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Humanism: Your Guide To Humanistic Learning Theory

Learning theories and models, like the humanistic learning theory, are the bread and butter of learning and development (L&D). So much so that we have various articles exploring the key models that influence the industry today.

As such, in this article, we will focus on the theory underpinning humanistic psychology. This learner-centred approach applies a unique lens to learning by focusing on emotions and learner authority. 

But before we explore humanistic learning theory in detail, let’s have a look at humanistic psychology and its history.

History of Humanism and Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic psychology has origins as far back as the Middle Ages, when the philosophy of humanism was born in Italy. It later spread through continental Europe and England. 

Modern humanistic psychology emerged in the early 20th century. Back then, psychological thinking was dominated by two philosophies: behaviourism and psychoanalysis

While these philosophies contributed to our understanding of human behaviour, they failed to include a holistic view. As a result, humanistic psychology emerged to complement behaviourism and psychoanalysis by focusing on the individual as a whole person. 

The philosophy truly started to gain traction in the second half of the 20th century. Various psychologists, including Abraham Maslow, published research and theories on the topic. 

In addition, the American Association for Humanistic Psychology also launched in 1963. This helped humanism to spread into the L&D landscape.

What Is Humanistic Learning Theory?

What is humanism and humanistic learning theory?

Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and James F. T. Bugental have been recognised as the developers of humanistic learning theory. Maslow influenced the field earlier in the movement, while Rogers and Bugental added to the psychology later down the line. 

As such, humanistic learning theory can be seen as an umbrella term for humanistic psychology in the learning and development space. It covers various humanistic learning models. One of the most famous models is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

It categorises and prioritises human needs within a five-tier model, often presented as a pyramid. The top-level consists of true self-actualisation. If you would like to learn more, we have an awesome article covering the theory in-depth!

Today, Maslow’s research into hierarchical needs forms a major part of this learning theory. In fact, humanistic learning theory views learning as a personal act to fulfil one’s potential.

As an approach to learning, humanism focuses on freedom, choice, learner potential and authority. Indeed, unlike other philosophies, humanistic education assigns your learners as the source of authority. 

This means that your learners themselves determine their learning needs, methods and materials. Therefore, humanistic learning theory focuses on individuals’ potential instead of specific learning materials or courses

Similarly, humanistic learning theory stresses the importance of human factors rather than looking at religious, divine or spiritual matters. 

As such, it is rooted in people having an ethical responsibility to live lives that are personally fulfilling while contributing to the greater good.

Key Assumptions

According to humanistic psychology, people act with intentionality and values. This is in contrast to behaviourism and cognitivism. These philosophies focus on conditioning and believe in uncovering information by interacting with the world around us.

Understanding this helps to shape the key assumptions related to humanistic learning theory. The theory can be summarised as follows:

  1. Learners can be trusted to find their own goals and should have choices in what they learn at school.
  2. Learners should set their standards and evaluate their work and progress themselves.
  3. Learning experiences should help learners to develop positive relations with their peers. 

All of these assumptions focus on or lead to self-actualisation. As a result, learner needs are met, and they are fulfilled in their learning experience.

Let’s take a better look at the key concepts!

1. Idiographic Research

According to humanistic psychology, learners need to be considered as a ‘whole’. After all, all individuals are unique, and we grow and develop over the years. 

Similarly, humanistic psychology emphasises that research should focus on the idiographic case rather than a nomothetic case. In other words, people should be studied as individuals instead of inferences being formed from the performance of groups. 

2. Free Will

According to humanistic approaches all humans have free will. This means we are free to do and think about whatever we want. Our behaviour isn’t all determined.

Learners are encouraged to take control of their education. As such, they use their free will to make decisions on what activities they complete, with what methods and when. This learner choice is central to humanistic learning theory and humanistic psychology. 

3. Positive Emotions

According to humanistic learning theory, learners need to be in positive mindset to learn effectively.

Humanistic psychology proposes that knowledge and feelings go hand-in-hand in the learning process. Our emotions impact what, when and how we learn and should not be separated.

Therefore, learning activities need to focus on both the learner’s intellect and feelings, not one or the other. 

In addition, humanistic psychology proposes that learners need to feel positive, relaxed and comfortable to achieve the best results. A positive emotional state will make them ready to learn.

