Understanding how people learn is critical to the success of any education or training.

While there is no single “right” way to facilitate learning, understanding underlying theories and principles can help you design an effective training program that meets the needs of your learners.

In this article, we will cover eleven of the most important learning theories rooted in psychological research and how they can be used to create a comprehensive educational approach.

By understanding each of these concepts in relation to one another, you will have a better understanding of how to best support your learners.

What is a learning theory?

A learning theory is a set of principles and assumptions about how people learn. It provides guidance for designing effective training programs, as well as for understanding the factors that influence successful learning outcomes.

Learning theories provide insight into the way learners make connections between new information and prior knowledge, store memories, and transfer knowledge to new contexts. They also offer insight into how learners process feedback from instructors or peers in order to shape their behaviors.

Ultimately, these theories help us better understand why people learn in different ways based on individual differences such as age or background experiences. 

11 important learning theories

To assist you in creating a robust training program that meets the needs of your learners, here are 11 popular learning theories to consider.

1. Adult learning

How older learners gain and retain knowledge is the primary focus of this model—acknowledging that adults learn differently than children due to their life experiences, prior knowledge, and self-direction. An effective training program should recognize and cater to the needs of adult learners. 

2. Connectivism

This approach argues that knowledge is not only acquired but shared among members of social networks. It also suggests that individuals should be able to access resources from any location via multiple devices at any time they need them for maximum effectiveness in learning. A good training program should be able to provide learners with these resources in the form of audio, video, and interactive content. 

3. Constructivism

According to this theory, learners actively construct their own knowledge by connecting new information with their existing experiences and ideas about the world around them through inquiry-based activities. Successful trainers will often accomplish this by including simulations or problem-solving scenarios within the lessons and courses.

4. Behavioral learning

This model suggests that learning is a result of reinforcement, punishment, and repetition. Incorporating feedback loops in the form of quizzes or tests will ensure that learners are retaining knowledge from each lesson, while tactics like “gamification” can also be used to create a positive reinforcement system for learners.

5. Cognitive learning

Also known as cognitivism, learners are taught to employ metacognition, or to “think about how they think.” By understanding their own psychology, learners are able to take advantage of learning strategies and use them to their greatest effect.

6. Social learning

Social learning theory focuses on how individuals develop their own skills by observing others and imitating their behavior, which can be applied through the use of peer-to-peer instruction or collaboration activities. It’s important to incorporate meaningful human interaction when using this theory.

7. Asynchronous learning

As opposed to synchronous learning, asynchronous learning is a type of instruction that occurs without the need for learners to be in the same physical location at the same time. This approach allows learners to access educational materials and participate in activities anytime, anywhere—making it a great fit for remote programs. 

8. Collaborative learning

As the name implies, collaborative learning emphasizes the importance of working together as a team and that learning is more effective when learners are able to share and build on each other’s knowledge. Collaborative activities can be incorporated ithrough group projects or discussions and is closely tied to social learning theory.

9. Organizational learning

This approach focuses on the collective knowledge of a group or organization and acknowledges that the ability to learn is essential for an organization’s growth and success. Discovering, remembering, and teaching knowledge is at the core of organizational learning, and as such, a training program should offer resources that help organizations capture their collective knowledge, such as blogs or wikis.

10. Personalized learning

It’s crucial that mentors recognize that learners have different needs and preferences when it comes to learning, and this theory prioritizes that above all else. It asserts that a training program should provide learners with the flexibility to personalize their learning experience

This could include adjusting the pace or difficulty level of a course, providing personalized feedback, or allowing learners to choose from multiple pathways depending on their interests. 

11. Self-directed learning

Don’t be fooled into thinking self-directed learning is entirely independent. In reality, it prioritizes learners setting their own learning goals while requiring them to actively seek out resources and guidance to meet those goals. Mentors will simply need to provide the tools and support learners need to develop their skills in a self-directed manner.

Bonus: learning myths

In addition to understanding these popular learning theories, it’s important to distinguish between what is fact and fiction when it comes to designing an effective training program.

Some of the most common myths about learning are: 

  • ALL people learn best when information is presented in a linear order. 
  • ALL learning must occur in a physical classroom setting. 
  • People ONLY have one preferred method of learning. 
  • It’s ALWAYS easier to learn through repetition or memorization. 

All of these statements are incorrect, as every learning is unique. That is why it’s critical to recognize how individual learners prefer to engage with content.

Take the extra time to analyze each learning theory and actively discuss with your learners how best to tailor their training. Don’t be afraid to utilize multiple strategies, as you may need to do so in order to create an appropriate, customized learning plan for them.

By taking into account your learner’s needs, you can create an effective training program that will allow their talents to flourish.