Learning theory: models, product and process


Learning theory: models, product and process

Fuente: infed.org


Learning theory: models, product and process. What is learning? Is it a change in behaviour or understanding? Is it a process? Here we survey some common models.

Contents: introduction · learning as a product · task-conscious or acquisition learning, and learning-conscious or formalized learning · learning as a process  · the behaviourist orientation to learning · the cognitive orientation to learning · the humanistic orientation to learning · the social/situational orientation to learning · further reading · how to cite this article

See, also, Cultivating learning and possibility. What education is and what it is not.

I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds  of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING – the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his ‘cruiser’. I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!” Carl Rogers 1983: 18-19

For all the talk of learning amongst educational policymakers and practitioners, there is a surprising lack of attention to what it entails. In Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, theories of learning do not figure strongly in professional education programmes for teachers and those within different arenas of informal education. It is almost as if it is something is unproblematic and that can be taken for granted. Get the instructional regime right, the message seems to be, and learning (as measured by tests and assessment regimes) will follow. This lack of attention to the nature of learning inevitably leads to an impoverishment of education. It isn’t simply that the process is less effective as a result, but what passes for education can actually diminish well-being.

Here we begin by examining learning as a product and as a process. The latter takes us into the arena of competing learning theories – ideas about how learning may happen. We also look at Alan Roger’s (2003) helpful discussion of task-conscious or acquisition learning, and learning-conscious or formalized learning.

Learning as a product

Pick up a standard psychology textbook – especially from the 1960s and 1970s and you will probably find learning defined as a change in behaviour.  In other words, learning is approached as an outcome – the end product of some process. It can be recognized or seen.  This approach has the virtue of highlighting a crucial aspect of learning – change. It’s apparent clarity may also make some sense when conducting experiments. However, it is rather a blunt instrument. For example:

  • Does a person need to perform in order for learning to have happened?
  • Are there other factors that may cause behaviour to change?
  • Can the change involved include the potential for change? (Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 124)

Questions such as these have led to qualification. Some have looked to identifying relatively permanent changes in behaviour (or potential for change) as a result of experiences (see behaviourism below). However, not all changes in behaviour resulting from experience involve learning. It would seem fair to expect that if we are to say that learning has taken place, experience should have been used in some way. Conditioning may result in a change in behaviour, but the change may not involved drawing upon experience to generate new knowledge. Not surprisingly, many theorists have, thus, been less concerned with overt behaviour but with changes in the ways in which people ‘understand, or experience, or conceptualize the world around them’ (Ramsden 1992: 4) (see cognitivism below). The focus for them, is gaining knowledge or ability through the use of experience.

The depth or nature of the changes involved are likely to be different. Some years ago Säljö (1979) carried out a simple, but very useful piece of research. He asked a number of adult students what they understood by learning. Their responses fell into five main categories:

  1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’.
  2. Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
  3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
  4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge. (quoted in Ramsden 1992: 26)

As Paul Ramsden comments, we can see immediately that conceptions 4 and 5 in are qualitatively different from the first three. Conceptions 1 to 3 imply a less complex view of learning. Learning is something external to the learner. It may even be something that just happens or is done to you by teachers (as in conception 1). In a way learning becomes a bit like shopping. People go out and buy knowledge – it becomes their possession. The last two conceptions look to the ‘internal’ or personal aspect of learning. Learning is seen as something that you do in order to understand the real world.

