Chapter Summary

Although the term learning has many possible meanings, the term as used by teachers emphasizes its relationship to curriculum, to teaching, and to the issues of sequencing, readiness, and transfer. Viewed in this light, the two major psychological perspectives of learning—behaviorist and constructivist—have important ideas to offer educators. Within the behaviorist perspective one of the most relevant theories is operant conditioning, which describes how the consequences and cues for a behavior can cause the behavior to become more frequent. Operant conditioning is especially relevant for understanding much of what students do; it offers less help in understanding how they think.

The other major psychological perspective—constructivism—describes how individuals build or “construct” knowledge by engaging actively with their experiences. Psychological constructivism emphasizes the learners’ individual responses to experience—their tendency both to assimilate it and to accommodate to it. Social constructivism (or sociocultural theory) emphasizes how other, more expert individuals can create opportunities for the learner to construct new knowledge. Social constructivism suggests that a teacher’s role must include deliberate, scaffolded dialogue. It also needs to include deliberate instructional planning, such as facilitated by Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives. Both of these strategies can promote students’ metacognition, or ability to monitor their own learning. Psychological emphasizes the teacher’s responsibility for arranging a rich learning environment and for emphasizing rich sensory, motor, and concrete experiences wherever possible.

Further Resources

  • Behavioral Theory and Practical Learning Issues. This page lists several materials and links about several forms of behavioral theory (not only operant conditioning), as well as activities and links related to fostering study skills.
  • More about How Constructivism Works. This page lists activities that illustrate typical features of thinking as interpreted from a psychological constructivist perspective. There is less here about social constructivism than about psychological constructivism.

 Additional References

Goldman, J. (2006). Web-based designed activities for young people in health education: A constructivist approach. Health Education Journal 65(1), 14–27.

Lavond, D. & Steinmetz, J. (2003). Handbook of classical conditioning. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishing.

Onslow, M., Menzies, R., & Packman, A. (2001). An operant intervention for early stuttering. Behavior modification 25(1), 116–139.

Pavlov, I. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London, UK: Oxford University Press.