integrating Theory and Personal Understanding: The Difference Between Academic Writing and Reflective Writing