The top 10 learning theories

Learning theories describe the frameworks that we use to process and retain knowledge. No doubt all of us have tried a variety of different learning theories throughout our lifetimes. But it can be difficult to find the right one to suit you and your learning style. So, here's a rundown of our top 10...

Written by Mind Tools
Published 21 June 2018
The top 10 learning theories

1. Behaviorism

Behaviorism assumes the learner is passive, and only responds to external stimuli, such as reward and punishment. This means that behavior only changes through interaction with the environment. Learners are "conditioned" through exposure to a series of positive or negative stimuli.

2. Cognitivism

Cognitivism believes that the mind's "black box" needs to be opened and understood. It suggests that people process information in much the same way as computers do. As such, cognitivism is often related to studies in artificial intelligence (AI). During the 1960s, cognitivism, which focuses on exploring mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem solving, became the dominant learning theory over behaviorism. It argues that the way people learn depends on internal processes, rather than external stimuli.

3. Constructivism

Constructivism-based learning suggests that learning is an active process in which people create their own subjective representation of reality. These representations are subjective because new information is always linked to people's prior knowledge. For instance, their social or cultural backgrounds. Constructivism rejects rigid learning theories like behaviorism. Instead, it argues that learning is an active, contextualized process, focused on building - not acquiring - knowledge. Personal experience, along with the learner's environment, help to build knowledge. Learners constantly test ideas through social negotiation. And, since everyone's an individual, each person approaches it differently.

4. Humanism

Humanistic learning theories see learning as a personal act that contributes to fulfilling a person's potential. Championed by such learning theorists as Abraham Maslow, humanism has given us the term "self-actualization," as well as the concept of the teacher as facilitator. Like cognitivism, humanism emerged in the 1960s. It focuses on human dignity, freedom and potential. One of its central pillars is the assumption that people act with "intentionality" and values. This contrasts with learning theories like behaviorism, which say that all behavior is the result of applying external stimuli. The humanist view also opposes cognitive psychology's belief that discovering knowledge and constructing meaning is central to learning. A key humanist view is that it's vital to see the learner as a whole person, especially as he or she grows and develops.

5. Maslow's hierarchy of needs

This framework was created by psychologist, Abraham Maslow. He wanted to understand what motivates people. So, in 1943, he put forward a theory which suggested that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. Having fulfilled one need, they seek to fulfill the next one, and so on. Maslow presents these needs as a hierarchy, as follows:

1. Physiological/bodily needs
2. Safety needs
3. Love/belonging needs
4. Self-esteem
5. Self-actualization

6. Experiential learning

David Kolb published his learning model in 1984. From this, he developed his learning styles inventory. It can be applied in two ways: as a four-stage cycle of learning or as four separate learning styles.

The four-stage cycle, in which learners need to touch all points, includes:

1. Concrete experience (having an experience)
2. Reflective observation (reflecting on the experience)
3. Abstract conceptualization (learning from the experience)
4. Active experimentation (applying what you've learned)

The four separate learning styles that Kolb set out are:

1. Diverging (feeling and watching)
2. Assimilating (watching and thinking)
3. Converging (doing and thinking)
4. Accommodating (doing and feeling)

​In Kolb's view, people gain knowledge by learning about abstract concepts and then applying them to a range of real-life situations. In his theory, the impetus to develop new concepts is provided by new experience.


The ARCS learning theory (also known as the ARCS Model of Motivational Design) was first developed by Dr John Keller. It's a mnemonic that stands for:
  • Attention
  • Relevance
  • Confidence
  • Satisfaction

ARCS is a problem-solving approach to designing learning environments that stimulate and sustain students' motivation to learn. The ARCS model is a set of categories representing the components of motivation. It can also be used as a systematic design process to create appropriate motivational enhancements for learners. ARCS is claimed - and acclaimed - by humanists, so it could also be seen as part of humanism (see above).


Another learning theory built around a mnemonic is ADDIE. It stands for the following five stages of instructional design:

1. Analyze
2. Design
3. Develop
4. Implement
5. Evaluate

ADDIE is a high-level framework that helps provide context for what an instructional designer does. For further details of ADDIE, see our blog post on it here.

9. Elaboration theory

Charles Reigleuth's elaboration theory (published in 1979) tries to bridge theory and practice in education. It aims to reveal the relationships between educational theory, designed learning programs, and practice. Reigleuth's view is that content that must be learned should be put in order from simple to complex. It must also provide a meaningful context within which other ideas can be integrated. Elaboration theory comprises seven major strategy components:

1. An elaborative sequence
2. Learning prerequisite sequences
3. Summary
4. Synthesis
5. Analogies
6. Cognitive strategies
7. Learner control

10. Bloom's taxonomy

Bloom's Taxonomy was first created in 1956 by Dr Benjamin Bloom in order to promote higher forms of thinking. This includes analyzing and evaluating concepts, processes, procedures and principles - not just remembering facts or "rote" learning. The theory identifies three domains of learning: cognitive (mental skills), affective (feelings or emotions), and psychomotor (manual or physical skills). According to Bloom it is the cognitive domain that helps people to develop intellectual skills. It is divided into six levels according to complexity:

1. Knowledge/remembering
2. Comprehension/understanding
3. Application
4. Analysis
5. Synthesis/creating
6. Evaluation

These six steps can be seen as a stairway that learners ascend to achieve a higher level of thinking. Once a learner has mastered a higher level of thinking, she will have mastered the lower levels, too.

About the author

Mind Tools

Mind Tools

Mind Tools was started in 1996 to offer practical online learning to people in the workplace.

By the time they joined Emerald in March 2019, they had grown into the one of the world’s most comprehensive learning resources, with millions of individual learners in 50 countries worldwide.

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