This article was written as an assignment in EME6606 Advanced Instructional Design at the University of Florida in Fall 2014.

Compare and contrast the tenants of behavioral learning theory, cognitive learning theory, social learning theory.

Behavioral learning theory looks at how learning and behavior are described and explained in terms of stimulus response relationships.  Cognitive learning theory focuses on learning based on how people think, speak and problem-solve.  Social learning theory expands the idea of learning by focusing on the impact of the learning environment.

Three key behavioral learning theories includes connectionism, classical conditioning and operant conditioning.  Connectionism describes learning as a process of trial and error, with reinforcement when the correct response is demonstrated.  Classical conditioning looks at how reinforcement, experimental extinction and generalization affect learning.  Operant conditioning looks at manipulating variable in an effort to identify, predict and control behavior.

Cognitive learning theory acknowledges the existence of internal mental states and looks at how belief, desire, ideas and motivations affects learning.  It considers mental processes to be a major factors in learning and looks at how individuals obtain, process and use information.  Some of the key cognitive theories are Gestalt Theory, Information Processing Theory, and Schema Theory.  Gestalt Theory considers the law of similarity, proximity and closure.  Information Processing Theory looks at the how the human mind operates much the same way as a computer.  Schema Theory introduces the construction of mental schema or data structures.  Cognitive learning theory looks at how both working memory and long-term memory affect learning.   Miller (1956) evaluated the concept of a magical 7 +/- 1 as being the largest amount of items a person could keep in working memory.

In a social learning system, learners acquire new patterns of behavior through direct observation of others (Bandura, 1977). Social cognitive theory includes four main components (Rotter, 1954), behavioral potential, expectancy reinforcement, reinforcement value, and psychological situation.   Social cognitive theory also considers the concept of consequences of behavior or reward.  Learners learn by observing others and modeling the behaviors that they see rewarded.  Learning possesses three factors, behavior, the environment and internal events.  Self-efficacy is a basic determinant of learner behavior.  High self-efficacy high persistence, low self-efficacy low persistence.   The individual’s confidence in her or his ability to perform a specific task.

Behavioral learning seems to be more focused on tasks, teaching learners how to perform a predetermined set of skills or competencies.  Cognitive learning adds in the question of the mind, and how the mind learns best.  Social learning theory  adds the concept of learning from the environment and observation.

Which learning theory do you personally subscribe to and why?  Provide the characteristics of learning theory in terms of instructional design practice.

I prefer to take a more holistic approach to learning theory.   Most if not all learning theories have a place in instructional design.  In fact, I think that if we will use a variety of approaches to look at our instructional design we will develop a more complete process.

 I like behaviorism for its simplistic approach for teaching a skill set, or sequence of skills and rewarding for the successful demonstration of those skills.  I believe that many times that gives us a great starting point for allowing learners to have early successes with new concepts.  But I don’t believe you can use behaviorism by itself except for in very specific applied cases.  

I like cognitivism for taking a look at how the mind processes and remembers information.  I believe it gives us more tools for helping students to move from rote memorization of skills or concepts to understanding more depth and developing the skills to adapt to many environments.  I am really interested in learning more about developing schemas or chunking for developing long term memory.  Or as I tell my students, the more experiences they have, the more depth of understanding they will have to “hang” new concepts on. 

I like social learning theory for looking at things like self-efficacy and how a student’s self-efficacy can affect their abilities to persist towards mastery of a concept or skill.  This is something I see quite frequently in my students.  Those who don’t believe they can learn the information won’t learn it.  But if I can convince them they can learn the information, they will often make the changes needed that allow them to be successful with learning.


Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two. Psychological Review, 81-97.

Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.