Behaviorist Learning and Cognitive Learning Theories

This 3D week in Instructional Design class we have been looking at the two of the “isms”, Behaviorism and Cognitivism. The point is that as designers we need to be familiar with the theories and review the research on how humans learn. That doesn’t mean we actually know which theory is right, or will work, it just gives us different perspectives. What does work it that this research gives us a frame of reference and a definition of the terms that are generally used to analyze learning theories?

Behaviorist Learning Theory

One of the pioneers in the research of learning theory was Mr. B.F.Skinner. (1904-1990,) He earned his PhD at Harvard in 1931 and became a tenured Harvard faculty member in 1948.  He was still interested in and participating in the field of study into his mid 80’s. One important factor in Mr. Skinner’s study, in my opinion was identifying the key element of reinforcement. That would be anything that strengthened the desired response from the learner. It could be positive or negative, so long as it affected the desired behavior. Another big factor was applying the same behavioral approach to “unlearning” In Psychology and in dealing with unhealthy behaviors that is very significant.

Reinforcement is not unique to behaviorism, but it is certainly a relevent issue when considering how you would go about changing a learner’s behavior.  The other key element, which works well in training with behavioral conditioning, is that it produces a result that can be tested. Because behavior changes can be observed and documented, the results and efficacy of the training is measurable. When you get to the bottom line of assessment, the intentional and professional results of achieving what you, as a  designer, intended, says it all about the professional quality of the design work. 

If you are an instructor who is one to one with the learner, like when potty training a small child, or teaching a mature adult how to use a computer, you can easily get feedback on whether their behavior has changed as it happens, and see in their eyes how important or effective the reinforcements are. When you have eye contact with the learner you can see the process of that individual is learning then you can access skill level and provide instant and personal redirection and/or reinforcement. How does this apply to the responsibilities of a designer creating a program for on line learning? Is it something useful to be applied to a training program for someone the designer will never meet. Then how will you know if your design or theory is working?

Here are two really good sources of information on Learning Theories.

Cognitive Learning Theory

Robert Mills Gagné, born in North Andover, Massachusetts in 1916-2002, was a well-known educator who had a profound influence on American education, as well as military and industrial training. 

Gagné earned an AB degree from Yale University in 1937, followed by his PhD. in 1940 from Brown University. He served as a Professor of Psychology at various universities throughout his tenure

Mr. Gagne’ had a profound influence on Instructional Design. His theory states that there are several different types or levels of learning. The importance of these classifications is that each different type requires different types of instruction. Gagne categorized five major categories of learning

  • verbal information
  • intellectual skills
  • cognitive strategies
  • motor skills
  • attitudes.

He points out that variables in  internal and external conditions are important for each type of learning. For example, for cognitive strategies to be learned, it involves a chance to practice developing new solutions to problems; and to learn and possibly change attitudes, also the learner must be exposed to a believable role model or otherwise mentally absorb persuasive arguments.

Gagne suggests that learning intellectual skills can be designated to a hierarchy defined by its complexity. He listed: stimulus recognition, response generation, procedure following, use of terminology, discriminations, concept formation, rule application, and problem solving. The primary significance of the hierarchy is to identify prerequisites that should be completed to facilitate learning at each level. Prerequisites are identified by doing a task analysis of a learning/training task. Learning hierarchies provide a basis for the sequencing of instruction.

In addition, the theory outlines nine instructional events and corresponding cognitive processes:

(1) gaining attention (reception)
(2) informing learners of the objective (expectancy)
(3) stimulating recall of prior learning (retrieval)
(4) presenting the stimulus (selective perception)
(5) providing learning guidance (semantic encoding)
(6) eliciting performance (responding)
(7) providing feedback (reinforcement)
(8) assessing performance (retrieval)
(9) enhancing retention and transfer (generalization).

 However, for purpose of investigation, Cognitive learning is based on brain studies, and is focused on understanding how the brain works. Then another individual capability is affected in the equation is how the brain learns to sort, categorize, and “file” information is addressed.

This then shows how a designer who could address the individual limits of the learner by helping them get the information sorted and categorized can be affected. The “change” in this case is a cognitive one. The learner can be “encouraged” to use appropriate learning strategies.”(Ertmer & Newby, 1993)


What is common with Behaviorism and Constructivism is that they are both based on the idea of having an outcome of a change, based on applied stimulus. Success is still measured by equating the changes, but this time it is between degrees of knowledge instead of in the statistics of response. What is different is that Cognitive theory’s place more emphasis on the conceptualization and of the learners process and addresses how information is received, organized and stored and then retrieved by the subconscious mind made available to the consciousness mind, when needed.

A significant difference between Behaviorism and Cognitivism is that in Cognitivism the learner is considered a more active participant in knowledge acquisition.

According to our text book, Learning Theories and Instruction, (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, p. 99), a problem with cognitive information processing theories is that they don’t “explain“ l earning they just “describe” it.  So, as you can see, this all gets very sophisticated, and clearly it would take more than a week to comprehend all the nuances of this line of research.  Now I have to figure out what the difference between “explain” and “describe” are?

And now here is a little Easter egg for anyone who is in this class. I have set up the Learning theories and Instructions matrix Word document file that instructor gave us. I figured out how to get the bookmarks and links set up in a Word document. If anyone needs help with that let me know and I will send them a copy of my matrix document and simple instructions on how to do links and bookmarks and build the document you will need to complete this term.  Write to me at if you want a copy.

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