Exhibit 1 : ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’

A man knowing little or nothing of medical science could not be a good surgeon, but excellence at surgery is not the same thing as knowledge of medical science; not is it a simple product of it. The surgeon must indeed have learned from instruction, or by his own inductions and observations, a great number of truths; but he must also have learned by practice a great number of aptitudes. (Ryle 1949: 48-49)

Learning how or improving an ability is not like learning that or acquiring information. Truths can be imparted, procedures can only be inculcated, and while inculcation is a gradual process, imparting is relatively sudden. It makes sense to ask at what moment someone became apprised of a truth, but not to ask at what moment someone acquired a skill. (Ryle 1949: 58)

In some ways the difference here involves what Gilbert Ryle (1949) has termed ‘knowing that‘ and ‘knowing how’. The first two categories mostly involve ‘knowing that’. As we move through the third we see that alongside ‘knowing that’ there is growing emphasis on ‘knowing how’.  This system of categories is hierarchical – each higher conception implies all the rest beneath it. ‘In other words, students who conceive of learning as understanding reality are also able to see it as increasing their knowledge’ (Ramsden 1992: 27).

Learning as a process – task-conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning

In the five categories that Säljö identified we can see learning appearing as a process – there is a concern with what happens when the learning takes place. In this way, learning could be thought of as ‘a process by which behaviour changes as a result of experience’ (Maples and Webster 1980 quoted in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 124). One of the significant questions that arises is the extent to which people are conscious of what is going on. Are they aware that they are engaged in learning – and what significance does it have if they are? Such questions have appeared in various guises over the years – and have surfaced, for example, in debates around the rather confusing notion of ‘informal learning‘.

One particularly helpful way of approaching the area has been formulated by Alan Rogers (2003). Drawing especially on the work of those who study the learning of language (for example, Krashen 1982), Rogers sets out two contrasting approaches: task-conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning.

Task-conscious or acquisition learning. Acquisition learning is seen as going on all the time. It is ‘concrete, immediate and confined to a specific activity; it is not concerned with general principles’ (Rogers 2003: 18). Examples include much of the learning involved in parenting or with running a home. Some have referred to this kind of learning as unconscious or implicit. Rogers (2003: 21), however, suggests that it might be better to speak of it as having a consciousness of the task. In other words, whilst the learner may not be conscious of learning, they are usually aware of the specific task in hand.

Learning-conscious or formalized learning. Formalized learning arises from the process of facilitating learning. It is ‘educative learning’ rather than the accumulation of experience. To this extent there is a consciousness of learning – people are aware that the task they are engaged in entails learning. ‘Learning itself is the task. What formalized learning does is to make learning more conscious in order to enhance it’ (Rogers 2003: 27). It involves guided episodes of learning.

When approached in this way it becomes clear that these contrasting ways of learning can appear in the same context. Both are present in schools. Both are present in families. It is possible to think of the mix of acquisition and formalized learning as forming a continuum.

At one extreme lie those unintentional and usually accidental learning events which occur continuously as we walk through life. Next comes incidental learning – unconscious learning through acquisition methods which occurs in the course of some other activity… Then there are various activities in which we are somewhat more more conscious of learning, experiential activities arising from immediate life-related concerns, though even here the focus is still on the task… Then come more purposeful activities – occasions where we set out to learn something in a more systematic way, using whatever comes to hand for that purpose, but often deliberately disregarding engagement with teachers and formal institutions of learning… Further along the continuum lie the self-directed learning projects on which there is so much literature… More formalized and generalized (and consequently less contextualized) forms of learning are the distance and open education programmes, where some elements of acquisition learning are often built into the designed learning programme. Towards the further extreme lie more formalized learning programmes of highly decontextualized learning, using material common to all the learners without paying any regard to their individual preferences, agendas or needs. There are of course no clear boundaries between each of these categories. (Rogers 2003: 41-2)

This distinction is echoed in different ways in the writings of many of those concerned with education – but in particular in key theorists such as Kurt Lewin, Chris Argyris, Donald Schön, or Michael Polanyi.

Learning as a process – learning theory

The focus on process obviously takes us into the realm of learning theories – ideas about how or why change occurs. On these pages we focus on four different orientations (the first three taken from Merriam and Caffarella 1991).

As with any categorization of this sort the divisions are a bit arbitrary: there could be further additions and sub-divisions to the scheme, and there a various ways in which the orientations overlap and draw upon each other.

