Pavlov's Classical Conditioning

We use the term "classical conditioning" to describe one type of associative learning in which there is no contingency between response and reinforcer. This situation resembles most closely the archetypal experiment from I. Pavlov in the 1920s, where he trained dogs to associate a tone with a food-reward. In such experiments, the subject initially shows weak or no response to a conditioned stimulus (CS, e.g. a tone), but a measurable unconditioned response (UR, e.g. saliva production) to a unconditioned stimulus (US, e.g. food). In the course of the training, the CS is repeatedly presented together with the US; eventually the subject forms an association between the US and the CS. In a subsequent test-phase, the subject will show the conditioned response (CR, e.g. saliva production) to the CS alone, if such an association has been established and memorized.

Classical conditioning. (n.d.). Retrieved September, 7, 2002, from University of Wuerzburg, Biozentrum Department of Genetics and Neurobiology Web site:


Skinner's Operant Conditioning

We use the term operant conditioning to describe one type of associative learning in which there is a contingency between the response and the presentation of the reinforcer. This situation resembles most closely the classic experiments from Skinner, where he trained rats and pigeons to press a lever in order to obtain a food reward. In such experiments, the subject is able to generate certain motor-output, (the response R, e.g. running around, cleaning, resting, pressing the lever). The experimenter chooses a suited output (e.g. pressing the lever) to pair it with an unconditioned stimulus (US, e.g. a food reward). Often a discriminative stimulus (SD, e.g. a light) is present, when the R-US contingency is true. After a training period, the subject will show the conditioned response (CS, e.g. touching the trigger) even in absence of the US, if the R-US association has been memorized.

Operant conditioning. (n.d.). Retrieved September, 7, 2002, from University of Wuerzburg, Biozentrum Department of Genetics and Neurobiology Web site:



Stimulus-Response Theory

All complex forms of behavior, including reasoning, habit, and emotional reactions are composed of simple stimulus-response events which can be see and measured. We can trace a child's attitude back to a specific stimulus. Once we've identified a stimulus that produced certain response, we can predict the individual's behavior. Furthermore, if we can control the stimulus, we can control the individual's behavior.

There are two kinds of responses:

  1. Elicited response - the response occur in the presence of a stimulus
  2. Emitted response - the movement was emitted by the organism - not as a response to a stimulus.



Thorndike’s Laws and Connectionism

Thorndike was a professor at Teachers College, Columbia (1904-40), where he worked on educational psychology and the psychology of animal learning. As a result of studying animal intelligence, he formulated his famous "law of effect", which states that a given behavior is learned by trial-and-error, and is more likely to occur if its consequences are satisfying. His works include Psychology of Learning (1914) and The Measurement of Intelligence (1926).

Thorndike, Edward L(ee) (1874-1949). (n.d.). Retrieved September 7, 2002, from San Francisco State University, Journalism Department Web site:



Component Display Theory

Component Display Theory (CDT) classifies learning along two dimensions: content (facts, concepts, procedures, and principles) and performance (remembering, using, generalities). The theory specifies four primary presentation forms: rules (expository presentation of a generality), examples (expository presentation of instances), recall (inquisitory generality) and practice (inquisitory instance). Secondary presentation forms include: prerequisites, objectives, helps, mnemonics, and feedback. The theory specifies that instruction is more effective to the extent that it contains all necessary primary and secondary forms. Thus, a complete lesson would consist of objective followed by some combination of rules, examples, recall, practice, feedback, helps and mnemonics appropriate to the subject matter and learning task. Indeed, the theory suggests that for a given objective and learner, there is a unique combination of presentation forms that results in the most effective learning experience.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Component display theory (M.D. Merrill). Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:



Dual Coding Theory

The dual coding theory attempts to give equal weight to verbal and nonverbal processing. The theory assumes that there are two cognitive subsystems, one specialized for the representation and processing of nonverbal objects/events (i.e., imagery), and the other specialized for dealing with language. Dual Coding theory identified three types of processing:

  1. Representational - the direct activation of verbal or nonverbal representations
  2. Referential - the activation of the verbal system by the nonverbal system or vice-versa
  3. Associative processing - the activation of representations within the same verbal or nonverbal system.

