5 Educational Learning Theories

For a true nerd, big theories are interesting to explore and save for clever conversations. Especially, if it is something you can actually do in practice - maybe, in your own work? Working with L&D, you might have heard about the most common educational learning theories: Cognitive theory, Behaviorism, Constructivism, Humanism, and Connectivism.

But do you remember what they were all about, and how you can use the theories in practice in your L&D programs? Keep reading and get inspired.  

Let's begin with a Learning Theory Definition: 

Learning theory describes the way people receive, process, and retain knowledge as a result of the learning they're given. Different areas play a part in learning as to how the world is seen differently, learning is reflected upon or behavior is changed under circumstances of cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences - along with prior experience. 

The 5 Educational Learning Theories 


The cognitive learning theory is focused on how our brain works and the way we think. Simple as that. Originally, the theory is developed by Jean Piaget, who researched how our cognitive minds developed through a lifespan. It was focused on four different stages, where, as an example, the final stage begins at the age of 12 and continues for the rest of our lives. At this stage, we evolve the ability to learn about and understand abstract ideas and to think critically. 

In practice: Cognitive theory is great when you want to design learning for employees that have to deal with more complex tasks and just to gain new knowledge in general. Here, it is important to think about how the human brain works. For example, our brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and that is why you should not add a lot of text when you want people to learn to be compliant, for example. Instead, you should add a lot of visuals, and in general, get more senses into play, for example, audio and interactive elements. It is easier for people to remember the learning because our brains will more easily recall, if we have had the opportunity to both see, listen, and interact.    


Behaviorism is in the word: It is all about behavior. The theory here is that behaviors are connected to the environment a person interacts with. It is not about what happens inside of us or our genes molding us in a specific way. No, it is about all the external factors that make us react in a certain way.

In practice: Positive reinforcement is one of the key elements of behaviorism. It is about giving positive feedback and rewards that a student can strive for, and when a wanted behavior is performed, you will get rewarded for doing so. So, when you create learning content, it is a good idea to reward the learner. For example, if you splash out graphic confetti at the end of a completed module or celebrate when a certain completion rate in a department or entire organization is achieved.      


Constructivism is about creating your own learning based on previous experiences. This is a way more active approach when you think about learning.

In practice: Here, the focus is on the student or the user/learner, when we think corporate learning. They should create their own unique learning mixed with previous experience. This is something we see in the trend user-generated content (UGC), where the users themselves generate content for the learning platforms their employers use. These types of content can be, for example, videos on how to solve specific tasks, PowerPoint-presentations, and the like, that can benefit the rest of the organization’s employees   


Humanism has the focus, once again, on the individual or their self-actualization, which is the top part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where all our basic needs have been fulfilled. At the top of the pyramid, you feel like the best possible version of yourselfSo, humanism is about creating the best environment possible for humans to thrive, and thereby learn the best, so, they can reach the top of the pyramid faster. It is about making sure, that the basic needs are fulfilled. 

In practice: In corporate learning, we can see this, for example, when we make sure that learning content is accessible and available whenever and wherever it suits the learner to learn. This will create the best circumstances for the individual to learn. So, be sure to make the content available on your learners' favorite device, for example, a smartphone.     


Connectivism is about (surprise) connections, and when we connect with other people we learn and grow. But we can also form connections with more than people. It can be a certain hobby, our job role, or a certain goal.

In practice: In corporate learning, we can, for example, see connectivism thrive in social learning aspects. When we speak and interact with each other about learnings, we often see new angles, and can reflect more on a subject, leading to learning even more. This could also be set up as a social learning feature in a learning platform, where employees can interact with each other digitally and socialize over a new type of learning content.