The science of learning: Learning theory (Part 2)


Studycat Editorial Team


Let's dive into the many-layered world of learning theory, as we explore the ways in which neuroscience and cognitive psychology intertwine.

In Part 1, we explored common myths and lesser-known facts about how people learn. Now, we’ll dive into the many-layered world of learning theory, as we explore the ways in which neuroscience and cognitive psychology intertwine.

Neuroscience 101: what’s happening in your brain?

To understand how learning works, many people turn to neuroscience for answers. After all, we know that learning happens in the brain; wouldn’t understanding its functions help us figure out how to become better learners?

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s pause and note that neuroscience is an extremely broad field of scientific research that goes far beyond the science of learning. And you do not have to be an expert in neuroscience to help your young learner succeed—in fact, there’s very little evidence to suggest that understanding specific scientific brain functions will have any impact on your ability to teach.

Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to learn something new! So let’s dive in:

The Brain:

Your brain is composed of three main parts: the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain. The forebrain is the largest and most developed part of your brain, and it is divided into two hemispheres.

There are multiple areas within your brain, each with its own specialized function—and yet, different areas of the brain are in constant communication with one another, via the neurotransmitters firing between your neurons.


Inside your brain, you have around 86 million neurons, or brain cells. These are cells that contain the ability to communicate with each other, using chemicals called neurotransmitters.

These communications include any and all information that your body needs to send to your brain—from visual stimuli to feelings and emotions, and everything in between.

A typical neuron is made of three main parts: the cell body (the main part of the cell, which contains its genes), the axon (a long, thin cable that carries electrical activity signals away from the cell), and the dendrites (smaller fibers which branch outward and receive signals from other neurons).

Neurons are not directly connected to one another; that is, the dendrites of one neuron are not attached to the axon of another. Instead, these communications occur across tiny gaps called synapses.

I like to think of the brain as a vast, many-layered forest; neurons are the trees, with their axons and dendrites (branches), and the squirrels (or neurotransmitters) hop from branch to branch at a rate of around 200 times per second.

A (very) brief introduction to learning theories

While neuroscientists have been studying the brain, cognitive psychologists have been studying human behavior.

Below are a few of the more prominent psychological learning theories, many of which have found their way into our educational systems, and contributed significantly to our understanding of how people learn.


Behaviourism is what we might think of now as a “traditional” approach to teaching and learning; it operates under the assumption that people learn to exhibit skills and behavior through external stimuli, such as a series of rewards and punishments.

This theory was first introduced in 1913 by a psychologist named John B. Watson. Watson believed that observing behavior was the only true way to determine whether learning had taken place, and his theory was widely accepted.

Other experts contributed to the theory of Behaviorism, as well. Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs, in which he rang a bell each time he fed them, seemed to prove the validity of Behaviourism when the dogs continued to respond to the sound of the bell, even after the food was no longer offered.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner also conducted a number of studies surrounding the effects of punishments and rewards on desired behaviour, and this influenced many people’s ideas about teaching children (you can thank Skinner for sticker charts and allowance money).

Today, most experts recognize that while external stimuli can be a factor in learned behaviour, it does not account for all learning processes, and in many cases can be less effective than other approaches (such as intrinsic motivation).

Cognitive learning theory:

First introduced by Jean Piaget in 1936, Cognitive Learning Theory describes learning as a set of developmental stages. This theory argues that children are only capable of learning certain skills once they have reached the appropriate age, or learning stage.

Since the introduction of Cognitive Learning Theory, many researchers have studied the ages at which children develop the ability to process certain information. Conservation of mass, object permanence, and abstract thought are often cited as examples that prove learning stages do exist, as children exhibit varying abilities to understand these concepts at different ages and developmental levels.

However, learning stages may be more complex than Piaget originally described, and are likely to vary from person to person.

Social learning theory:

In 1961, psychologist Albert Bandura conducted his famous “Bobo Doll” experiment, in which he had children observe adults interacting with an inflatable doll.

