Definition and overview on different categories of learning

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Learning is such a diverse and complicated process that has been tried and explained so much and so carefully in the last hundred years. There are so many different theories on the topic of learning, that it can be very mind blogging and rather confusing to dissect and totally differentiate each learning theory. Some learning theories may actually be a cross in between two or more different categories.

This paper will start by giving the definition and an overview on each of the four different categories of learning. These four categories are namely the Learner Based Theories, the Context Based Theories, the Knowledge Based Theories and the Process Based Theories. Examples of the different learning theories in each of these four categories will follow later.

Moving on, three learning theories will be singled out and explored in greater detail on how each of these three learning theories contribute in enhancing a trainer's understanding of the learning process.

The three learning theories to be discussed here are Behaviourist Theory, Cognitive Theory and Adult Learning Theory or Andragogy. Each of these three theories will be discussed individually first with their definitions, origins and a summary will be accounted for. Their strengths and weaknesses of these theories will also be looked into. The shortcomings, the arguments for and against of each of these three theories will also be explored. In addition, how each of these three theories affects learning and the application of these theories in today's workplace learning will also be discussed.

Learning is a term that is as old as mankind. It is not something new or that has been created in the recent millennium. Learning actually exists since Stone Age. During those early days, man learned that he needs to hunt for survival. He learned different ways of hunting and thus was able to provide for his family. He also learned to handle different situations to fend for him and to protect his family. He then passed on his skills and experiences to his sons and his sons' sons. This is already the start of learning and transfer of knowledge.

Learning can just be simply defined as the process of acquiring knowledge, skills and attitudes. A comprehensive definition of learning is from Fincher (1994), states that learning is "a process of progressive change from ignorance to knowledge, from inability to competence, and from indifference to understanding."

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, scholars and theorists have been trying to define learning and the learning process. Since then, there have been scores of theories; some of which are progressions or adaptations of the previous theories, some are new ideas; and there are some theories which combine two theories together. Some examples of learning theories start from behaviourist classical conditioning (Pavlov) and operant conditioning (Skinner), cognitive (Piaget), humanism (Maslow), constructivist (Dewey), social learning (Bandura), social development (Vygotsky), experiential learning (Kolb), problem-based learning, situated learning (Lave), multiple intelligences (Gardner) and etc.

Learning is becomingly increasingly important especially at the work place in today's twenty-first century. The current focus on organizations is talent development. Talent development refers to an organization to formulate strategically planned trainings to develop their employees (talents). Organizations these days, are trying to do the three big 'R's - recruit, retrain and retain talents. Talents, these days are expected not only to multi-tasked, to be highly organized and efficient, but are expected to more importantly, learn, adapt and change their knowledge, skills and attitudes so that they will be a valuable asset to the organization. Middleton reported on The Wall Street Journal that "many companies outside of finance and insurance are encouraging employees to sit for certification exams - and some are flat-out requiring the effort." In the same article, she quoted Steve DelGrosso, director of IBM Project Management Center of Excellence, that "International Business Machines Corp, where hiring managers will seriously consider only project manager applicants with a PMP Certification." Hence, learning does not stop with formal education when one leaves school today. In fact, work place learning, whether it is formal or informal learning, is considered to be even more important. Formal learning refers to the study or course type of knowledge instruction under a school system with a mainly two partied group; one party is the teacher or the instructor and the other party is the student. This learning is usually curriculum-based and assessable. Informal learning refers to learning in any settings, no matter how casual the setting is, and there maybe only the learner alone or the learner with two or more people. It refers to any learning, including from experience, which results in an increase in the person's knowledge, skills and attitudes. Since learning is so important, it is imperative to know why and how people learn. For better understanding, a comparison should be made of theories of the old with the newer theories. The following condensed summary is to compare Behaviourist Learning Theory, Cognitive Learning Theory and the newer Adult Learning Theory or Andragogy.

Behaviourist learning theory or behaviourism starts out not in education, but in the field of psychology in the nineteenth century. The four most notable persons in this field of study are Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (14 September 1849 to 27 February 1936), Edward Lee Thorndike (31 August 1874 to 9 August 1949), John Broadus Watson (9 January 1878 to 25 September 1958) and Burrhus Frederic Skinner (20 March 1904 to 18 August 1990).

