Learning theories

This page covers:

  • What are learning theories?

  • Support for teachers and learners

  • Bloom’s Domains of learning

  • Gagne’s Conditions of learning

  • Kolb’s Experiential theory

  • Laird’s Sensory theory

  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  • The Peter Principle

  • Skinner’s Behaviourist theory

  • Rogers’ Humanist theory

  • Text books and weblinks

What are learning theories?

A theory is an idea or a thought. It might be based on a person's experiences, or on rigorous research which has supporting evidence. Learning theories are about how people can learn and then apply that learning. 

If you are a new teacher, trainer or assessor, it can be quite confusing getting to grips with the different learning theories which have been advocated over the years. You might come up with your own theory or idea to challenge existing ones. However, all learning should lead to a change in behaviour which demonstrates that learning has taken place. 

The information on this page is just an introduction to enable you to research further. Please see the end of this page for further information and weblinks. You will need to decide what works for you and your learners based on your research.

Support for teachers and learners

  • Resources to support teachers and learners can be found by clicking here.

  • An online module regarding theories of learning is available Ref T/5.

  • Information regarding teaching qualifications can be found by clicking here.

Bloom’s Domains of learning

Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist, referred to three domains of learning in 1956: 

psycho-motor, cognitive and affective

Think of psycho-motor as the hands (skills), cognitive as the head (knowledge and understanding) and affective as the heart (attitudes).

There are five stages of learning which lead to a change in behaviour once learning has been successful:

  1. attention
  2. perception
  3. understanding
  4. short/long term memory
  5. change in behaviour.

These stages of learning can affect a person’s skills, knowledge and understanding, and attitudes.

When teaching your subject, you will need to consider which domain you want to reach when planning the aim of your session. For example:

  • psycho-motor (subject – bricklaying) learners will build a two foot high wall

  • cognitive (subject - geography) learners will state the reasons for coastal erosion

  • affective (subject – the environment) learners will discuss their ideas for recycling.

You may also need to consider how you can address all learning preferences, particularly if your subject is psycho-motor (i.e. a practical skill) and the majority of your learners are read/write (i.e. theoretical). 

Your session aim should always be broken down into objectives or tasks. These are often expressed as verbs which will enable you to assess that learning has taken place. 

Bloom identified six different levels of learning with associated objectives (verbs) for cognitive development. Level 6 is the highest. For example: 

  1. knowledge – list, recall, state
  2. understanding – describe, explain, identify
  3. application – apply, construct, solve
  4. analysis – calculate, compare, contrast
  5. synthesis – argue, define, summarise
  6. evaluation – criticise, evaluate, reflect.

Knowledge is the lowest level and evaluation is the highest. It’s useful to know which level your learners are aiming for, to ensure that they can meet the required objectives for that level. Most qualifications are aimed at a particular level of learning e.g. The Level 3 Award in Education and Training. If you were teaching this qualification and used objectives at a lower or a higher level, you would not be helping your learners.

Sometimes, the objectives are provided for you, perhaps in the qualification specification. If not, you will need to use ones which are relevant and realistic. Scroll down this page to find a Table of Objectives (Ref U9053), in the 'Teaching, learning and assessment' section. It contains approximately 230 objectives at different levels of learning and is just £1.

Gagne’s Conditions of learning

Gagne (1985) suggests that there are several different types of learning. Each different type requires different teaching methods.

He identified five major conditions of learning:

  • verbal information

  • intellectual skills

  • cognitive strategies

  • motor skills

  • attitudes.

Different internal and external conditions are required for each category of learning.

For example, for motor skills to be learnt, there must be the opportunity for learners to practise new skills rather than just learn about them. For attitudes, learners must be able to explore these, for example, discussing and debating relevant issues.

In addition, this theory outlines nine events that activate the processes needed for effective learning to take place. Gagne believed all teaching and learning sessions should include a sequence of events through nine levels. Each has a corresponding cognitive process (in brackets below):

1 gaining attention (reception)

2 informing learners of the objective (expectancy)

3 stimulating recall of prior learning (retrieval)

4 presenting the stimulus (selective perception)

5 providing learning guidance (semantic encoding)

6 eliciting performance (responding)

7 providing feedback (reinforcement)

8 assessing performance (retrieval)

9 enhancing retention and transfer (generalisation).

Gagne believed that learning will take place if learners progress through the nine levels.

Kolb’s Experiential theory

Kolb (1984) proposed a four-stage experiential learning cycle by which people understand their experiences, and as a result, modify their behaviour. It is based on the idea that the more often a learner reflects on a task, the more often they have the opportunity to modify and refine their efforts.


Concrete experience is about experiencing or immersing yourself in the task and is the first stage in which a person simply carries out the task assigned. This is the doing stage.

