Learning Theories Crash Course

Learning Theories

How do humans learn new things? The theory of learning has been a topic endlessly explored in education circles with many interpretations on the most effective method to consume and retain new information. In this article, I’ll be exploring the main academic theories of learning, which will help you be a better learner and a better teacher, no matter what the subject.

Classical Learning Theories


The oldest most popular of all learning theories is Behaviorism, which is the theory of learning that we typically think about related to direct instruction, or rote memorization. It is how traditional schools are structured with a teacher imparting information onto students. In behaviorism, students are seen as empty vessels ready to take in knowledge. With behaviorism, the goal is to alter students’ behavior over time by training them to think and behave in a certain way.

Example of Behaviorism

This form of learning is how the traditional education system in most developed countries operate (K to 12 and college), with strict rules and assessments to track performance (standardized testing).



This is the theory of learning that takes a more direct approach by getting learners involved through practical work, having them build off of their past experiences and allowing them to reflect on what they learned relating it back to their lives. Constructivism can also be referred to as active learning.

Example of Constructivism

Any type of learning that relies on the intrinsic motivation of the learner.  An example could be a practical skill that someone would be motivated to learn on their own like playing the piano or learning how to code. It often involves a lot of deliberate practice and long hours of honing your skills through practical work.

Coding Bootcamp Constructivism


This relates to how social interaction and connectivity impacts learning . If constructivism has to do with intrinsic motivation, connectivism has to do with extrinsic motivation and positive social pressure.

Example of Connectivism

Being part of a study group either online or in-person is an example of how connectivism can help you learn with others. It doesn’t need to be formal either. Connectivism could also be as casual as learning from blogs that you read, or from people that you follow on Twitter.


This is the theory of learning that relates to how learners gather and retain information in their minds. It is related to neuroscience, metalearning or learning how to learn.



Example of Cognitivism

If you want to learn more about cognitivism (how the mind retains information), I recommend you check out the very popular free Coursera course Learning How to Learn by Dr. Barbara Oakley. In the course, they discuss ideas such as how to stay focused, chunking (breaking up what you learn into smaller parts), and how to remember what you learned through active recall.


Learning is a lifelong pursuit. Andragogy is the theory of learning that focuses on how adult learners learn beyond K-12, college and university. The main idea behind Andragogy is that adults learn differently than children learn because of their motivation, independence and maturity.


Example of Andragogy

This can be an after-hour course, going back to school as an adult, or any recreational learning endeavor you undertake. In general anything you learn as an adult, which usually has the goal of either helping you grow in your career, learn a new skill, or learn for the sake of intellectual curiosity. What makes it different from other learning models is that adults have to choose to learn something of their own volition.

While I completely agree with what is mentioned about Andragogy, with regards to how adults need to be passionate and see the relevance of what they’re learning, it begs the question why don’t we at least partially apply the same metrics to children?

Tying them all together

So how do you know which learning style is best for you? A useful framework I found to tie all of the most popular learning theories together is one that is popularized by Professor Richard Elmore from Harvard University . The idea proposed by Dr. Elmore, is that there are 4 modes of  learning that each of us can fall under, with regards to our personal preferences (there is a great online free course called Leaders of Learning, I recommend you check out if you’re interested in this topic).

Image result for Hierarchical Individual

Hierarchical Individual

Hierarchical Individual is the classic behaviorism model of traditional learning (schools, colleges, and universities), where you have a set curriculum with an educator imparting knowledge on students. This mode of learning works well if you are learning something where you are very unsure of what exactly you need to learn, so you need to heavily rely on guidance from an expert.

Hierarchical Collective

Hierarchical collective is similar to the constructivist model where learning in done in-person, but instead of having a set curriculum you need to follow, you pursue topics around your own interests.  It relies on intrinsic motivation of the learner, but there is still an element of formal education and knowledge transfer. Examples of this could be in-person after hour courses, social & recreational clubs and meetup groups.

Distributive Collective

With distributive collective learning, extrinsic motivation and social proof plays a large role, but in a distributed way (connectivism). Examples of this mode are: Online study groups, open source collaboration, and websites that encourage collaboration (in the tech world, these are communities like: Stack Overflow, HackerRank, Product Hunt etc.)

Distributive Individual

The final mode of learning is distributive collective, where learners have to choose their own path and learn individually. This is an intrinsically motivated self directed learning style, where you need to forge your own path. For centuries, this has been how people have become “self taught”, by either reading books, taking courses, or performing deliberate practice on their own. Examples of this style of learning are:  MOOCS, online courses, watching YouTube videos, or even learning on your own from books.

Do any of these resonate with you? I’d be curious to hear the types of learning you’ve been exposed to, and what you think works best for you.


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