Learning Theories

10 Learning Theories to Structure Your Training Programs

As part of your organization’s Learning and Development team, you've (probably) invested in a learning management system (LMS).

While an LMS is an essential tool for teaching employees digitally, it's not the only thing you'll need to design effective courses. To build and deploy courses that your employees will actually learn from, you'll also want to have a grasp of common learning theories, sometimes called learning styles.

If you understand the mechanisms that power the human learning process, you're much more likely to design effective courses that align with them — and to increase your training program’s ROI.

The theories of learning that we’ll cover range from learning concepts rooted in the study of psychology to broader learning philosophies.

1. Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive Learning Theory, also referred to as cognitivism, focuses on learners objectively analyzing their thoughts and feelings (metacognition) to gain information more effectively. In other words, it asks them to ‘think about how they think’. According to the theory’s concepts and practices, you can build strategies to use your brain to learn or teach more effectively when you understand how thinking patterns work. You can also become more aware of the ways that your mind connects facts to foster those links.

Many strategies in Cognitive Learning Theory involve active learning that connects incoming information with past experiences. Rather than promoting rote memorization, cognitive learning-based lessons encourage learners to use and apply their new knowledge. You can implement more active learning in your workplace training through meaningful human interaction.

In fact, active learning’s practices and benefits come mainly from learners interacting with each other. As opposed to passive (lecture-based) learning’s lack of student engagement and interaction, active learning encourages students and teachers to work together to build new social and cognitive connections.

2. Behavioral Learning Theory

Pioneered by researchers like John Watson and B.F. Skinner, Behavioral Learning Theory (behaviorism) centers on the idea that people learn by interacting with their environments through a system of stimuli and response. Plenty of concepts under the theory, such as positive reinforcement, highlight how you can adjust the learning environment to encourage new behaviors. By setting up an environment that rewards learning, you’ll encourage your team to pursue and use new information.

In academia, Behavioral Learning Theory is often associated with passive learning, since learners are seen as essentially responding to repetitive stimuli from the trainer. However, there are opportunities to create more of an active learning environment based on behaviorist principles. For instance, you can encourage learners to seek out training resources or go through question and answer exercises — these forms of training fit nicely within the behavioral learning framework.

You can also encourage employees to learn in the flow of work by proactively seeking out the resources they need. Especially if they are ‘rewarded’ for such self-directed learning, they’ll form positive associations with this type of behavior — another tenet of Behavioral Learning Theory. Positive reinforcement like this can take the form of gamification techniques, or simple praise from a manager.

3. Constructivist Learning Theory

Under the Constructivist Learning Theory (constructivism), learners build knowledge as they experience the world and one another. As its name implies, the theory argues that learners formulate their own set of knowledge, adding to that understanding as they gain information and experience.

For constructivists, the learning process is cumulative. This building process involves taking part in learning experiences and reflecting on those experiences. The theory also maintains that learning cannot be uncoupled from the context in which it takes place.

In the workplace, peer training applies the concepts of constructivism by creating a social experience that allows learners to build knowledge together. Traditional top-down teaching leads to passive learning that doesn’t provide opportunities to create knowledge through experience. It doesn’t necessarily try to connect new material to learners’ past acquired knowledge, either. Meanwhile, peer-to-peer learning promotes a meaningful and engaging learning experience involving two learners exchanging relevant, actionable information.

4. Connectivism Learning Theory

One of the most recent learning theories mentioned here, connectivism considers the impact of the digital age on learning. It argues that social connections and technology shape learning and that we must adapt to constantly changing knowledge. According to connectivism, a person’s capacity to learn is more important than understanding current information, since that information is bound to change in the first place.

Connectivism applies especially to today’s workplace learning climate, where collaboration is becoming increasingly remote and bottom-up. With an LMS that facilitates social learning through collaborative activities, you can tap into the advantages of connectivism. Flexible and democratized LMS platforms also allow for continuously updating facts that learners can share quickly.

5. Adult Learning Theory

Adult Learning Theory establishes that adults have different learning needs than children because they have more preconceived notions and biases due to living a longer life. They have more internal motivation to learn than children and want to learn information that they can use to achieve personal learning objectives. The term “Adult Learning Theory” can refer to a group of learning theories that apply to adults or be interchangeable with the term andragogy — the practice of teaching adults.