Observation and reflection involve stepping back from the task and reviewing what has been done and experienced. Values, attitudes and beliefs can influence thinking at this stage. This is the thinking about what you have done stage.

Abstract conceptualisation involves interpreting the events that have been carried out and making sense of them. This is the planning how you will do it differently stage.

Active experimentation enables a person to take the new learning and predict what is likely to happen next or what actions should be taken to refine the way the task is done again. This is the redoing stage based upon experience and reflection.

The process of learning can begin at any stage and is continuous i.e. there is no limit to the number of cycles a person can make in a learning situation.

This theory suggests that without reflection, people would continue to repeat their mistakes.

Laird’s Sensory theory

Laird (1985) states that learning occurs when the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste are stimulated. Laird's theory suggests that if multi-senses are stimulated, greater learning takes place.

You could therefore adapt your teaching and learning approaches and resources to enable your learners to use as many of their senses as possible.

Five sensesJPG

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow (1987) introduced a Hierarchy of Needs in 1954 after rejecting the idea that human behaviour was determined by childhood events. He felt that obstacles should be removed that prevent a person from achieving their goals. He argued that there are five needs which represent different levels of motivation which must be met. The highest level was labelled self-actualisation, meaning people are fully functional, possess a healthy personality, and take responsibility for themselves and their actions. He also believed that people should be able to move through these needs to the highest level, provided they are given an education that promotes growth. The image below shows the needs expressed as they might relate to learning, starting at the base of the pyramid.

When learners satisfy their needs at one level, they should be able to progress to the next level. Something may set them back a level, but they should need to keep striving upwards. It is these needs that motivate learning to take place. However, some people may not want to progress through the levels, and may be quite content where they are at that moment in their life.

To help your learners’ motivation, always ensure that the environment you create meets your learners’ first-level needs. This will enable them to feel comfortable and secure enough to learn and progress to the higher levels. You will need to appreciate that some learners may not have these lower needs met in their home lives, which might make it difficult for them to move on to the higher levels.

Always try to establish a purposeful environment where your learners can feel safe, secure, confident and valued.

While you may be very good at delivering your subject, you might have no control over the environment and you will need to create a suitable and safe learning atmosphere if you can. However, your enthusiasm and passion for your subject should help to engage your learners. If you can also make your session interesting, active and varied, your learners will enjoy the experience and remember more about the subject and you, rather than the environment or lack of facilities.

The Peter Principle

Peter and Hull (1969) devised the principle that people are promoted to their highest level of competence. After this, further promotion raises them to a level just beyond their competence, and they become incompetent.  

This is useful to know, as your learners may reach and stay at one of these levels, or reach the highest level and then return to a lower level due to progression or the commencement of something new.

There are four levels: 
  • Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know how to do something, but don’t know that you don’t know this. To reach the next level, you need to know what it is that you don’t know.

  • Conscious incompetence – you know what you want to do, and start to appreciate the gap in your competence. To reach the next level you need to know how to become competent.

  • Conscious competence – you can do what you set out to do, but have to give it a lot of attention. Through repeated practise, you can reach the next level.

  • Unconscious competence – you can perform a skill easily without giving it a great deal of thought. Once you achieve unconscious competence, you are at a level which suits your ability at the time.

If you are promoted or you try something new, you might return to the first level and become unconsciously incompetent again. 

Skinner’s Behaviourist theory

Skinner (1974) believed that behaviour is a function of its consequences. For example, your learner will repeat the desired behaviour if positive reinforcement follows. Your learner should not repeat the behaviour if negative feedback is given. Giving immediate feedback whether positive or negative, should enable your learner to behave in a certain way.

Positive reinforcement or rewards can include verbal feedback such as 'That's great, you've produced that document without any errors' or 'You're certainly getting on well with that task' through to more tangible rewards such as a certificate at the end of the programme or a promotion or pay rise at work.

Rogers’ Humanistic theory

Rogers (1983), and others over time, developed the theory of facilitative learning. This is based upon a belief that people have a natural human eagerness to learn and that learning involves changing your own concept of yourself.

This theory suggests that learning will take place if the person delivering it acts as a facilitator. To facilitate learning, you should establish an atmosphere in which your learners feel comfortable, and are able to discuss and explore new ideas. 

Your learners should be able to learn from their mistakes (if it’s safe to do so), to find things out for themselves by experience, and to not feel threatened by external factors. For example, you should create an atmosphere whereby one learner will not be ridiculed by others if they do something wrong.

Text books and weblinks

Please contact me if any of these links no longer work.

  • Resources to support teachers and learners can be found by clicking here.
  • Information regarding teaching qualifications can be found by clicking here.