Cognitive and Behavioral Learning Theories

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Here’s a short primer on Cognitive and Behavioral Learning Theories

Behavioral learning theories suggest that learning results from pleasant or unpleasant experiences in life while cognitive theories of learning suggest that learning is based upon mental processes. However, in an admonishment against being too closely guided by any one set of pedagogical principles, Johnson (2003) suggests that a fixation with process oriented educational theories among those in the politics of education has not served the education community well by aligning practitioners into separate camps.

A behavioral view in psychology has held that exploratory analysis of cognition must begin with an examination of human behavior (William & Beyers, 2001). Behavioral theory has benefited from the work of early researchers such as Pavlov, Thorndike, and later on the work of B.F. Skinner. Work relating to the development of behavioral theories in educational psychology has allowed theorists to explore ways in which human action could be controlled through manipulation of stimuli and patterns of reinforcement.

Cognitive theory as it relates to epistemological processes within the individual is based upon the idea that learning comes about as a result of processes related to experience, perception, memory, as well as overtly verbal thinking. Since the 1970s, information processing theory has been a dominant focus of study for cognitive theorists. Although the list of theories associated with cognitive theory is an expansive one to say the least, for the purposes of this paper, it is appropriate to mention several contemporary theories on cognition including: information processing theory, schema theory, and situated cognition theory.

Informational processing is based on a theory of learning that describes the processing of, storage, and retrieval of knowledge in the mind. Factors such as sensory register, attention, working memory, and long term memory play a significant part in this theory of cognition. Schema theory offers that human beings interpret the world around them based on categorical rules or scripts; information is processed according to how it fits into these rules or schemes. As an epistemology, schema theory focuses on meaningful learning and the construction of and modification of conceptual networks. Situated cognition theory postulates a social nature of learning situated within a community of practice in which knowledge is socially constructed.

An important component of this type learning, apprenticeship, is informed by social learning theory. Situational cognition as a theory posits that the individual is not a passive vessel, but rather, is an active self-reflective entity; as such, cognitive processes develop as a result of interaction between the self and others.

Another loosely related concept linked to social cognition is the construct of reciprocal determinism. This is a behavioral theory under which it is theorized that the environment causes behavior and at the same time, behavior causes the environment. Under this theory, personal factors in the form of (a) cognition, affect, and biological events, (b) behavior, and (c) environmental influences, create interactions that result in a triadic reciprocality (Pajares, 2002).


Johnson, B. (2003). Those nagging headaches: perennial issues and tensions in the politics of education field. Education Administration Quarterly, 39 (1), pp. 41-67.

Pajares, F. (2002). Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy.

Williams, R. & Beyers, M. (2001). Personalism, social constructionalism, and the foundation of the ethical. Theory and Psychology, 11 (1), pp. 119-134.