Learning has been defined in numerous ways by many different theorists, researchers and educational practitioners. Although universal agreement on any single definition is nonexistent, many definitions employ common elements. The following definition by Shuell (as interpreted by Schunk, 1991) incorporates these main ideas: “Learning is an enduring change in behavior, or in the capacity to behave in a given fashion, which results from practice or other forms of experience” (p. 2).

Undoubtedly, some learning theorists will disagree on the definition of learning presented here. However, it is not the definition itself that separates a given theory from the rest. The major differences among theories lie more in interpretation than they do in definition. These differences revolve around a number of key issues that ultimately delineate the instructional prescriptions that flow from each theoretical perspective. Schunk (1991) lists five definitive questions that serve to distinguish each learning theory from the others:

1.     How does learning occur?

2.     Which factors influence learning?

3.     What is the role of memory?

4.     How does transfer occur? and

5.     What types of learning are best explained by the theory?

Expanding on this original list, we have included two additional questions important to the instructional designer:

6.     What basic assumptions/principles of this theory are relevant to instructional design? and

7.     How should instruction be structured to facilitate learning?

In this article, each of these questions is answered from three distinct viewpoints: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Although learning theories typically are divided into two categories–behavioral and cognitive–a third category, constructive, is added here because of its recent emphasis in the instructional design literature (e.g., Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, & Perry, 1991; Duffy & Jonassen, 1991; Jonassen, 1991b; Winn, 1991). In many ways these viewpoints overlap; yet they are distinctive enough to be treated as separate approaches to understanding and describing learning. These three particular positions were chosen because of their importance, both historically and currently, to the field of instructional design. It is hoped that the answers to the first five questions will provide the reader with a basic understanding of how these viewpoints differ. The answers to the last two questions will translate these differences into practical suggestions and recommendations for the application of these principles in the design of instruction.

These seven questions provide the basis for the article’s structure. For each of the three theoretical positions, the questions are addressed and an example is given to illustrate the application of that perspective. It is expected that this approach will enable the reader to compare and contrast the different viewpoints on each of the seven issues.

As is common in any attempt to compare and contrast similar products, processes, or ideas, differences are emphasized in order to make distinctions clear. This is not to suggest that there are no similarities among these viewpoints or that there are no overlapping features. In fact, different learning theories will often prescribe the same instructional methods for the same situations (only with different terminology and possibly with different intentions). This article outlines the major differences between the three positions in an attempt to facilitate comparison. It is our hope that the reader will gain greater insight into what each viewpoint offers in terms of the design and presentation of materials, as well as the types of learning activities that might be prescribed.


Current learning theories have roots that extend far into the past. The problems with which today’s theorists and researchers grapple and struggle are not new but simply variations on a timeless theme: Where does knowledge come from and how do people come to know? Two opposing positions on the origins of knowledge-empiricism and rationalism have existed for centuries and are still evident, to varying degrees, in the learning theories of today. A brief description of these views is included here as a background for comparing the “modern” learning viewpoints of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism.

Empiricism is the view that experience is the primary source of knowledge (Schunk, 1991). That is, organisms are born with basically no knowledge and anything learned is gained through interactions and associations with the environment. Beginning with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), empiricists have espoused the view that knowledge is derived from sensory impressions. Those impressions, when associated contiguously in time and/or space, can be hooked together to form complex ideas. For example, the complex idea of a tree, as illustrated by Hulse, Egeth, and Deese (1980), can be built from the less complex ideas of branches and leaves, which in turn are built from the ideas of wood and fiber, which are built from basic sensations such as greenness, woody odor, and so forth. From this perspective, critical instructional design issues focus on how to manipulate the environment in order to improve and ensure the occurrence of proper associations.

Rationalism is the view that knowledge derives from reason without the aid of the senses (Schunk, 1991). This fundamental belief in the distinction between mind and matter originated with Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.), and is reflected in the viewpoint that humans learn by recalling or “discovering” what already exists in the mind. For example, the direct experience with a tree during one’s lifetime simply serves to reveal that which is already in the mind. The “real” nature of the tree (greenness, woodiness, and other characteristics) becomes known, not through the experience, but through a reflection on one’s idea about the given instance of a tree. Although later rationalists differed on some of Plato’s other ideas, the central belief remained the same: that knowledge arises through the mind. From this perspective, instructional design issues focus on how best to structure new information in order to facilitate (1) the learners’ encoding of this new information, as well as (2) the recalling of that which is already known.

