Understanding Learning: Theories’ Impacts


A theory is a belief, policy, or principle that guide and form the basis of an action. Learning is the acquisition and retention of experiences that lead to permanent change or modification of behavior due to interaction with the environment. Learning occurs as a result of some changes that take place in the mind of the learner in three domains of learning: cognitive, affective and psychomotor. Learning comes from teaching; where teaching is defined as a professional human activity in which one imaginatively uses him/herself and his/her knowledge to be able to promote learning. Learning theories are therefore descriptions of how people or animals learn based on psychological principles. Therefore, learning as a process is generally embedded in these teaching and learning theories.

In different fields, the theories are seen applying but this discussion shall view one of those fields. The theories have different impacts on the class environment, as it shall be discussed. All the theories are directed at bettering, learning, and making it a successful process and also enhancing a better relationship between the two parties. These theories include cognitive development theory, pedagogical (humanistic theory) theory, behavioral theory, and theories of motivation. In this discussion the impacts of the first three theories among the latter will be viewed as it is concerned with the class environment (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).


Each of the theory has different origin from the other. There are different psychologists who took part in advancing the theories. Each theory will be viewed differently and its impact on the class environment discussed (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). This is as below;

Cognitive development theory

Development refers to the changes that occur in human beings as they grow from infancy to adulthood. Cognitive development therefore, is the change that occurs as a result of learning, maturation, and experience. This theory was advanced by Jean Piaget who was assisted by biologists and psychologists. Jean Piaget lived between 1896 and 1980. He believed that the way children think is more revealing of their mental ability than what they do. In his views, intelligence constitutes of two interrelated processes that are organization and adaptation. He was concerned with the active thought process whereby people organized their perception of the world.

People organized their thoughts to make sense; they adapt their thinking to include new ideas and experiences and provide additional information. Piaget put it that adaptation occurs in two ways, assimilation, and accommodation. In assimilation, new information is added to the cognitive organization that already exists. In accommodation, the intellectual organization has to change to adjust the new ideas. Psychologists involved in this theory focus more on internal processes and other connections that take place during learning (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Piaget observed that children’s thinking changed with age and the cognitive development resulted from an interaction of the brain by logical maturation and personal experiences as follows;

Age 0-2 years (sensory-motor stage) the activities are by means of body movements. Children use their senses and motor capacities to understand the world. Things like grabbing things and bringing them to their mouth comes with physical interactions with their environments.

Age 2-7 years (pre-operational stage) is a stage of non-logical thinking. The child mainly uses symbols. Many changes occur in children as they pass this stage. For example, they make progress in language development.

Age 7-12 years (concrete stage) the child is able to manipulate symbols as he/she tries to communicate. The children’s thinking advances and they learn to classify and seriate.

12 years and above (formal operational stage), the child is able to logically use symbols related to abstract. This helps them to open a range of possibilities for thinking about the world that were unavailable to the learners at earlier stages. Piaget encouraged social experience on learning as an effective way of social experience in helping learners to measure their selves against others.

Impacts of the theory in classroom environment

Learners are able to perceive relationships. They have limited capacity to examine, evaluate, and draw conclusions about objectives and events that are not directly before them. Teachers should therefore be in position to provide learners with concrete materials and teaching aids. This will assist the learners in examining, evaluating, and drawing conclusions of events and objects that are not directly there thus enhancing learning (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Structural organization of subject matters play an important role in learning. The teacher in studying the learners’ reactions about a matter in study will help in determining the methods and order of presentation that consequently improves learning. The teacher has to organize the subject matter in accordance with the learners’ reactions. Learning will be effective and purposeful only when the learners are contented with the subject and can draw their own conclusions (Killen, 2006).

In order for learners to comprehend a subject wholly, the teacher should adjust instructions to the learners’ way of thinking and working in order to facilitate their cognitive development. In developing their cognitive, the learners can understand the matter in study and learning will have taken place automatically at ease. Formal thinking should be seen in the learners as they think abstractly, systematically, and also hypothetically (Killen, 2006).

Failure comes as part of learning. Failure should not be considered as a negative or backward step in learning but should be used to make better goals to create the initiative of putting more efforts. The teacher is supposed to make necessary strategies to reduce the number of failures and promote positive motives in learning. Those who are victims of failure should be guided into a situation where they can advocate for change from their own desire. This should come automatic with aid from the teacher (Killen, 2006).

Humanistic theory

This theory was led to development by Carl Rodgers and Abraham Maslow. Maslow played his role by developing the “pyramid of needs.” Maslow believed that for any individual to be able to understand or learn anything, the basic physiological needs must first be met. These needs are food, shelter, and good health. In developing the theory, Maslow studied mentally ill patients. He later found out that successful individuals shared common characteristics, which were observable like respect for others. Rodgers added that for an individual to develop fully in concern with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an environment conducive to provide acceptance and openness would be important to bring out healthy individuals and good relationships. This theory is therefore about an individual’s development. For achievements to be achieved obstacles on the way should be done away with (Moore, 2000).

