Learning theory

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Learning theories are models and hypotheses that are used to describe and explain learning processes psychologically . The complex process of learning is explained with the simplest possible principles and rules . In learning psychology , theories are developed and their content and practicability are checked with the help of empirical studies.

The overview of the most important learning theoretical approaches and statements shows that most of the existing learning theories concentrate on special, individual forms of learning.

Behavioral learning theories

In the behaviorism behavior (is English behavior ) examined a living being. This scientific, theoretical concept comes from the field of psychology. Man as a result of his environment or environment is the main point of behaviorism. For the proponents of the behavioristic learning theory, the mental process is of no importance. The behavior of an individual is observed without this aspect. In the 1960s, these particular exponents developed three different learning theories:

Representative: Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849–1936), John B. Watson (1878–1958)

Representative: BF Skinner (1904–1990), Edward Lee Thorndike (1874–1949)

Edward Lee Thorndike explored problem solving and the role of insight at the end of the 19th century . In his paradigmatic experiment of 1898 he put cats in a cage that could be opened from the inside by pulling a string, put food on the outside and measured the time it took the cats to free themselves. His observations and conclusions led to the theory of instrumental conditioning .

A short time later, the theory of classical conditioning emerged. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov accidentally came across this principle in 1905 (for an experiment: see also Pavlov's dog ). Classical conditioning occurs when an originally neutral stimulus (such as a sound) triggers a reflex , such as salivation or eyelid closure.

BF Skinner has v. a. dealt with operant behavior, i.e. the reaction of the consequences of a behavior on the same, and described the principle of operant conditioning.

From the 1960s onwards, these learning principles were supplemented in psychology by the principles of learning based on a model and (with restrictions) learning through insight.


With instructionalism, the learner is given knowledge which he should passively absorb. This imparted knowledge is deepened through exercises. This learning theory follows the model of behaviorism , i. that is, stimulus-response models are enhanced. A reaction is trained to a certain stimulus. The learner's previous knowledge, experiences or strengths are hardly discussed.

Learning through insight, learning from the model

The learning theories of cognitivism include cognitions and emotions . For example, a cognitive theory is that of learning through insight (cognitive learning).

The theory of learning on the model is based on the fact that many animals and humans learn by looking at others and process what they see in simple or complex cognitive processes, creating a cognitive concept as a model of their own behavior.

The importance of cognition can be seen in Albert Bandura's social-cognitive theory :

The expectation of their own self-efficacy ( English Self-Efficacy ) here is a key influence on the behavior - another is here the current emotional state.

Learning on the model, learning to imitate and learning to identify are forms of social learning.

  • When learning from the model, the attractiveness lies in the success of the observed action.
  • In imitation learning, the attractiveness lies in the observed action.
  • In learning to identify, the attractiveness lies in the observed person.

Instruction learning ( instructionism ) also belongs to the cognitivistic learning theories and has nothing to do with the behavioristic approach of instructionalism.

Situational context / transfer

The fact that learning happens in certain situations is the starting point for learning theory approaches to situational learning or also situated learning . Among other things, they are based on the observation that students may apply what they have learned at school in class and school, but do not apply them in a new or different situation (e.g. when paying in a shop) (gap between knowledge and action).

Bio-cybernetic-neural learning theories

Recently, bio-cybernetic-neural approaches (neurobiology) have been formulated, which primarily describe the functioning of the human brain and the nervous system, see also →  cognitive science . An object within the biocybernetically-neural learning theories form the mirror neuron , in addition to empathy ( empathy ) and repeat ability could also be involved in neuronal basic functions for learning the model.

Machine learning

The statistical learning theory according to Wladimir Wapnik and Alexey Chervonenkis examines the statistical properties of learning algorithms ( machine learning ). The main aim is to provide a theoretical framework for the problem of inference - i.e. H. for the problem of gaining knowledge of underlying patterns from a data set.


The critics of learning theories name two main points: On the one hand, they point out that learning theories can only explain behavior that is copied / imitated. There is therefore no explanation for new behavior, i.e. for innovation or creativity . In addition, the majority of the observed learning processes are related to the reinforcement of performances that are supposed to compensate for a deficiency (e.g. hunger or thirst). Critics only see the full potential of the human being realized when overarching motives are striven for (e.g. striving for self-realization ). These are - so the critics - disregarded in the learning theories. Some of the objections become redundant if the purely theoretical approaches are expanded to include cognitive processes, such as Bandura's social-cognitive learning theory .

The critical rationalism holds the relevant learning theories for simply incomplete. Accordingly, the actual learning process, which the relevant learning theories overlook, actually consists of free setting plus critical examination. They only described the process by which a theory, once learned in this way, is shifted from the conscious to the subconscious, so that z. B. a learned activity can be carried out unconsciously and on demand.

See also


  • Gordon Bower, Ernest Hilgard : Theories of Learning. 2 volumes. 5th edition. Stuttgart 1983/84.
  • W. Edelmann: Learning Psychology. Psychologie Verlags Union, Weinheim 2000.
  • Guy Bodenmann, M. Perrez, M. Schär: Classical learning theories. Basics and applications in education and psychotherapy. Huber, Bern 2004.
  • Philip Zimbardo , RJ Gerrig: Psychology. 18th edition. Pearson Verlag, Munich 2008.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Manfred Spitzer : Spirit on the Net. Models for learning, thinking and acting. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg 1996, ISBN 3-8274-0109-7 .
  2. Giacomo Rizzolatti , Corrado Sinigaglia: Empathy and Mirror Neurons: The Biological Basis of Compassion. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp 2008, ISBN 978-3-518-26011-1 .
  3. Gregory Hickok: Why We Understand What Others Feel: The Myth of Mirror Neurons. Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 2015, ISBN 978-3-446-44326-6 .
  4. ^ Philip Zimbardo : Psychology. Pearson Verlag, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-8273-7275-8 .