Behaviorist, Humanist and Other Learning Theories

Subject: Education
Pages: 8
Words: 2163
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: Bachelor

Learning Theories

Learning is classified as a process that combines personal and environmental experiences and influences to acquire new knowledge, skills, and behaviors or modify those that already exist. Learning theories form hypotheses for describing the way in which the process occurs and how it is expected to develop further. The most influential and widely-used theories of learning include behaviorism, constructivism, cognitive psychology, social constructivism, experiential learning, multiple intelligence, as well as the community of practice and situated learning. For the purpose of the current exploration, it was chosen to focus in detail on the behaviorist, humanist, constructivist, and cognitivist theories of learning.


Description of the Learning Theory

Behaviorism is a learning theory that was the most prevalent in the early twentieth century. Behaviorism’s main idea is that learning represents a change in behavior through acquiring, reinforcing, and applying associations between environmental stimuli and individuals’ observed responses (Heimlich & Ardoin, 2008). Therefore, behaviorism is concerned with the measurable behavioral changes that can be found in learners. For example, Skinner’s approach implied operant conditioning, which implies the reward for a favorable behavior, which encourages its recurrence.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Behaviorism

The strengths of using behaviorism include the following:

  • The possibility to observe behaviors directly as they are taken place.
  • Educators can manipulate the observed behaviors in order to attain the desired results.
  • It focuses on the present and what is happening at a given moment in time, instead of exploring past experiences and accomplishments (Heimlich & Ardoin, 2008).

The weaknesses of using behaviorism are the following:

  • The theory is too deterministic and dependent on environmental factors.
  • Some behaviors can be indeterministic, which means that there may be no cause for it.
  • It undermines the amount of free will a person has and does not consider that a human being can ever make personal and immediate choices about their behaviors.

Impact of Behaviorism in the Classroom

When applying the behaviorist learning approach, the teacher may have to abandon considerations of the cognitive processing of the learners involved in the learning. Instead, it is of interest to consider the instructional tasks that illicit behavior responses. In addition, teachers will have to facilitate the process of repetition and rehearsal of desirable behaviors. For example, teachers may ask learners to repeat new terms and definitions to them to facilitate mechanical remembering (Zhou & Brown, 2015).

Arguments for and Against Behaviorism

First, the critics of behaviorism argue that the reliance of the theory on conditioning limits the development of effective instruction. Second, they suggest that behaviorism cannot show an adequate level of generalizability in human behavior. Third, when dealing with students with learning or behavioral disabilities, behaviorism places some limitations on the teaching process. The supporters of behaviorism, however, claim that the approach is beneficial for enabling a focus on the immediate needs of learners and allows them to concentrate on removing any undesirable behaviors. In addition, within the behaviorist learning theory learning is seen as a gradual process of acquiring the intended partial behaviors with the help of the interactions with the external environment.


Description of the Learning Theory

Cognitivist learning theories were developed later than behaviorism and contributed to a new wave in the understanding of the learning process. The theories no longer approached learners as collections of responses to environmental influences. Instead, the cognitive psychology of learning focused on complicated mental phenomena (Zhou & Brown, 2015). Learning is understood as a process of knowledge in which the learner is an information-processor that absorbs information, undertakes cognitive operations related to it, and then stores it in memory.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Cognitivism

The strengths of using cognitive learning theories include:

  • The possibility to enhance lifelong learning by encouraging learners to build upon their already existing ideas and apply innovative concepts to them.
  • It also enables a boost of confidence among learners as they become more confident in approaching new knowledge and tasks.
  • Making students get an increased understanding of the necessary skills.

The weaknesses of using cognitive learning theories include:

  • The process of knowledge acquisition cannot be observed directly.
  • Enables making inferences about learners’ progress.
  • The approach ignores other factors that have been shown to influence behaviors.

Impact of Cognitivism in the Classroom

When implementing a cognitive learning theory approach, teachers may want to develop knowledge by creating schemes, which are information catalogs that can be used for identifying the concepts or experiences through a complex set of relationships that are linked to one another. Teachers are likely to ask students reflect on their experiences and help them find solutions to the issues that might have taken place. Cognitivism seeks to help students learn and understand how various ideas are interconnected.

Arguments for and Against Cognitivism

The critics of the approach claim that it lacks scientific support, and that it is too subjective in what is being taken from findings. Also, the opponents stated that cognitivism ignores the impact of other factors that have shown to impact behavior. The supporters of cognitivism claimed that the approach should be used because it makes learners active participants in their own learning. Thus, it is possible to use different strategies that fit students in order to help them develop their own understanding of the content being taught.


Description of the Learning Theory

Constructivist learning theories emerged later after the cognitivist ones, encouraging the idea that learners do not receive information passively but instead actively develop their knowledge when interacting with the external setting and the reorganization of the mental structures (Ertmer & Newbu, 2013). Therefore, learners are seen as sense-makers who do not basically collect and record the information being given to them but also interpret it. Within such a view, learning shifts away from the knowledge-acquisition metaphor to knowledge-construction. Among the existing theories of constructivism, the learner-centered approach in which the teacher takes the role of a cognitive guide of the learning rather than a knowledge transmitter.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Constructivism

The strengths of using the constructivist theory of learning include the following:

  • The promotion of learners’ agency and their active participation.
  • The possibility to develop important advanced skills that include critical thinking, evaluation, analysis, and creation, the rise of diverse points of view.
  • The encouragement to reflect and evaluate the intermediary skills to acquire.

The weaknesses of using the constructivist theory of learning include the following:

  • The lack of structure to facilitate the learning process.
  • Some learners require to have increasingly structured environments to excel in their knowledge and skill acquisition.
  • The focus on a more personalized approach means that some learners could fall behind others.