A given task may require any or all of the three kinds of processing.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Dual coding theory (A. Paivio). Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:



Elaboration Theory

According to elaboration theory, instruction should be organized in increasing order of complexity for optimal learning. For example, when teaching a procedural task, the simplest version of the task is presented first; subsequent lessons present additional versions until the full range of tasks are taught. In each lesson, the learner should be reminded of all versions taught so far (summary/synthesis). A key idea of elaboration theory is that the learner needs to develop a meaningful context into which subsequent ideas and skills can be assimilated. Elaboration theory proposes seven major strategy components:

  1. An elaborative sequence
  2. Learning prerequisite sequences
  3. Summary
  4. Synthesis
  5. Analogies
  6. Cognitive strategies
  7. Learner control.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Elaboration Theory. Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:



Gestalt Theory

Gestalt theory emphasizes higher-order cognitive processes in the midst of behaviorism. The focus of Gestalt theory is the idea of "grouping", i.e., characteristics of stimuli cause us to structure or interpret a visual field or problem in a certain way. The primary factors that determine grouping are:

  1. Proximity - elements tend to be grouped together according to their nearness
  2. Similarity - items similar in some respect tend to be grouped together
  3. Closure - items are grouped together if they tend to complete some entity
  4. Simplicity - items will be organized into simple figures according to symmetry, regularity, and smoothness.

These factors are called the laws of organization and were explained in the context of perception and problem-solving.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Gestalt Theory (Wertheimer). Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:



Information Processing

Information processing: a) students are actively processing, storing and retrieving information, and b) teaching involves helping learners to develop information processing skills and apply them systematically to mastering the curriculum. Cognitive structures relate to structure of the subject matter. Information processing emphasizes cognitive structures built by the learner. Two types of memory exist.

Episodic memory - The recall of events which is in detail and sequence

Semantic memory - Intentional learning which involves encoding, storage, and retrieval of information

Information process theory of learning. (n.d.). Retrieved September 7, 2002, from The University of Missouri in Columbia, The College of Education Web site:



Mental Models

Mental models are representations of reality that people use to understand specific phenomena. Norman (in Gentner & Stevens, 1983) describes them as follows: "In interacting with the environment, with others, and with the artifacts of technology, people form internal, mental models of themselves and of the things with which they are interacting. These models provide predictive and explanatory power for understanding the interaction." Some of the characteristics of mental models are:

  1. They are incomplete and constantly evolving
  2. They are usually not accurate representations of a phenomenon, they typically contain errors and contradictions
  3. They are parsimonious and provide simplified explanations of complex phenomena
  4. They often contain measures of uncertainty about their validity that allow them to used even if incorrect
  5. They can be represented by sets of condition-action rules

Gentner, D. & Stevens, A.(1983). Mental Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Mental models. Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:



Schema Theory

Bartlett (1932, 1958) is credited with first proposing the concept of schema (plural: schemata). He arrived at the concept from studies of memory he conducted in which subjects recalled details of stories that were not actually there. He suggested that memory takes the form of schema which provide a mental framework for understanding and remembering information.

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: An experimental and social study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bartlett, F. C. (1958). Thinking. New York: Basic Books.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Schema. Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:



Subsumption Theory

Ausubel's theory is concerned with how individuals learn large amounts of meaningful material from verbal/textual presentations in a school setting (in contrast to theories developed in the context of laboratory experiments). According to Ausubel, learning is based upon the kinds of superordinate, representational, and combinatorial processes that occur during the reception of information. A primary process in learning is subsumption in which new material is related to relevant ideas in the existing cognitive structure on a substantive, non-verbatim basis. Cognitive structures represent the residue of all learning experiences; forgetting occurs because certain details get integrated and lose their individual identity.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Subsumption theory. Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:



Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Cognitive flexibility theory focuses on the nature of learning in complex and ill-structured domains. Spiro & Jehng (1990, p. 165) state: "By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one's knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands...This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval)." The theory is largely concerned with transfer of knowledge and skills beyond their initial learning situation. For this reason, emphasis is placed upon the presentation of information from multiple perspectives and use of many case studies that present diverse examples. The theory also asserts that effective learning is context-dependent, so instruction needs to be very specific. In addition, the theory stresses the importance of constructed knowledge; learners must be given an opportunity to develop their own representations of information in order to properly learn.

Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Cognitive flexibility theory. Retrieved September 7, 2002, from Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database Web site:

Spiro, R. J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.



Generative Learning Theory

Generative learning is the active process of saying, "Oh. That's like ..." It's the process of constructing links between new and old knowledge, or a personal understanding how new ideas fit into an individual's web of known concepts. "The essence of the generative learning model is that the mind, or the brain, is not a passive consumer of information. Instead, it actively constructs its own interpretations of information and draws inferences from them" (Wittrock, p348). Learning involves mental activity - thinking. For example, with respect to reading a textbook or paper, without active construction of relations between parts of a text, or between the text and personal knowledge, the student will pass over the words and wonder what has been read.