The empiricist, or associationist, mindset provided the framework for many learning theories during the first half of this century, and it was against this background that behaviorism became the leading psychological viewpoint (Schunk, 1991). Because behaviorism was dominant when instructional theory was initiated (around 1950), the instructional design (ID) technology that arose alongside it was naturally influenced by many of its basic assumptions and characteristics. Since ID has its roots in behavioral theory, it seems appropriate that we turn our attention to behaviorism first.



Behaviorism equates learning with changes in either the form or frequency of observable performance. Learning is accomplished when a proper response is demonstrated following the presentation of a specific environmental stimulus. For example, when presented with a math flashcard showing the equation “2 + 4 = ?” the learner replies with the answer of “6.” The equation is the stimulus and the proper answer is the associated response. The key elements are the stimulus, the response, and the association between the two. Of primary concern is how the association between the stimulus and response is made, strengthened, and maintained.

Behaviorism focuses on the importance of the consequences of those performances and contends that responses that are followed by reinforcement are more likely to recur in the future. No attempt is made to determine the structure of a student’s knowledge nor to assess which mental processes it is necessary for them to use (Winn, 1990). The learner is characterized as being reactive to conditions in the environment as opposed to taking an active role in discovering the environment.


Although both learner and environmental factors are considered important by behaviorists, environmental conditions receive the greatest emphasis. Behaviorists assess the learners to determine at what point to begin instruction as well as to determine which reinforcers are most effective for a particular student. The most critical factor, however, is the arrangement of stimuli and consequences within the environment.


Memory, as commonly defined by the layman, is not typically addressed by behaviorists. Although the acquisition of “habits” is discussed, little attention is given as to how these habits are stored or recalled for future use. Forgetting is attributed to the “nonuse” of a response over time. The use of periodic practice or review serves to maintain a learner’s readiness to respond (Schunk, 1991).


Transfer refers to the application of learned knowledge in new ways or situations, as well as to how prior learning affects new learning. In behavioral learning theories, transfer is a result of generalization. Situations involving identical or similar features allow behaviors to transfer across common elements. For example, the student who has learned to recognize and classify elm trees demonstrates transfer when (s)he classifies maple trees using the same process. The similarities between the elm and maple trees allow the learner to apply the previous elm tree classification learning experience to the maple tree classification task.


Constructivism is an epistemology, or a theory, used to explain how people know what they know. The basic idea is that problem solving is at the heart of learning, thinking, and development. As people solve problems and discover the consequences of their actions–through reflecting on past and immediate experiences–they construct their own understanding. Learning is thus an active process that requires a change in the learner. This is achieved through the activities the learner engages in, including the consequences of those activities, and through reflection. People only deeply understand what they have constructed.
Constructivism is ‘an approach to learning that holds that people actively construct or make their own knowledge and that reality is determined by the experiences of the learner’ (Elliott et al., 2000, p. 256).

History of Constructivism

The psychological roots of constructivism began with the developmental work of Jean Piaget (1896–1980), who developed a theory (the theory of genetic epistemology) that analogized the development of the mind to evolutionary biological development and highlighted the adaptive function of cognition. Piaget proposed four stages in human development: the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. For Piaget, the development of human intellect proceeds through adaptation and organization. Adaptation is a process of assimilation and accommodation, where external events are assimilated into existing understanding, but unfamiliar events, which don't fit with existing knowledge, are accommodated into the mind, thereby changing its organization.

In elaborating constructivists’ ideas Arends (1998) states that constructivism believes in personal construction of meaning by the learner through experience, and that meaning is influenced by the interaction of prior knowledge and new events.

Typically, this continuum is divided into three broad categories:

1.     Cognitive constructivism based on the work of Jean Piaget,

2.     Social constructivism based on the work of Lev Vygotsky, and

3.     Radical constructivism.

According to the GSI Teaching and Resource Centre (2015, p.5):

Cognitive constructivism states knowledge is something that is actively constructed by learners based on their existing cognitive structures. Therefore, learning is relative to their stage of cognitive development.

According to social constructivism learning is a collaborative process, and knowledge develops from individuals' interactions with their culture and society. Social constructivism was developed by Lev Vygotsky.