Impact of the Theory in Classroom Environment

In classroom for learning to be effective, the environment should be conducive enough to allow chance for development. The psychological needs must be met where the learners are healthy and have shelter and food. In creating the environment objectives of learning should be set. Teachers therefore, should classify every specific learning objective. In doing this learning will be promoted and the process of passing knowledge (teaching) will be effective and purposeful. Without objectives the entire process of learning will be ineffective. Teachers are supposed to vary their teaching methods so that learners are encouraged to learn by making products, providing services, and using experiences.

The teacher should apply his/her acquired skills effectively and vary them with the situation of the learner (Vellav, 2008). In all the learning environments, the learners have different abilities and they all have to be catered for. Teachers are supposed to relate well to the students of all abilities in the classroom. All students’ contributions should be considered without any discrimination and help in developing learning. Each and every learner is supposed to have the same consideration from the teacher and none of them should feel isolated or being different from the others (Vellav, 2008).

Behavioral and motivational theory of learning

Learning theories place their principles on behavior display. This theory is anchored on stimulus response (S-R). That is, the relationship between two events, stimulus, and response. While some responses are reflex and others learnt. The learning process is what the behaviorist called conditioning. Learning is therefore said to have taken place when change in behavior is evident. The psychologists associated with this theory are Luan Parton (1849-1939) who is associated with classical conditioning and theorist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) who is concerned with operant conditioning (Bender, 2003).

In classical conditioning, learning can be achieved if conditioned stimuli are not associated with unconditioned stimuli. There is a spontaneous recovery once conditioned stimulus is paired again with unconditioned stimuli. Operant conditioning focuses on the reinforcement, which is used to strengthen the behavior. It is a form of learning in which a consequence of behavior produced changes to the probability of the behavior occurrence. Operant conditioning argued that behaviors are controlled more by consequences than stimuli preceding behaviors. It is a learning process in which a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened depending on its positive or negative rewards.

Motivation, a goal-directed activity maintained and sustained, brings out the positive motives. These positive motives drive learners to do things out of desire. For instance, the learners sweep their class in the morning. In motivation, we have: intrinsic motivation which motivates activities for its own sake and extrinsic motivation which motivates activities as a means to get to the end. In a case, extrinsically motivated learners may study for a test because they believe reading will better their grade while intrinsically motivated learners study because they want to understand and get the concept. All teachers admire to have intrinsically motivated students (Bender, 2003).

Impact of the theory in classroom situation

For learning to become effective and resourceful, there should be close relationship between the two parties involved. Certain emotional responses like fear are learnt through classical conditioning. Teachers need to provide friendly learning environment so that learners can like the teacher, school, and subject. In a free environment, the learners will contribute perfectly and the entire process of learning will become effective.

The teacher should greet all the students with a smile when they come to his/her room. Principles of classical conditioning can be used for developing positive motives in learners. From the environment created by the teacher, learners will be in a position to have positive motives towards the subject and the teacher. This positive motives created will enhance learning and bring out positive rewards that are aimed at in any learning (Dymoke & Harrison, 2008).

Students have different ways of responding to emotions and instructions. The teacher should be helped by classical conditioning to understand each student’s emotional responses and ways of perceiving and reacting to instructions. This will help the teacher to promote behavioral methods of the learners and not behavior management. In a case where a student is acting out, the teacher reprimands him and his misbehavior increases. The reprimand acts as a positive reinforce and as a result the student’s behavior increases as a result of being presented with the reprimand.

Negative reinforcement comes in as a process of increasing behavior by avoiding or removing an aversive stimulus. Shaping, process of reinforcing successive approximations of a behavior, can also be used to help the students acquire social skills. A teacher may encourage the learners to do some things like pencil sharing to increase the interactions among the learners. Punishment may be used to decrease behavior however it may also increase a behavior (Dymoke & Harrison, 2008).


In any learning two parties are involved. The teacher and the learner have their roles to play to make the entire process a success. The theories of learning can be applied in classroom conditions to promote learning. In cognitive theory the teacher should create his/her own ways of teaching and it should come from understanding the learners’ reactions and perceptions towards the subject in study. Teachers should not take failure with negativity but should be used as a stand for laying better strategies and putting efforts in order to see improvement in the future.

Objectives should be set in pedagogical theory and to enhance learning. The teacher can access learning process by looking at the already achieved objectives. The teacher is ought to cater for individual differences and create an environment where the learners feel equal. The environment should come with the teacher learning the reaction of different learners and developing positive motives in the learners. There should be a free interaction between the learners and the teacher to enhance contribution from learners. Negativity in the class should be controlled and all learners should have positive motives.


Bender, T. (2003). Discussion-based online teaching to enhance student learning: theory, practice, and assessment. Washington, DC: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Dymoke, S. & Harrison, J. (2008). Reflective teaching and learning: A guide to professional issues for beginning secondary teachers. California, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Eggen, P. & Kauchak, D. (2010). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms. 8 Edn. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.

Killen, R. (2006). Effective teaching strategies. New Jersey, NJ: Cengage Learning Australia.

Moore, A. (2000). Teaching and learning: Pedagogy, curriculum, and culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Vellav, J. (2008). On teaching and learning: Putting the principles and practices of dialogue education into action. New Jersey, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.