The four orientations can be summed up in the following figure:

Four orientations to learning (after Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 138)

Aspect Behaviourist Cognitivist Humanist Social and situational
Learning theorists Thorndike, Pavlov, Watson, Guthrie, Hull, Tolman, Skinner Koffka, Kohler, Lewin, Piaget, Ausubel, Bruner, Gagne Maslow, Rogers Bandura, Lave and Wenger, Salomon
View of the learning process Change in behaviour Internal mental process (including insight, information processing, memory, perception A personal act to fulfil potential. Interaction /observation in social contexts. Movement from the periphery to the centre of a community of practice
Locus of learning Stimuli in external environment Internal cognitive structuring Affective and cognitive needs Learning is in relationship between people and environment.
Purpose in education Produce behavioural change in desired direction Develop capacity and skills to learn better Become self-actualized, autonomous Full participation in communities of practice and utilization of resources
Educator’s role Arranges environment to elicit desired response Structures content of learning activity Facilitates development of the whole person Works to establish communities of practice in which conversation and participation can occur.
Manifestations in adult learning Behavioural objectivesCompetency -based education

Skill development and training

Cognitive developmentIntelligence, learning and memory as function of age

Learning how to learn

AndragogySelf-directed learning SocializationSocial participation



As can seen from the above schematic presentation and the discussion on the linked pages, these approaches involve contrasting ideas as to the purpose and process of learning and education – and the role that educators may take. It is also important to recognize that the theories may apply to different sectors of the acquision-formalized learning continuum outlined above. For example, the work of Lave and Wenger is broadly a form of acquisition learning that can involve some more formal interludes.

Further reading

For this listing I have tried to bring together a selection of books that look to the main themes arising in the literature around learning (and education). For those familiar with Tennant (1997) (which is a set text on a course I teach!), the writers can be grouped as follows:

  • humanistic orientations – here I chosen Maslow and Rogers.
  • psychoanalytical approaches – Salzberger-Wittenberg et al provide a useful introduction.
  • the cognitive orientation – with Piaget, Gagné and Bruner
  • learning styles – Witkin on field dependence and independence; and Kolb on experiential learning.
  • behaviourism – represented here by Skinner.
  • building learning communities – Dewey on group investigation; Lave and Wenger on situated learning.
  • critical awareness – Mezirow on the transformative dimensions of learning; Freire on ‘conscientization’.

Overviews can be found in Tennant (1997), and Joyce et al (1997).


Hartley, J. (1998) Learning and Studying. A research perspective, London: Routledge. 178 + xii pages. A well written and entertaining introduction to studying and learning in higher education. The focus is very much on practice.

Hergenhahn, B. R. and Olson, M. H. (1997) An Introduction to Theories of Learning 5e, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 502 + x pages. Good, standard psychology text on the subject that takes an approach via ‘thinkers’. Part one contains three short chapters examining the nature of learning, different approaches to study; and early notions of learning. Part two looks at the predominantly functionalist theories of Thorndike, Skinner and Hull. Part three turns to ‘associationalist’ theorists: Pavlov, Guthrie and Estes; and part four looks at predominantly cognitive theorists: Gestalt, Piaget, Tolman, Bandura, Norman. Part five explores Hebb as a neurophysiological theorist. A concluding section examines implications for educators.

Illeris,K. (2002) The Three Dimensions of Learning. Contemporary learning theory in the tension field between the cognitive, the emotional and the social, Frederiksberg: Roskilde University Press. Interesting, but at times debatable exploration.

Joyce, B., Calhoun, E. and Hopkins, D. (1997) Models of Learning – tools for teaching, Buckingham: Open University Press. 205 + viii pages. Slightly quirky, but very useful outline of different models of learning The writers isolate four ‘families’ of teaching based on the the types of learning they promote: information processing; social/building a learning community; personal; and behavioural. They have chapters on learning: to think inductively, to explore concepts, to think metaphorically; mnemonically, through co-operative disciplined enquiry, to study values, through counselling and through simulations. Concluding chapters exami integrating models, and teaching and learning together.

Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 528 pages. Now pretty much the standard text, Merriam and Caffarella provide a good overview of learning theory. In the new edition, part two deals with adult development and learning; and part three with the learning process.

Murphy, P. (ed.) (1999) Learners, Learning and Assessment, London: Paul Chapman.  352  + xiii pages. One of four readers for the Open University MA in Education course Learning, Curriculum and Assessment. This volume has a useful collection of pieces on views of the mind; curriculum implications; and learning and assessment processes. See, also, Leach, J. and Moon, B. (eds.) (1999) Learners and Pedagogy, London: Paul Chapman.  280  + viii pages; and McCormick, R. and Paetcher, C. (eds.) (1999) Learning and Knowledge, London: Paul Chapman.  254  + xiv pages.

Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge. 290 + xiv pages. Ramsden’s text can be profitably read by those teaching in other arenas. It provides a focused introduction to learning and the implications for programme design and encounters in the classroom.

Rogers, A. (2003) What is the Difference? A new critique of adult learning and teaching, Leicester: NIACE. 85 pages. Short and very helpful exploration of the nature of learning (with particular attention to current debates around informal learning) and the extent to which adult learning and the teaching of adults is the same or different from that of younger persons.

Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge. 182 + xii pages. Good discussion of the relevance of psychological theory to adult education. Includes material on humanistic psychology and the self-directed learner; the psychoanalytical approach; adult development; cognitive developmental psychology; learning styles; behaviourism; group dynamics; critical awareness. New edition includes helpful material on situated learning plus updates on the literature

Tennant, M. and Pogson, P. (1995) Learning and Change in the Adult Years. A developmental perspective, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 218 + xvii pages. Examines relationships between development and learning in adulthood; intellectual and cognitive development; practical intelligence and expertise; theories of the life course; autonomy and self-direction; experience; and teacher-learner relationship. Provides a helpful series of insights drawn from a developmental psychology tradition.

Key texts

Bruner, J. (1960, 1977) The Process of Education, Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press. 97 + xxvi pages. Argues for ‘the spiral curriculum’ with a discussion of the importance of structure; readiness for learning; intuitive and analytical thinking; motives for learning; and aids to teaching.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think 2e, New York: D. C. Heath. Classic and highly influential discussion of reflective enquiry, with Dewey’s famous five elements: suggestion, problem, hypothesis, reasoning, testing. For a discussion that focuses on learning communities see, J. Dewey (1915) The School and Society, 2e., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The introduction of active occupations, of nature-study, of elementary science, of art, of history; the relegation of the merely symbolic and formal to a secondary position; the change in the moral school atmosphere, in the relation of pupils and teachers – of discipline; the introduction of more active, expressive, and self-directing factors – all these are not mere accidents, they are necessities of the larger social evolution. It remains to but to organize all these factors, to appreciate them in their fullness of meaning, and to put the ideas and ideals involved into complete, uncompromising possession of our school system. To do this means to make each one of our schools an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history, and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious.

John Dewey (1915) The School and Society, 2e., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pages 28-9.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin. Classic account of Freire’s position. See, also, P. Freire and A. Faundez (1989) Learning to Question. A pedagogy of liberation, Geneva: World Council of Churches. Gives an account of learning through problem-posing.

Gagné, R. M. (1985) The Conditions of Learning 4e, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 308 + viii pages. Important study, first published in 1965, that ‘attempts to consider the sets of circumstances that obtain when learning occurs, that is, when certain observable changes in human behaviour take place that justify the inference of learning’ (p. 5). Basically a systems approach with chapters on varieties of learning (8 types); basic forms of learning (signal, stimulus response); chaining: motor and verbal; concept learning; problem solving; learning structures; the motivation and control of learning; learning decisions.

Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Routledge. 220 pages. Important attempt to ground thinking about adult learning in a sociological perspective. A useful addition to thinking around reflection and experiential learning.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 256 pages. Learning is approached as a process leading to the production of knowledge. Substantial discussion of the ideas underpinning Kolb’s well-known model.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. 138 pages. Significant exploration of learning as participation in communities of practice. Participation moves from the periphery to the ‘centre’. Learning is, thus, not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation. The nature of the situation impacts significantly on the process. Chapters on legitimate peripheral participation; practice, person, social world; specific communities of practice.

Maslow, A. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being 2e, New York: Van Nostrand. In which he argues for the significance of self-actualization. His ‘theory of motivation’ moves from low to high level needs (physiological, safety, love and belongingness, self-esteem, self-actualization). See, also, A . Maslow (1970) Motivation and Personality 2e, New York: Harper and Row. for a full discussion of the model.

Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative Dimensions of Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 247 + xix pages. Exploration of some of the processes by which people can free themselves from ‘oppressive ideologies, habits of perception, and psychological distractions’. Draws on psycho-analytical, behaviouristic and humanistic theories.

Newman, F. and Holzman, L. (1997) The End of Knowing. A new developmental way of learning, London: Routledge. 185 + viii pages. Looks at learning as performed activity.

Piaget, J. (1926) The Child’s Conception of the World, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. It is difficult to know which of Piaget’s 50 or more books to choose here – but this and The Origin of Intelligence in Children are classic starting points. H. E. Gruber and J. J. Voneche (1977) The Essential Piaget: an interpretative reference and guide, London is good collection. See, also, M. A. Boden’s (1979) Piaget, London: Fontana for a succinct introduction.

Retallick, J., Cocklin, B. and Coombe, K. (1998) Learning Communities in Education, London: Cassell. 248 pages. Explores the theory and practice of learning communities from an international perspective. Covering primary/elementary, secondary and tertiary levels in a variety of educational contexts, leading researchers discuss: theoretical issues and debate; processes and strategies for creating learning communities; and learning communities in action .

Rogers, A. (2003) What is the difference?  a new critique of adult learning and teaching, Leicester:  NIACE.  Very helpful, short discussion that distinguishes between task-conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning

Rogers, C. and Freiberg, H. J. (1993) Freedom to Learn (3rd edn.), New York: Merrill. Reworking of the classic Carl Rogers text first published in 1969. Looks at how person-centred learning can be used in schooling and other situations and the nature of facilitation. See, also, H. Kirschenbaum and V. L. Henderson (eds.) (1990) The Carl Rogers Reader, London: Constable. 526 + xvi pages.

Salomon, G. (ed.). Distributed Cognitions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Path-breaking collection of pieces that explore the extent to which learning lies in the resources to which people have access.

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I., Henry, G. and Osborne, E. (1983) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 155 + xii pages. While largely focused on adult-child interactions, this book demonstrates the power of psychoanalytical insight into a range of learning relationships.

Skinner, B. F. (1973) Beyond Freedom and Dignity, London: Penguin. Probably the most accessible entry into Skinner’s work and provides a classic account of his all embracing vision of behaviourism.

Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 318 + xv pages. Substantial exploration of situated learning and communities of practice.

Witkin, H. and Goodenough, D. (1981) Cognitive Styles, Essence and Origins: Field dependence and field independence, New York: International Universities Press. Account of Witkin’s very influential exploration of the impact of context on perceptual judgements.

Other references

Krashen, S. D. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Pergamon.

Säljö, R. (1979) ‘Learning in the learner’s perspective. I. Some common-sense conceptions’, Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76.


Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database – TIP is a tool intended to make learning and instructional theory more accessible to educators. The database contains brief summaries of 50 major theories of learning and instruction. These theories can also be accessed by learning domains and concepts.

Picture –  learn by Mark Brennan. Reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/heycoach/1197947341/

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2003). ‘Learning theory’, the encyclopedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/learning-theory-models-product-and-process/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1999, 2003


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