Learning theories are sets of principles that explain how we best absorb, process and retain information over time. Understanding this process helps us to design effective learning experiences. Better still, some learning theories provide us with practical frameworks that we can use as a template for success.
If you’re interested in learning theories, then you’re in luck. There are hundreds of theories to explore. But, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start. With that in mind, we’ve curated a list of the 10 learning theories that we believe you simply have to know. These are the cream of the crop. They are the kind of theories that fundamentally alter the way we think about and approach learning and development.
Whilst they are just theories, rather than scientific fact, they are often based on rigorous research and supporting evidence. So, without further ado, let’s jump into the learning theories.
The Forgetting Curve
Hermann Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve shows us how information is lost over time, if you don’t make an effort to retain it. In the latter half of the 19th century, Ebbinghaus ran a series of tests on his own memory. These tests saw him memorising nonsense syllables and repeatedly testing himself after various time periods and recording the results. By plotting the results on a graph, he created the ‘Forgetting Curve’, as shown below.
The curve shows us that information leaks out of our brains at an exponential rate. In fact, we forget 50% of all information within an hour of learning it. And a week later, we’ll have forgotten 90% of everything we’ve learned. In that sense, all learning activities could be characterised as a battle against The Forgetting Curve.
But it’s not all bad news. Ebbinghaus was also able to show that every time you reinforce information, the rate of decline decreases. Furthermore, this shows us the importance of spaced repetition within a learning context.
Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom devised the first version of his now famous taxonomy in 1956. His aim was to place learning objectives within specific categories based on complexity. These categories help us to understand the associated level of educational achievement linked to every learning task. The taxonomy was revised back in 2001 and is now structured as below.
The taxonomy is formulated like a pyramid. Students start with basic learning and move their way up through each level until they have mastered the subject at hand. The learning experience becomes more active as they progress. What begins with rote memorisation ends with being able to use information to create something new.
Bloom’s taxonomy has a number of uses for teachers, instructors and corporate trainers. First and foremost, it allows you to assign learning objectives or tasks, based on your audience’s competency level. In addition, we can also use the taxonomy to assess the level of our audience’s educational achievement over time.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In 1943, Abraham Maslow published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation. This paper contained his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, a model that would transform the way we think about motivation and goal attainment. The hierarchy is presented in pyramid format, with five levels.
The four lower levels are physiological needs. The fifth and top level is a ‘growth’ need. In order for our growth needs to influence our behaviour our lower level needs must first be satisfied.
- Physiological: Things like air, food, water, sex, sleep and so on.
- Safety: Things like our health, property, the environment, our employment status and so on.
- Belongingness: Things like love, friendship, family and so on.
- Esteem: Things like self-esteem, status, achievement, confidence and so on.
- Self-actualisation: Thinks like our sense of morality, creativity, problem-solving acumen and so on.
This hierarchy helps us to understand what drives our learners and enables us to prioritise accordingly. It also helps us to understand how physiological factors may affect our learners’ capacity for effective learning.
Self-determination theory tells us the psychological ingredients required to ‘determine’ an action. Think of it as a recipe for creating motivation and driving activity. The theory was created by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci back in the 1970s. It’s useful in a learning context, because it shows us the criteria that need to be satisfied for students to fully embrace a learning experience.
The three psychological needs that must be met before we are motivated to act are as follows:
- Competence: We must feel confident that the action we take will be effective. Any uncertainty, or fear of inadequacy may temper our motivation.
- Relatedness: We must believe our action will carry weight within a wider community. Motivation is hard to come by within a social vacuum.
- Autonomy: We must believe we are free to act. Compromise this freedom in any way and engagement levels are likely to plummet.
The 70:20:10 Theory
The 70:20:10 model is useful for learning professionals, as it shows us how we take in information about the world around us. As a result, it can help us to prioritise our initiatives accordingly. The model was created in the 1980s by Morgan McCall and the Centre for Creative Leadership. Their research found that:
- Only 10% of what we learn happens through formal training. That’s things like pre-set curricula, classroom events, dusty textbooks and so on.
- 20% of what we learn happens through developmental relationships. In other words, through a social context between two or more people.
- And a whopping 70% of what we learn happens through on-the-job experience. This is a significant slice of the overall learning pie!
Accordingly, this information helps us to understand where we should apply our focus. Relying too heavily on formal training interventions will slow you down considerably. Instead, you should create an environment where informal, social and experiential learning thrive!
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
Educational theorist David Kolb published his learning styles model back in 1984. This was our first introduction to the experiential learning cycle. The cycle is based on his belief that “knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it”. It has four different stages:
- Concrete evidence: Personal hands-on experiences that we can learn from. After all, it’s through experience that we learn from our successes and failures.
- Reflective observation: Once we’ve had the experience, we need to pause and reflect on it. What did we do right? What could we improve?
- Abstract conceptualisation: Now that the analysis is complete, we can make a plan for future success. At this stage, you should consider how you would change your approach.