One way to apply the principles of Adult Learning Theory to your training program is to integrate more performance learning strategies. These approaches involve more self-directed and pragmatic training that appeals to adult learners. Rather than following a set curriculum, performance learning has a project-based structure that urges participants to use high-level skills like critical thinking to solve problems on their own.

By prioritizing Adult Learning Theory in your L&D program design through practices like performance learning, you can also improve your team’s morale. Adult Learning Theory principles place learners alongside teachers as equals instead of repeating the power structure from traditional schooling.

6. Self-Directed Learning Theory 

Self-Directed Learning Theory gives learners control over their own learning pathways. This theory was previously considered a component of Adult Learning Theory, or andragogy. Self-directed learning is now a theory in its own right, supporting workplace learning where employees declare their own knowledge gaps and learning needs. 

This theory doesn’t mean learners are completely on their own. In fact, most learners want their L&D department to provide resources, like a series of curated training materials or a budget, to guide them on their journey. 

L&D can apply this theory by embracing on-demand learning opportunities for employees to use in the flow of their work. One useful tactic is to build learning libraries that employees can access anytime. This type of knowledge management has a positive effect on employees’ decision-making skills and encourages in-house subject matter experts to share their hard-earned knowledge with their team.

7. Transformative Learning

Transformative learning explores meaning structures — the beliefs and experiences that influence how we interpret ideas — and how reflection-based learning can help us transform them. Practices based on transformative learning often aim to create a “disorienting dilemma” that challenges the learner’s worldview. Through this disorienting dilemma, the learner can reevaluate what they believe about the world and develop a new viewpoint.

In the workplace, anti-bias and diversity training strives for transformative learning that encourages learners to think about their preconceived notions of others. Research shows that ongoing, active, and collaborative D&I education has the best chance of challenging biases.

8. Learning Curve Theory

According to the Learning Curve Theory, an employee will become faster and more effective at completing a task as they do the task over and over. Many organizations that use Learning Curve Theory measure performance through a formula that involves an output unit, a unit of cost, and a time frame or productivity target.

If you use an LMS with in-depth training data, you can monitor that information using a learning curve formula to see if your content helps learners adapt to the learning curve. By evaluating the impact of your courses on your results through a learning curve, you can also strategize ways to make them more effective and calculate ROI.

9. Lifelong Learning Theory

The Lifelong Learning Theory presents learning as a lifelong journey that goes beyond childhood education. According to this concept, personalized learning can help adults fill in the knowledge gaps left by traditional education and overcome boundaries like economic status and age. Using age as a starting point, Lifelong Learning aims to give everyone an equal chance to learn, regardless of differences in demographics.

You can apply Lifelong Learning strategies to your training program by fostering a multigenerational learning experience. We found that generational attitudes toward work have fewer differences than people commonly believe, but you can account for the differences that do exist through a democratized learning model. Focusing on employee career growth, sharing institutional knowledge, and promoting digital literacy will even the playing field for learners of all ages.

10. Collaborative Learning

Many of these learning theories overlap when it comes time to craft a new approach to learning—Collaborative Learning. Collaborative Learning employs a bottom-up approach, where team members create and answer requests for knowledge. Because it is rooted in the importance of peer interaction, Collaborative Learning Theory incorporates some of the most effective aspects of popular learning theories:

  • (Social) Cognitive Learning Theory applies meaningful human interaction to learning
  • Constructivist Learning Theory focuses on shared experiences over passive learning
  • Adult Learning Theory encourages learners to self-identify their learning needs
  • Self-Directed Learning Theory empowers learners to take control of their own learning path
  • Transformative learning confronts preconceived notions through new challenges
  • Lifelong learning’s democratized knowledge shared across job positions and generations

You can promote a company culture based on Collaborative Learning by encouraging knowledge sharing, decentralized learning, and self-directed learning. A Collaborative Learning platform can help you apply all of these techniques.

Interested in seeing Collaborative Learning in action? Request a demo to learn more.