The notion of radical constructivism was developed by Ernst von Glasersfeld (1974) and states that all knowledge is constructed rather than perceived through senses.

Learners construct new knowledge on the foundations of their existing knowledge. However, radical constructivism states that the knowledge individuals create tells us nothing about reality, and only helps us to function in your environment. Thus, knowledge is invented not discovered.

Traditional Classroom

Constructivist Classroom

Strict adherence to a fixed curriculum is highly valued.

Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.

Learning is based on repetition.

Learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.



Teachers disseminate information to students; students are recipients of knowledge (passive learning).

Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge (active learning).

Teacher's role is directive, rooted in authority.

Teacher's role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.

Students work primarily alone (competitive).

Students work primarily in groups (cooperative).


Examples of constructivist classroom activities


In the late 1950’s, learning theory began to make a shift away from the use of behavioral models to an approach that relied on learning theories and models from the cognitive sciences. Psychologists and educators began to de-emphasize a concern with overt, observable behavior and stressed instead more complex cognitive processes such as thinking, problem solving, language, concept formation and information processing (Snelbecker, 1983). Within the past decade, a number of authors in the field of instructional design have openly and consciously rejected many of ID’s traditional behavioristic assumptions in favor of a new set of psychological assumptions about learning drawn from the cognitive sciences. Whether viewed as an open revolution or simply a gradual evolutionary process, there seems to be the general acknowledgment that cognitive theory has moved to the forefront of current learning theories (Bednar et al., 1991). This shift from a behavioral orientation (where the emphasis is on promoting a student’s overt performance by the manipulation of stimulus material) to a cognitive orientation (where the emphasis is on promoting mental processing) has created a similar shift from procedures for manipulating the materials to be presented by an instructional system to procedures for directing student processing and interaction with the instructional design system (Merrill, Kowalis, & Wilson, 1981).


Cognitive theories stress the acquisition of knowledge and internal mental structures and, as such, are closer to the rationalist end of the epistemology continuum (Bower & Hilgard, 1981). Learning is equated with discrete changes between states of knowledge rather than with changes in the probability of response. Cognitive theories focus on the conceptualization of students’ learning processes and address the issues of how information is received, organized, stored, and retrieved by the mind. Learning is concerned not so much with what learners do but with what they know and how they come to acquire it (Jonassen, 1991b). Knowledge acquisition is described as a mental activity that entails internal coding and structuring by the learner. The learner is viewed as a very active participant in the learning process.


Cognitivism, like behaviorism, emphasizes the role that environmental conditions play in facilitating learning. Instructional explanations, demonstrations, illustrative examples and matched non-examples are all considered to be instrumental in guiding student learning. Similarly, emphasis is placed on the role of practice with corrective feedback. Up to this point, little difference can be detected between these two theories. However, the “active” nature of the learner is perceived quite differently. The cognitive approach focuses on the mental activities of the learner that lead up to a response and acknowledges the processes of mental planning, goal-setting, and organizational strategies (Shuell, 1986). Cognitive theories contend that environmental “cues” and instructional components alone cannot account for all the learning that results from an instructional situation. Additional key elements include the way that learners attend to, code, transform, rehearse, store and retrieve information. Learners’ thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and values are also considered to be influential in the learning process (Winne, 1985). The real focus of the cognitive approach is on changing the learner by encouraging him/her to use appropriate learning strategies.


As indicated above, memory is given a prominent role in the learning process. Learning results when information is stored in memory in an organized, meaningful manner. Teachers/designers are responsible for assisting learners in organizing that information in some optimal way. Designers use techniques such as advance organizers, analogies, hierarchical relationships, and matrices to help learners relate new information to prior knowledge. Forgetting is the inability to retrieve information from memory because of interference, memory loss, or missing or inadequate cues needed to access information.


According to cognitive theories, transfer is a function of how information is stored in memory (Schunk, 1991). When a learner understands how to apply knowledge in different contexts, then transfer has occurred. Understanding is seen as being composed of a knowledge base in the form of rules, concepts, and discriminations (Duffy & Jonassen, 1991). Prior knowledge is used to establish boundary constraints for identifying the similarities and differences of novel information. Not only must the knowledge itself be stored in memory but the uses of that knowledge as well. Specific instructional or real-world events will trigger particular responses, but the learner must believe that the knowledge is useful in a given situation before he will activate it.