- Active experimentation: We’ve had the experience, we’ve analysed it and we’ve strategized accordingly. Now it’s time to act! After all, if we don’t try it, we won’t know if it works!
As this is a cycle, completing the action takes us right back to stage one. We then repeat the process again and again, improving as we go. This model is useful to learning professionals as it can help us to structure our training interventions accordingly. It shows us that practice really does make perfect!
The Hook Model
The Hook Model, as formulated by author Nir Eyal, is a four-phase process for creating new habits. Understanding this process can help us to drive behaviour change. After all, when an activity becomes habitual, we start to do it automatically and without too much thought. Imagine what you could achieve if you turned learning into a habit?
The Hook Model shows us that there are four steps required to forge a new habit:
- Trigger: A prompt to action. This could be an external trigger (for instance, an email) or an internal trigger (for instance, a craving).
- Action: The desired behaviour. In other words, the act prompted by the trigger.
- Variable Reward: A reward for completing the activity or displaying the right behaviour. By varying the reward you are appealing to your learners’ innate sense of curiosity.
- Investment: By moving through the first three steps, your learners are making a time and effort-based investment into the hook cycle.
This investment makes it easier to go through the hook cycle again (and again). After all, the learners have already made a commitment of sorts. Repeat the cycle enough and voila: a new habit will have been formed!
BJ Fogg’s Model for Behaviour Change
All learning initiatives worth their salt have a common goal in mind: behaviour change. Unfortunately, this is no easy task. It’s much easier to stick to what we know than it is to embrace new approaches. That’s where BJ Fogg comes in. Back in 2009, he and his team at the Persuasive Technology Lab in Stanford University published a practical framework. In short, this framework shows us how to drive behaviour change throughout an audience.
The model suggests that behaviour change requires three things:
- Motivation: We must understand the benefits relating to the action or new behaviour. This in turn must make us want to act.
- Ability: We must be able to complete the action. Time, money and physical effort may act as detractors here.
- Trigger: The final piece of the puzzle requires prompting your learners to spring into action.
This model can be presented as a helpful equation: B = MAT. If your learners have the motivation and the ability to complete an activity, then all they’ll need is the right trigger.
Creating compelling learning experiences requires an effective instructional design approach. ADDIE provides a framework to help instructional designers to structure their learning experiences in the right way. It was first created by the US army back in the 1970s, as a way to guide their own learning programmes. Nowadays, ADDIE is also a common approach within the corporate learning sphere.
As you may have guessed, it’s an acronym. It stands for:
- Analysis: At this stage, you’ll need to analyse the training needs. What are the learning objectives of this intervention? What is your audiences’ current competency level? Are there any other considerations you need to keep in mind?
- Design: Once analysis is complete, you can start planning and designing the learning experience. You should keep your learning objectives at the forefront of your mind throughout.
- Development: With all that planning out the way, you can now gather your assets and get building. This may take some time, but if you’ve done your due diligence in the previous steps, it should come together relatively quickly.
- Implementation: Now that you’ve built the learning experience, it’s time to share it with your learners. Ensure you have a clear implementation plan and that your learning materials are easy to access.
- Evaluation: Finally, you should gather feedback relating to the learning experience. This will help you to evaluate how successful it has been. Take care to determine whether your audience feels the learning objective has been achieved.
Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning
Robert Gagne was an American educational psychologist who helped to pioneer the science of instruction and learning. In 1965, he published Conditions of Learning, which set out the nine steps that learners should experience when they are being taught something.
The ‘Nine Levels of Learning’ help trainers and educators of all sorts to structure their learning materials in the right way. In addition, the model provides a framework for creating instructional activities and a way of thinking about learning progress. Let’s breakdown the nine steps involved:
- Gaining attention: You can’t teach someone anything if they’re not paying attention.
- Informing learners of the objective: Establish what the learning intervention will cover.
- Stimulating recall prior to learning: Ask the learner to reflect on their previous experiences relating to the subject matter.
- Presenting the stimulus: Present the learner with new information relating to the learning objective.
- Providing learning guidance: Reinforce the information presented with alternative approaches.
- Eliciting performance: Get your learners to demonstrate their new-found knowledge.
- Providing feedback: Communicate any feedback necessary to help your learners to improve.
- Assessing performance: Test your learners’ knowledge and understanding.
- Enhancing preparation and transfer: Show your learners how they can apply their knowledge to different contexts and situations.
The Final Word: Where do I Start?
If you’re new to the world of instructional design or learning theories, you may well be feeling overwhelmed. There are an endless number of learning theories to explore and approaches to consider. It can be difficult to know where to apply your focus.
At this stage, you should train your focus on your audience. After all, you can’t design an effective training experience if you don’t understand the needs of your learners. Once you have this knowledge, you can then alter and fine-tune your approach accordingly.
Perhaps you’ll decide to use the ADDIE framework to develop your content. Maybe you’ll focus on combating The Forgetting Curve by using campaign learning. If motivation becomes an issue, you could look to Self-Determination Theory or BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Change Model. You have a bounty of information at your fingertips. How and when you apply it, is up to you and your learners.