The children who observed adults using aggressive behavior toward the doll—hitting, kicking, and throwing it—later demonstrated the same aggressive behavior when they were given the doll to play with. On the other hand, children who observed adults playing nicely with the Bobo Doll showed no aggression toward it at all.

This experiment highlighted the importance of modeling—or demonstrating—behavior to children, and showed how learning is influenced by seeing how others respond to situations.

As a result, Social Learning Theory was introduced as a way to describe how children learn through observing and mimicking the behavior of others.

Information processing theory:

Through the lens of Information Processing Theory, learning occurs through a series of input, processing, storage, and retrieval of information—much like a computer system.

This theory was the first to introduce the concepts of long-term and short-term memory, and later specified “working memory” as the temporary state of processing new information before storing it in our long-term “bank.”

While this process was first thought to be linear, later developments of Information Processing Theory have expanded to include a more complex system of storage and retrieval. Under this theory, most of learning is explained in terms of memorization, and recalling previously memorized knowledge.

Sociocultural theory:

Much like Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that children learn primarily through social interaction. However, Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory moved beyond simple observation and mimicking.

Vygotsky believed that interaction with another person—be it a teacher, parent, or peer—was integral to the learning process. He coined the term “Zone of Proximal Development,” which describes the level at which a child is best able to learn new information with the support of a teacher or facilitator.

Under this theory, it is also believed that cultural values, beliefs, and societal norms play an important role in learning, and that all social interaction contributes to development in some way.

Constructivist theory:

Constructivism is a theory which encompasses the work of many researchers and cognitive psychologists throughout the last half century. It describes learning as the process of constructing new knowledge based on context and experience.

Under a Constructivist approach, children learn to make connections between new information and the knowledge they already have. This may include lived experiences, such as relating a new concept to a personal memory. Or, the connection could be to something the child has read, heard, or seen before.

Many educators apply Constructivism to their teaching methods by encouraging students to make personal connections to their learning, or by structuring lessons in a way that will be more relatable to students’ lives.

Putting it all together

Surprisingly, the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology have traditionally been kept separate from one another. Only recently have we discovered the benefits of looking at the two disciplines congruently, to determine how the scientific processes of the brain relate to the actual practice of learning.

Stanislas Dehaene, as both a neuroscientist and a professor of cognitive psychology, is one leading expert in bridging this gap. Using his scientific knowledge of brain function and his understanding of cognitive behavior and learning, Dehaene has determined four main “pillars” of learning: Attention, Active Engagement, Error Feedback, and Consolidation.

Attention & focus

It should come as no surprise that it’s hard to learn something we’re not paying attention to. When it comes to brand-new information, our brains need to spend a lot of energy maintaining focus. And yet, it seems to become more and more difficult each year for kids to hold their attention on their learning.

Teaching kids how and when to hold their attention is the first vital step to ensuring that successful learning can take place.

Active engagement

Engagement refers to the ways in which students interact and contribute to their own learning processes. Rather than “filling the blank slate” by lecturing on the topic for an hour, we now know that kids learn better when they are actively generating new thoughts and ideas about the topic as they’re learning it.

By making new connections and engaging in creative thought processes, learners are making sure that the information is relevant, useful, and easily retrievable.

Error feedback

The process of learning within the brain is a process of making—and noticing—errors. Without our noticing it, our neurons are constantly adjusting to new information and “correcting” where necessary.

This same process can be an invaluable tool in our conscious learning practices, as well. By noticing errors quickly—first with the help of a teacher, and then hopefully on their own—learners can make the necessary changes organically, and correct any misunderstandings.

Of course, neuroscience also tells us that stress is an inhibiting factor in learning; so it’s important to cultivate an appreciation for making and learning from mistakes—perhaps through a growth mindset.


As we learn brand new information, it can stay at the forefront of our attention for a period of time. Then, as we build upon or move on from it, it’s replaced by the next thought which requires our focus.

If the brain decides the information isn’t useful, we may quickly forget it. But if we need to store the information for later use, we’ll consolidate it instead, and use it as an unconscious foundation for the next learning task.

The answer to the question “How do people learn?” is a many-layered one, and one that will continue to evolve as we learn more about the inner workings of the brain.