Impact of Constructivism in the Classroom

In the classroom context, constructivist instruction focuses on the social context that considers learners as a larger community. Teaching takes place within the larger peer community, in which the emphasis is shifted from knowledge being a product to knowing as a process, thus implying a significant change in the structure of schooling. For example, when teaching English, instead of making students memorize new vocabulary, a constructivist teacher will approach the subject matter as a combination of experiences and interactions within the classroom’s social context. Therefore, the new vocabulary will be taught to be understood and used in different context in contrast to rote memorization.

Arguments for and Against Constructivism

The critics of constructivist learning state that the approach is highly ineffective at promoting students’ academic achievement. As a result, some claim that the achievement gap between students increases, which presents further challenges for higher education institutions. The proponents of the approach suggest that it should be used in teaching because it enables effective critical thinking, analysis, evaluation, and creation skills. The supporters also point out that the method promotes abundant viewpoints, which are essential for multi-dimensional learning.


Description of the Learning Theory

Humanism is the most recent among the others mentioned above, and the educators that adhere to the approach believe that knowledge and feelings go together and should not be separated. Therefore, the theory encourages fostering engagement in order to inspire learners to become self-motivated and independent. The approach relies on educators collaborating to engage students, encourage them to find something about which they are passionate, thus making the process of learning fulfilling and engaging. Within humanistic learning, both cognitive and affective aspects of the process are crucial as lessons and assignments should consider students as whole individuals with their own feelings and intellect and not one or the other.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Humanism

The strengths of the humanistic learning approach are the following:

  • It is beneficial to use because it harnesses the idea of creating a learning environment in which learners feel safe and secure so they can focus on the process itself.
  • It encourages ongoing self-evaluation, which is essential for understanding how the learning process is taking place.
  • It underlines the importance of establishing a safe and facilitative setting to improve the learning process

The weaknesses of the humanistic learning approach are the following:

  • The complex experience needed to teach in accordance with the framework, which makes it challenging to find teaches.
  • The teachers are expected to be aware of the innovative techniques that abandon traditional processes such as lesson preparation and classroom control.
  • Humanistic theories suggest that each student’s learning style is the most suitable, which complicated the learning process significantly.

Impact of Humanism in the Classroom

If a teacher aims to implement a humanistic approach toward instruction, the traditional methods of instruction should be reevaluated or abandoned entirely. For example, when introducing a new theme, teachers will encourage students to focus on the specific areas of their interest within that topic and allow for a reasonable amount of time necessary to get acquainted with it (Chen & Schmidtke, 2017). The classroom tasks embedded into the humanistic approach should be exciting and engaging. For instance, when explaining the way in which a government is formed and operates, teachers will ask students to create their own government in the classroom.

Arguments for and Against Humanism

The first point of criticism of the humanist approach to learning is that it is highly subjective and relies on the way in which students feel instead of objective statements about the world. Second, there is a lack of a concrete solution to educational issues. Third, there is lack of cohesiveness in the way teachers would approach learning. The supporters of the approach first point out that humanism can fit well with other approaches and thus is multi-dimensional (Chen & Schmidtke, 2017). Second, the approach is said be essential for boosting learners’ self-esteem and self-concept as well as making schools pleasant environments for learning. Third, humanist perspectives can be applied to a multitude of settings and students.

Comparison of Theories


When comparing the use of theories between one another, several important distinctions should be made. Specifically, while behaviorists approach the process of learning as responses to stimuli that form certain behaviors, cognitive learning theories underline the importance of complicated mental phenomena. Thus, there is a clear distinction between the two theories as related to the role that human behaviors and psychology play (Zhou & Brown, 2015). Constructivism goes further when it comes to the considerations of learners’ needs and the way in which they approach learning. Specifically, the learner-centered approach goes deeper into exploring the knowledge attainment process and classifies it as construction rather than acquisition. In contrast to behaviorism, constructivism paints the image of a learner not as a passive receiver of information but rather as an active participant. Humanism is a learning approach that has the highest degree of consideration for human emotions and how they influence the process of learning. It stands out from all of the mentioned theories because it combines knowledge and feelings as integral components of the learning process.


Beyond the differences, the main similarity between all of the theories is that the approaches mentioned is the importance of establishing safe learning environments to meet the needs of as many people as possible. Constructivism and humanism are also similar because both approaches focus on the unique needs of learners and develop teaching strategies accordingly. In addition, while many consider humanism and behaviorism as two completely different approaches, they are similar in because humanism also takes into account human behaviors and does not exclude it from considerations of the learning approach. Overall, while the approaches are not mutually exchangeable, parts of each can be used when developing a comprehensive curriculum.


Instructional design based on different learning theories requires teachers to vary their approaches, especially since the field of education is evolving and changing to fit the new trends. While each theory is associated with specific focal points regarding how learning occurs, either through behavioral responses or knowledge construction, all of them have had a significant influence on the way in which the instructional background has transformed through time. Whether it is the behaviorist or humanistic approach, the key is to understand the needs and tendencies of students and adjust the learning process accordingly.


Chen, P., & Schmidtke, C. (2017). Humanistic elements in the educational practice at a United States sub-baccalaureate technical college. International Journal for Research in Vocational Education and Training, 4(2), 117-145.

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71.

Heimlich, J., & Ardoin, N. (2008). Understanding behavior to understand behavior change: a literature review. Environmental Education Research, 14(3), 215-237.

Zhou, M., & Brown, D. (2015). Educational learning theories (2nd ed.). Web.