Ivan Pavlov, a highly regarded Russian physiologist and psychologist, is well known for his experiment with dogs which salivated at the sound of the bell even though when there is no food presented. He went on with his experiment to prove that there is stimulus and response. A skeleton of the relation between stimulus and response is as follows:

Food = UCS - Unconditioned Stimulus

Dog's salivation = UCR - Unconditioned Response

The bell acted as a neutral stimulus until the dog associated the bell with food. Whenever Pavlov rang the bell and presented the food, the dog salivated. The dog, after a few trials, started associating the bell with food. Even when Pavlov rang the bell without the food, the dog had been conditioned to think that there was food and would thus salivate. The unconditioned stimulus and response thus changed to:

Bell = CS - Conditioned Stimulus

Saliva = CR - Conditioned Response

There is a change of behaviour here. The dog's salivation, which initially is an UCR, is changed to CR, conditioned response whenever there the bell rings - CS.

Using this behaviourist theory in application to some teambuilding and leadership workshops:

Praises / Sweets / Souvenirs = CS - Conditioned Stimulus, could be used to entice attendees participation.

Attendees' involvement = CR - Conditioned Response.

Behaviourist learning theory focuses solely on behaviours that are observed. This theory does not take into account of any other processes such as mental or social. It states that learning is the acquisition of new behaviours resulting from environmental conditions. This theory assumes that the learner is passive and that the purpose of learning is to change behaviour. The learner is receptor to stimulus provided and conditioned response is elicited. The learning process is to change behaviour and the intended learning outcome is that the behaviour is changed. The locus of learning is that there is a stimulus in the external environment which when conditioned will result in trained change of behaviour.

Behaviourism is also known as a learning perspective whereby all actions including; thinking, doing, feeling, are considered to be behaviours. All behaviours are assumed to be shaped either through positive or negative reinforcements. Both positive and negative reinforcements will result in the same behaviour recurring. However, punishment, whether positive or negative will decrease the chances of the same behaviour from recurring. Behaviourist learning theory is thus, "an association between the desired responses and the reinforcement (rewards and punishments) through a system of success and failures" (Rogers, 2002: 85).

This behaviourist learning theory has some limitations especially since all of the behaviourist experiments have only been carried out with animals like dogs, rats, pigeons and others; and in controllable environment. It does not take into account that humans have mental processes and thus have queries and analytics to problems. It also does not accord that humans have social and creative inclinations. It views humans as passive learners and as mechanical or robotic, only responding to conditioned stimuli. This theory does not offer full and clear explanations as to how a child understands things that he/she has hot heard before, how and where a child learns from and especially in terms of the child's language learning ability.

Despite the shortcomings of the behaviourist learning theory, it is not to be dismissed totally as Rogers counters that the "stimulus-response is not seen as applicable to low-level learning; it also applies at more advanced levels. Nor is it confined to skill learning; it forms the basis for cognitive and affective learning as well" (Rogers, 2002: 89)

In 1929, Bode, a Gestalt (means "structured whole" in German) psychologist pushed forward the motion that learning is not solely based on behaviours as proposed by the behaviourists. There are two key assumptions in the Gestalt approaching to learning. It states that human memory is a structured processor (akin to the central processing unit of today's computer system), and that experience and previous knowledge form the basis in learning. Cognitive theorists proffered brain-based learning, how the human minds work to engage learning. The human brain works by fitting, organizing, restructuring different bits and pieces and sorted into storage of the short term memory or long term memory. When needed, as such, when a problem arises and brain will search through its memory capacity to extract the information and experiences that will form a structure to solve this problem. When this problem is solved, the brain then commits this recent successful experience into its memory, which is like a reservoir, storing for future use.

Edward Chace Tolman (14 April 1886 to 19 November 1959), an American psychologist, used his experiments with rats to prove that the rats could learn about facts and relate to their environment and thus respond to environmental stimuli versus learning by reflexive response.

