Behavioral vs Cognitive Perspectives on Learning Theories Part II

In the previous post, we looked at how the behavioral and cognitive schools of psychology address different issues or questions related to learning. In this post, we will look at the last four questions/issues that both behavioral and cognitive schools of psychology deal with when explaining learning. The questions are…

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

What is the Role of Motivation?

Behaviorists see motivation as an increase in the likelihood of a behavior. Therefore, if a behavior happens often it is because a person is motivated to do it. For behaviorist, there is no difference between learning and motivation. A person who is motivated to perform an action must already know how to do it according to this train of thought.

Cognitivists see motivation and learning as related but not the same. For them, people can be motivated without actually learning anything since the behavior is not automatically linked to motivation. Instead, motivation affects how information is processed.

How Does Transfer Occur?

Transfer is the application of knowledge or skills in new ways or in a different setting. In the behavioral school, transfer happens when the new and old environments are similar in nature. For example, if a person knows how to ride a bicycle they should be able to use these skills to drive a motorcycle.

The cognitive school states that transfer happens when people understand how to apply knowledge in different environments. The environments do not need to be similar. This is because cognitivists focus on how the information is remembered in the mind instead of the environment in which the knowledge is applied.

What Processes are Involved in Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to focus on attaining goals. Behaviorists believe that self-regulation occurs when people setup their own reinforcement. For example, if someone decides that they will eat their favorite food after completing a project. They are reinforcing their behavior by providing the food contingent on completing the project.

Cognitive approaches to self-regulation include monitoring one’s comprehension, rehearsal of content, and or attention. For cognitivists, it is not about reinforcement but making sure one understands what one is trying to process. Rewards and punishments are not necessary.

What are the Implications

Behaviorists emphasize stimuli response in the theories on learning. The theories that are developed from this perspective on most useful in explaining simple forms of learning such as word meanings and other forms of lower-level thinking.

Cognitivists propose theories related to information processing and memory networks. Their theories are strongest in explaining complex learning or higher level thinking.


The purpose was not to state that one school of thought on learning is superior. The goal is to see how a combination of behavioral and cognitive theories can be used to understand learning.  Seeing learning from both perspectives rather than one provides a fuller understanding of learning.

1 thought on “Behavioral vs Cognitive Perspectives on Learning Theories Part II

  1. Pingback: Behavioral vs Cognitive Perspectives on Learnin...

Leave a Reply