4. Intrinsic Motivation

Individuals have an internal desire to become their best selves. As a result, our desire to learn is guided by intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation means that learners have a genuine passion for whatever they are doing. As such, learners are motivated from within and are driven by their desire to achieve a genuine sense of fulfilment.

Humanistic educators focus on fostering engagement in order for learners to become self-motivated to further their development. After all, the effectiveness of humanistic learning is based on learners feeling engaged and intrinsically motivated to complete training.

5. Innate Goodness

Humanistic psychology argues that no individual is born with evil intentions. We all want the best for ourselves and for those close to us. In fact, according to the theory, we only do bad things if our fundamental needs are not fulfilled. 

As a result, humanistic educators tend to see the good in their learners. Instead of providing negative feedback, they focus on determining what needs aren’t being met for learners not to be able to reach their full potential.

6. Self-Evaluation

According to humanistic learning theory, self-evaluation is the most meaningful way to evaluate how learners are progressing.

According to humanistic learning theory, self-evaluation is the most meaningful way to evaluate how learners are progressing.

Self-evaluation ensures learners complete training material for their own satisfaction and excitement, compared to working towards achieving high grades or test results. 

The theory suggests that routine testing and information memorisation won’t lead to meaningful learning.  

Strengths and Weaknesses of Humanistic Learning

All learning theories come with strengths and weaknesses, and humanistic learning theory is no exception.


Using humanistic psychology in education can be very beneficial for your learners. The strengths of this approach include:

  • Humanistic psychology sees the best in everyone and works hard to promote positivism. This is unique to the philosophy, as most other theories focus on identifying weaknesses.
  • Young people are seen as powerful and capable. Humanistic learning theory empowers them to find motivation within themselves.
  • Unlike many other theories, humanistic learning theory considers learners’ emotional states and how they impact learning.
  • Similarly, humanistic psychology is a holistic approach that looks at all cognitive, social and emotional aspects.
  • Humanistic learning theory satisfies most individuals’ idea of what it means to be a human, as it values self-fulfilment and personal ideals.


Weaknesses, on the other hand, include:

  • Humanistic psychology promotes learner authority and freedom. As a result, humanistic learning theory doesn’t follow a set curriculum, which is against most traditional training approaches.
  • Due to the choice-based learning approach, humanistic learning theory is not beneficial for learners who desire structure and routine to learn effectively.
  • Similarly, we aren’t always the best judge of what’s good for us. Intrinsic motivation can sometimes lead us to distraction.
  • Every learner will end up with different knowledge because every individual has different intrinsic desires and ways to gather knowledge.

Humanistic Psychology In Education

Humanistic psychology places a different emphasis on education than other common philosophies, like behaviourism. After all, the key concepts focus on teaching your learners as a ‘whole’.

Similarly, to cater to self-actualisation, humanistic learning theory provides a unique approach to the roles of learners and educators:

Role of the Learner

According to humanistic psychology, learning is an active process where learners engage with activities to acquire new knowledge.

While this is nothing new or revolutionary, the major theme of humanistic learning theory focuses on the learner being the source of authority. This means that your learners themselves determine what materials they use, how and when.

In humanistic learning theory, learners determine what learning material they explore, when and how.

As such, they could choose to read, attend lectures, complete practical activities, or focus on more informal learning methods. These could involve online forum discussions and social media interaction.

On top of determining their desired materials, humanistic learning theory proposes that learners establish how much they need to learn about a specific topic or skill. 

As a result, learners can only blame themselves if they do not acquire the skills they need or desire. This reinforces how the learner is the source of authority.

Role of the Educator

Whilst humanistic approaches place learners as the source of authority, this doesn’t negate the need for an educator. It just changes the focus of their role.

In fact, according to humanistic learning theory, teachers or instructors take the role of a coach, mentor or facilitator. They assist their learners in establishing a strategy that helps them to achieve their training goals.

Educators are responsible for helping their learners understand the best ways to learn. They also provide motivation for learning tasks, as humanistic learning places great focus on engagement.

To be able to do so, educators must take notice of their learners’ unique needs. That way they can cater to each individual learner and find the best means of effective knowledge transfer. Creating a supportive and safe learning environment is essential.

