Contemporary theories of learning

There are two main schools of learning. Behaviourism has largely been superseded so will only be discussed briefly. Most current educational practice is based upon the cognitive approach, which will form the main part of this section.

Behaviourist learning

The Behaviourist school, whose chief exponent was J.F. Skinner,[1] saw learning as a process of achieving the requisite correct set of behaviours. The emphasis in behaviourist teaching is on changing behaviour through a system of stimulus and reward.[2]

Behaviourists see students as empty vessels to be filled with information being handed down by an expert. This view of knowledge as something that is static and objective contrasts with the cognitivist perspective where knowledge is seen as meaning which is formed through experience and discussion.

The Behaviourist school is typically associated with a teacher-centred approach, the transmission of information, memorisation, rote learning, repeated practice and reward structures.


The next section looks in detail at cognitivism.


References for this page

[1] Skinner, J.F. 1954. The science of learning and the art of teaching. Harvard Educational Review 24, pp. 86-97.

[2] Race, Philip. 2007. The lecturer’s toolkit: a practical guide to learning, teaching & assessment. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.