Jean Piaget (9 August 1896 to 16 September 1980), a Swiss developmental psychologist, is well known for his studies done with children and his emphasis on the importance of education in children. His experiments are done with children and hence this records a major difference from the behaviourist theories with experiments on animals only. His tests conclude that humans are active processors of information as they actively involve themselves and learn from the events Piaget proposed that there are four stages of cognitive development in children and each stage is qualitatively different from the other stages. Stage one is the sensorimotor stage which is from birth till the child is two years old. Stage two is the preoperational stage which is from two to four years old. Stage three is the concrete operations stage which is from ages seven to eleven. And the final formal operations stage is from eleven to fifteen years old. The infant progresses from the building of understanding to the world around them to the final stage whereby the child no longer needs affirmative concrete objects to make sense. They are capable of deductive and abstract thinking.

Cognitive learning theory is based on human intellect and mental processes. In the 1960s, it replaced the behaviourist theory as the dominant learning theory and discoursed that learning is based on observable behaviours only. It argues that our behavioural actions of reading, watching, doing etc, are processed and stored in our mental capacities for further advancements. Cognitive learning also acknowledges other influencing factors such as a person's environmental factors, a person's social upbringing, educational factors, cultural and moral factors and also a person's desire or motivation towards learning. Activity in the cognitive learning theory is not based on actions, but the active mental processes. Cognitive theories view learning process as an internal mental process and that the locus of learning is internal cognitive (mental) structuring.

Cognitive theory is best summed as "In order to learn, understanding is necessary" (Rogers, 2002: 90).

Here, a very simplified content of behaviourist and cognitive learning theories are provided without the sequential developments in these theories so that any readers will have the essential basics to understand the foundations of learning theories. Other theories have surfaced since behaviourist and cognitive theories. This is a good sign as it shows that humans learn, digest, absorb, adapt and change what it deemed necessary to move forward in life and learning.

Malcolm Knowles (24 August 1913 to 27 November 1997) acknowledges in his own book:

"Yet, for many years, the adult learner was indeed a neglected species. The lack of research in this field is especially surprising in view of the fact that all the great teachers of ancient times - Confucius and Lao Tse of China; the Hebrew prophets and Jesus in Biblical times; Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato in ancient Greece; and Cicero, Evelid, and Quintillian in ancient Rome - were teachers of adults, not of children." (Knowles, Holton III & Swanson, 2005: 35).

It was only after World War I that there was increasing attention given to the adult learner. From there, different theories and schools of thought were brought about. The foundation of the artistic school of thought was brought forth by Lindeman that: Adults are motivated to learn as they experience needs and interests that learning will satisfy. Interests in the adult learner grew, but the basic elements of thoughts were not integrated into any form of framework. It was in the 1950s that research in adult learning started and propelled a variety of other disciplines such as psychology, sociology, philosophy and social psychology. A few of the famed practitioners were Freud, Maslow and Rogers. Hence, although there was a conceptualized framework for adult learning since 1833, the Americans did not have a terminology until 1970. When Malcolm Knowles brought about the idea of andragogy, and was hailed as the Father of Andragogy in the United States in the 1970s, people became more conscious of adult education and adult learning.

Another very worthy name in the world of education is John Dewey (20 October 1869 to 1 June 1952). Although John Dewey catered more for pedagogy, his philosophical views and his achievements in life and education would greatly influence anyone who reads any of his books or teachings. His great contribution to education is an undeniable factor in the theories of education. John Dewey "believed that learning was active and schooling unnecessarily long and restrictive" and "believed that students should be involved in real-life tasks and challenges". He also firmly believed that "education is life itself" (Neill, 2005)

The below is a figure which is an adaptation from The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Differences, which summarizes the journey of six core adult learning principles encompassed by the individual and situational differences, and the goals and purposes of learning.


(Knowles, Holton III & Swanson 2005, p.35, The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 6th edn, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, United Kingdom)

Learner's Need to Know




Self-Concept of the Learner



Prior Experience of the Learner


mental modes

Readiness to Learn

life related

Developmental task

Orientation to Learning

problem centered


Motivation to Learn

intrinsic value

personal payoff

Andragogy: Core Adult Learning Principles

Individual and Situational Differences

Individual Learner Differences

Goals and Purposes for Learning

Individual Growth

Subject Matter Differences

Institutional Growth

Situational Differences

Societal Growth

Fidishun (2000) summarises that "Andragogy is a set of assumptions about how adults learn."