Similarly, educators focus on ensuring that learning experiences are related to real-life experiences. This helps to ensure the best possible understanding. They provide opportunities for group work to help their learners explore, observe and self-evaluate.

Humanistic Learning Theory and Online Learning

Both face-to-face and online learning typically adopt an instructor-led and more structured approach to training. After all, traditionally, learning follows a set structure, determined by the educator.

But humanistic learning has different demands. It needs a more flexible approach that allows learners to take control of the experience, as proposed by humanistic learning theory.

So, how can you take advantage of online learning while ensuring it suits your learners’ humanistic needs? Luckily, eLearning provides various strategies and tools that help you to cater to your learners. 

Let’s have a look!

Provide Opportunities for Social Learning

Humanistic psychology encourages learners to develop positive relationships with their fellow learners. This makes sense. Humans are social animals by nature, and humanistic psychology aims to cater to individuals as a whole.

That’s why humanistic learning theory also emphasises social considerations on top of cognitive and emotional aspects. To cater to these needs, your humanistic training programme needs to provide opportunities for social interaction.

Social learning comes with vast benefits. Your learners can naturally gain and retain knowledge through interaction and collaboration. This unstructured approach is a perfect match for humanistic learning that emphasises learner choice.

These social interactions are not limited to face-to-face learning. Today’s modern learning technology, like learning management systems, typically come with various social learning features.

For instance, Growth Engineering LMS offers a Live Chat and an Experts Area your learners can use to reach out to their peers or mentors at their own convenience. Similarly, Social Feeds provide a platform for social media like interactions.

What’s more, Clubs are an excellent way for educators to provide opportunities for group work while providing real-life examples and contexts to help users learn and evaluate their knowledge.

Increase Engagement and Motivation

One of the key assumptions of humanistic learning theory is that learners have an internal desire to learn and improve their skills. As such, educators focus on providing motivation and engagement that result in internal accomplishments.

Intrinsic motivation typically involves a sense of progress and competence, self-actualisation and pleasure. To cater to humanistic learners, your training programme must include features that help fuel these psychological needs..

While gamification is arguably more often linked to extrinsic motivation, you can also use game mechanics to generate intrinsic motivation in your learners! As such, it might just be the perfect tool for your humanistic online learning initiatives.

Gamification typically uses Levels and Experience Points (XP). These features make it easier than ever for your learners to see their progress. This is essential for an approach that emphasises self-evaluation over formal assessments or grading.

Gamification helps you to increase learner engagement and motivation

Your learners can see how close they are to achieving their learning objectives and monitor progress against those goals. It’s powerfully motivating for your learners to see that, little by little, they are becoming the person they want to be.

Similarly, using gamification helps your learners affirm their esteem and competence with instant feedback, praise and rewards. They can identify they are good at what they do, which helps them to work toward true self-actualisation.

Offer Content For All Training Needs

One of the key assumptions of humanistic learning theory focuses on individualism. People should be studied as individuals. They should also be provided with a vast array of learning opportunities to ensure they can take full authority over their learning.

Similarly, humanistic learning theory doesn’t believe in set curricula or structured learning. This means that your learning programme needs to cater to various learning needs as flexibly as possible.

The best way to do so is to offer various content types within your training library. After all, some may prefer learning through videos, podcasts or social media, while others like to read and complete gamified training units.

However, as most instructional designers and L&D professionals know, creating a library full of high-quality material is typically time-consuming and often expensive. But it doesn’t have to be!

Authoring tools, like Growth Engineering Authoring Tool, help you to make the process quicker and easier than before. You can, for instance, use templates or clone units to ensure your content remains high-quality and effective.

In addition, previously mentioned social learning tools cater to those individuals who prefer to learn from social interactions. Furthermore, integrations can help you take advantage of different software within your learning platform.

Final Words

Humanistic learning theory brings humanistic psychology to the world of education. Unlike other theories, it believes that learners have a free will and places great emphasis on emotions. 

Similarly, it emphasises learners as the authority of their learning experiences. As such, your learners self-evaluate their needs, progress and learning outcomes. To do so effectively, they need to be intrinsically motivated to learn.

Are you interested in learning about different learning models and theories? Make sure to check our guidebook today!

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