Furey, D. (2002). Generative learning. Retrieved September 8, 2002, from Stem-Net, Information Technology for Learning Resources Course Web site:



Knowledge as Tools

This viewpoint uses the analogy that in some ways conceptual knowledge is similar to a set of tools. Brown, Collins& Duguid (1989) credit this image to Richard Burton, who explored the idea in a symposium for the Secretary of Education of Kentucky, and D. N. Perkins who wrote about it in his book, Knowledge as Design (1986). Both knowledge and tools are only completely understood through use. Using them can change the way the user sees the world and results in the user adopting the culture in which they are used. It is possible to own a tool without actually knowing how to use it. This is also true of knowledge. For example, a student may memorize an algorithm and use it in math class, but may not be able to apply it when presented with a real world situation.

Frequent use is also important in learning how to use tools and knowledge. Someone who owns a tool and uses it frequently develops a good understanding of the tool and the world in which they use it (Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989). This understanding of the world and the tool is dynamic based on the user's interactions. Similarly, learning is a lifelong process.

No tool can be used or understood properly without considering the culture in which it is used. Consider the violin as a musician's tool. Placed in an orchestra, the vile is played one way, but put the same instrument in a bluegrass band as a fiddle and it is played in an entirely different way. Similarly, conceptual tools reflect the cumulative knowledge of the culture in which they are used and the experience of the individuals who use them. "Activity, concept and culture are interdependent. No one can be totally understood without the other two" (Brown, Collins & Duguid 1989, p. 33).

Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, January-February, 32-42.



Situated Cognition

Situated cognition is a research approach, spanning many disciplines and objectives, that relates social, behavioral/psychological, and neural perspectives of knowledge and action (Clancey, 1997, p. 343). Lave (1991, p. 84) clarifies: "‘Situated’…does not imply that something is concrete and particular, or that it is not generalizable, or not imaginary. It implies that a given social practice is multiply interconnected with other aspects of ongoing social processes in activity systems at many levels of particularity and generality." Thus, situated cognition should not be characterized as only allowing for concrete learning in localized situations. Instead, situated cognition emphasizes the web of social and activity systems within which authentic practice takes shape.

Clancey, W. J. (1997). Situated cognition: On human knowledge and computer representations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. (1991). Situated learning in communities of practice. In L. B. Resnick, J. M. Levine, & S.D. Teasley (Eds). Perspectives on socially shared cognition (pp. 63-82). Washington, DC: American Pscyhological Association.

Wilson, B. & Myers, K. (1999). Situated cognition in theoretical and practical context [Electronic version]. For inclusion in Jonassen, D. & Land, S. (Eds.). Theoretical foundations of learning environments. Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum. Retrieved September 8, 2002, from



Social-Cultural Learning

Vygotsky was a leader in social-cultural learning theory. According to Lefrancois, (1994), his complex theory is actually comprised of three identifiable themes: culture, the central role of language and the "zone of proximal development" (Galant). Cultures are created through the use of tools and symbols, which separates humans from animals. Vygotsky thought that the development of intelligence was a function of the internalization of the tools found in one's culture (Driscoll, 2000). As cultures grow, new tools emerge. Thus both a historical perspective and a cultural perspective are important in understanding how the human mind functions. In fact, the two perspectives are almost one in the same.

The second of Vygotsky's themes, the central role of language, suggests that language is actually possible because of the tools and symbols belonging to cultures (Galant). The learning of language takes place through social processes. A person goes through three stages of speech: social special (external speech), egocentric speech (when children talk think out loud, regardless of someone listening) and inner speech (soundless speech, which allows us to direct our thinking and behavior).

The third aspect of Vygotsky's theory is the zone of proximal development, which is the gap between a child's potential development and his/her actual development. On a spectrum, if what the child can do unassisted is at one end and what the child cannot do yet is on the other, the zone of proximal development, or what the child can do with assistance, is in between (Driscoll, 2000).

For a list of additional resources on socio-cultural theory, visit

Driscoll, M. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Galant, M. (n.d.). Vygotsky's cultural/cognitive theory of development. Retrieved August 28, 2002, from Cortland College, Educational Psychology Web site:

Lefrancois, G. R. (1994). Psychology for Teaching. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.