There is evidence that discussion of andragogy continued in Europe until Dusan Savicevic, a Yugoslavian adult educator, first discussed the concept in the United States. Malcolm Knowles heard about the term and in 1968, used it in an article in "Adult Leadership." From that point on, Knowles has become known as the principle expert on andragogy. Although numerous adult educators including Brookfield (1986), Mezirow (1991), Lawler (1991) and Merriam (1999) have addressed the concept and/or discussed how it can be used to facilitate adult learning."

Another overview, defines andragogy as "Knowles' theory", which is a deliberation to develop an adult learning theory. Knowles stresses on the fact that adults are "self-directed and expect to take responsibilities for decisions" Kearsley (2010)a. Hence, learning has to encompass this basic fact when designing programs for adult learners.

Amongst the many theorists of adult learning, Malcolm S. Knowles' conception of andragogy is an attempt to build a comprehensive theory (or model) of adult learning that is anchored in the characteristics of adult learners (Merriam and Caffarella, 1991:249, quoted in Smith 2002:8) summarizes five crucial assumptions of andragogy about the characteristics of adult learners that are different to pedagogy.

These assumptions include firstly the self-concept of the learner in that as a person matures his self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being. It is therefore easy to understand that, unlike children who are often 'forced' by their parent to attend school, an adult makes his or her decision on whether to take up a learning opportunity. Secondly, as a person matures he accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning. He is increasingly in a better and enhanced position to realize his learning goals. This is called the experience assumption. The third assumption of andragogy relates to readiness to learn. As a person matures his readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his social roles. Orientation to learning is the fourth assumption. It is assumed that as a person matures his time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness. Smith adduces motivation to learn as the last assumption of the andragogy. There is however the sixth assumption of andragogy according to (Knowles et al 2005). This is the need to know: Adult need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.

According to the Sopher (2003) as she examines and explains the andragogy model, adults have a strong psychological need to be self-directing and independently take responsibility for themselves. Adults have more experience and more meaningful experience than young people are able to achieve in their limited years and without the benefit of growth and developing. Adults engage learning with a life-orientation, task-orientation or problem-orientation. Adult learners are more often intrinsically than extrinsically motivated to learn something new (Sopher 2003: 124).

In the light of the six assumptions that have been discussed in the preceding paragraphs, it appears quite evidently that Knowles is inclined to define adult education in the perspective of human nature and andragogy is learner-centered. But there appears a lack of assumption or explanation as to why many adults especially those from the low-low social class are reluctant to participate in adult education. Hence, andragogy means that "instruction for adults needs to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught." Kearsley (2010)b.

It further adds that andragogy is applicable to even soft skills training such as management training. This is because andragogy includes all types of adult learning and it "has been used extensively in the design of organizational training programs" Kearsley (2010)c.

In addition, after Knowles, other theorists emerged with their own theories. From Maslow's Theory (1954) based on the fulfillment of human basic needs to Rebenson's Theory (1977) based on Expectations and Values, to Cross's Theory (1981) of the psychological and environmental conditions that results in participation.

Holford, Jarvis & Griffin (1998) quoted DfEE (Department for Education and Employment, UK, 1995: "Lifetime learning also plays a key part in our wider social and cultural activity, yielding benefits extremely beyond the economic field. The preservation and acquisition of knowledge and the ability of individuals to fulfill their personal capacity to learn are vital signs of a free and civilized society."

In adult learning, the role of the trainer is vital in keeping the learners' active participation. When the trainer frequently intervenes or corrects the learners, there is no chance for expression and exploration. The learners who are not encouraged to think critically risk not being able to understand the context of the learning well and thus would not be able to transfer their learning to their workplace.

At a recent informal gathering of some trainers / facilitators from Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the US and UK in Singapore, these trainers / facilitators of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and Continuous Professional Training (CPT) for lawyers, accountants and those in the financial sectors asked a leading Human Resource Development facilitator on what is the problem with their curriculum and how to keep the attendees interested in their courses so as to ensure that learning takes place. Most of these courses fulfil the above behaviourist and cognitive theories of learning.

