Behavioral vs Cognitive Perspectives on Learning Theories

In the study of learning there are two major perspectives that attempt to explain the components of learning. The two perspective are behavioral and cognitive approaches. Behavioral approaches view learning as a in behavior. The behavior is observable and can be measured. Cognitive approaches explain learning as the acquisition of knowledge and the processing of information.

In many ways these two schools of thought on learning reflect the Greek philosophies studied in an earlier post.   Recall that realism was about the senses just as behaviorism is about seeing a change in behavior. In addition, idealism was focused on what is happening inside the mind just as cognitivism is.

There are several big questions in the field of learning theory that both of these perspectives attempt to answer. The questions are

  • How does learning occur?
  • What is the role of memory?
  • What is the role of motivation?
  • How does transfer occur?
  • What processes are involved in self-regulation?
  • What does this mean for teaching?

In this post, we will examine the first 2 questions. The next post will look at the last four.

How Does Learning Occur?

Behavioral theories stress the importance of the environment in encouraging learning. Behaviorist speak a great deal about stimulus response. The stimulus comes from the environment and the individual responds. Behaviorist see learning as an experience in reinforcement. Individual difference is not a major concern as everyone should act in similar manner when facing a similar stimuli.

Cognitivist agree with the influence of the environment in learning but downplay its role. For them, learning is about how students’ encode, store, and or transfer learning within their mind. The learner’s thoughts play an important role in their learning. Reflection and asking questions all play a part in the learning of students.

What is the Role of Memory?

Behavorist have a simple notion of learning. If some one remembers something it is because they are reinforced connection due to stimulus response. Forgetting for behavorist is from a lack of response to stimuli over time. Connections fade due to lack of use. For this reason, a teacher should review material occasionally to maintain the connections the students have developed. This will help in remembering what they learned.

Cognitivist see memory as the encoding of information in the mind. It is similar to storing data on a hard drive. From this perspective, forgetting is the inability to retrieve a memory. This can be caused by interference, lack of adequate mental triggers, or a lost of memory. These are all problems we sometimes face when dealing with computers. For teachers, this means helping students to organize what they learn and connect it to what they already know. By doing this, it assures that they will remember.


The goal is not to lift up one approach over the other. In reality, teachers should use a combination of the two approaches when appropriate to help their students. It is left to the teacher to know what will work and when as they try to help students to learn.


8 thoughts on “Behavioral vs Cognitive Perspectives on Learning Theories

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