Behavioral, Cognitive, and Humanistic Theories of Learning

There are many learning theories in relation to education. A teacher can use one or a combination of theoretical approaches to enhance the learning process in the classroom. This essay will discuss the behavioral,  cognitive, and humanistic theories of learning, as well as the role of the student and teacher in using each theory, and how a unit of multiplication in a third grade classroom could possible be taught using each approach.

Behavioral Learning Theory

According to the behavioral theory, learning involves alterations in modifications in behavior (Barrett, 2006). Behaviorists believe that what one learns is influenced by the environment instead of the student. The theory of behavioral learning also contends that contiguity and reinforcement, whether positive or negative, are essential to the learning process (Smith, 2005).

The teacher's function, according to the behavioral learning theory, is to make use of negative reinforcers to end unwanted behavior and positive reinforcers to strengthen wanted behavior. Reinforcers may also be used to teach new skills. This process is referred to as shaping. Teacher's who follow the behaviorists are also expected to use punishment and consequences to bring about a behavior change and facilitate learning (Slavin, 2003, pp. 144-151). The only thing required by students is the role of active responder. Students need to be able to respond to any reinforcement used by the teacher and willingly change their behavior to enable learning.

Behavioral learning concepts can be used to assist in teaching a unit on multiplication. This can be done by using positive reinforcers to shape the way students learn the material. For example, the teacher could give each student a piece of candy once they effectively learn the times table for each number, one through ten. The students may be more likely to work harder because they know they will receive a desired reward for their work. Teachers can also use drill and practice to increase the likelihood that the information in the unit will be retained.

Individuals are actively involved in the learning process, according to the cognitive theory of learning. The learning process consists of linking information that was formerly learned with the new information being

 learned. The cognitive theory also contends that people are in control of their own learning and that as we learn we organize the information in the brain much like file folders on a computer (Barrett, 2006).

The responsibilities of a teacher, in accordance with the cognitive theory, are to present organized lessons. Teachers are also expected to understand a student's experience and stage of development and use that to ensure that lessons are developmentally appropriate (Funderstanding, 2001). A student is expected to be prepared for learning and to assimilate and accommodate all information.

The ideas of the cognitive learning theory can be used in many ways to assist a class in learning multiplication. The teacher could use the already familiar concept of addition to help the students find the answers to simple multiplication problems. For example, if the students are asked to complete 2x4, they could think in terms of adding the number 2 to itself four times to arrive at the answer of eight. Teachers can also use group work so that students have the benefit of drawing from each other's experiences to aid in learning.

Humanistic Theory of Learning

The humanistic theory of learning involves the concept of learning through watching the behavior of others and what results from that behavior. However, learning does not have to involve a behavior change. Learning comes about as a result of observation (Barrett, 2006).

The teacher's role, according to the humanistic theory, is to be a role model. The teacher is to model appropriate behavior and make an effort not to replicate inappropriate behavior. A teacher is also expected to provide a reason and motivation for each task, teach general learning skills, foster group work, and if possible, give a choice of tasks to the students (Huitt, 2001). The role of the student is to explore and observe. Students can use self-evaluation techniques to monitor and observe their own behaviors and make necessary changes. Students also need to take responsibility for their own learning and keep their goals realistic.

If a teacher were to use a humanistic approach to teach a unit in multiplication she would have the students work in collaborative groups. There, students can closely observe the behavior of peers and evaluate their own
 progress. A teacher could also let the students brainstorm and discuss how they think they would best learn multiplication as a class (Huitt, 2001).


Learning theories play an important role in thinking about how learning occurs. Knowing how one learns and what affects learning is significant in how a teacher will approach each lesson and unit. A teacher can gain much knowledge by exploring the behavioral, cognitive, and humanistic approaches to learning.


Barrett, E. (2006). Behavioral learning theory. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from http://suedstudent.syr.edu/~ebarrett/ide621/behavior.htm

Barrett, E. (2006). Cognitive learning theory. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from http://suedstudent.syr.edu/~ebarrett/ide621/cognitive.htm

Barrett, E. (2006). Social learning theory. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from http://suedstudent.syr.edu/~ebarrett/ide621/social.htm

Funderstanding (2001). Piaget. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from http://www.funderstanding.com/piaget.cfm

Huitt, W. (2001). Humanism and open education. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/affsys/humed.html

Perry, J. D. (2002, January 14). Cognitive development theories. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from http://education.indiana.edu/~p540/webcourse/develop.html

Slavin, R. E. (2003). Education psychology: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Smith, M. K. (2005, January 30). The behaviourist orientation to learning. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from http://www.infed.org/biblio/learning-behavourist.htm


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