Behaviourist theory, there is Conditioned Stimulus, which is the accreditation of CPD / CPT points required for their profession. There is Conditioned Response, which is the attendance of those in these sectors. Cognitive theory is in place, as these lawyers, accountants and those in the financial fields already have the knowledge required in their respective fields. Then it should be deduced that the topics of discussion is not interesting enough to hold their attention as most of the time, they are either on their Blackberrys or iPhones. Apparently not. Application of andragogy is clearly missing in this place. If the lawyers and other professionals are motivated and oriented to learn and they realize their need to update their own knowledge and more importantly, it is their readiness to learn. This puts back the reality that not all adults conform to the phrase "adult learning" just because the person is of age. More important is the conformity to Knowles' assumptions of adult learning, then, there is certainty that learning will take place.

As an Office Manager, I am currently responsible for training new hires in my accounting and auditing company. In addition, I freelance as a facilitator in team building, leadership, management and inter cultural workshops. I also do some training seminars as a consultant for a few manufacturing plants in China. I used to need to think so hard about which of the theories I should be using for these training workshops. Until recently, I was unable to find a satisfactory answer to fully fit any one single theory for the each of the different training workshops.

It is after reading Garavan's article whereby he prefers to have us understand that training, development, education and learning are "glue together" Garavan (1997)a. I can now visualize that learning is like a tree trunk; with training, development and education are like branches, branching out from the tree trunk. They are part and parcel as one entity, but are different in its own functions. Especially today, in the twenty-first century, "work and education no longer have tiny boundaries" (Garavan, 1997)b.

"Learning is seen as a natural process that occurs via observation, assimilation and emulation which happens over time without any substantial intervention from more experienced others." (Guile and Young, 1998: 176)

Hence, with these, I stopped trying to dissect and piecemeal which part of my trainings or workshops belong to which learning theory. Instead, I concentrate on building up a better facilitation plan and enhance my own teachings and facilitation style.

During the course of my full time job as Office Manager, I utilize cognitive theory to train my accounting team for their daily work. I also utilize social and experiential learning theory to instil their sense of belonging to the company and to build up their team cohesiveness. In addition, as my staff are all working adults, adult learning theory comes into place as I try to motivate them to learn, not only as part requirement of their job, but also to ensure that they are ready for learning. Extra motivation comes when I arrange for flexible working hours to attend learning.

Most people would say that the team building workshops I facilitate as a freelancer, is definitely experiential learning. This is very true with some exceptions when I conduct team building workshops for students on their orientation day in a new school. I cannot fully treat them as adults as they are about sixteen to nineteen years old, nor can I treat them as children. I utilize a combination of theories. I would have sweets and some gifts as conditioned stimulus to entice their conditioned response. I also draw a little on andragogy as seen in their readiness to learn, that is why they are coming to a new school. Experiential learning goes with the team building activities. I also include social learning to help them break the ice and network since the students, being new to the school are also new to the teachers and to each other.

I am also now trying to understand the different learning theories better so that in time to come, I hope to be able to incorporate appropriately different theories into my various learning activities so that the learning outcomes at various stages becomes more achievable and thus my trainings and workshops will be more meaningful for my attendees and that learning for them will then take place easily. As we move deeper into talent development, it is imperative that learning organizations see training as an investment of their employees and wisely utilizes available resources to retrain and retain the most valuable asset to the organizations, that is, the employees. Employees who are satisfied with their careers and career development plans are more committed to the organizations and tend to stay in the organization for a longer duration. As Caldwell (2002) concedes:

"A more committed workforce is viewed by HR practitioners as an essential foundation of competitiveness in that committed employees are more likely to embrace flexibility, strive to achieve performance targets and identify with the mission and values of the organization."

My view that learning takes place since birth till the day we pass on and it's a continuous process throughout our life. No matter at which stage of life we are at, learning still continues. It may not be formal education, or some organizational developmental programs, or some training workshops. Learning takes place in our daily life and personal development too. Our learning and experiences stay with us no matter where we go or what we do. As we progress forward in life, we can count on our own pool of learning resource and experiences to help us advance to our next stage in developmental process. This is why continuous learning and development in life and at the workplace is so important. This is stressed by Lee, et al (2004) that the "standard paradigm of learning and learning as acquisition perspectives are rooted in traditional understandings of learning inspired by cognitive psychology and behaviourism."

I also fully agree that "the process of learning always involves changes in knowledge and action." (Guile and Young, 1998: 177)

Learning always brings to mind, my favourite Chinese proverb: "Live till old, learn till old."