Learning Theory

Learning Theory Definition

The meaning of this term seems simple: Learning theory is the theory about how learning is achieved. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. A fundamental problem is that the term learning theory seems to suggest that there is a single, true theory of learning. Although one cannot exclude the possibility that such a theory might be developed, at present, nothing even comes close to the overarching learning theory. It is unlikely that such a theory will ever be formulated, if only because there are so many different types of learning. The next paragraphs will discuss two general types of learning: non-associative and associative learning. Afterward, this entry will focus on theories about associative learning because people often have these theories in mind when they use the term learning theory.

Context and Importance of Learning Theory

Learning TheoryDifferent types of learning can be characterized on the basis of a number of criteria. One of those criteria is whether the change in behavior is caused by the mere repeated presentation of a single stimulus or event or because one stimulus or event is paired with another stimulus or event. These types of learning are called non-associative and associative learning, respectively. Non-associative learning is a fundamental type of learning that can be seen even in very simple organisms. But the mere fact of being exposed to a stimulus or event also has an important impact on human behavior. For instance, when you enter a room for the first time, you might pay attention to the ticking of the clock that is present in the room. But it is likely that you will no longer notice the ticking of the clock after a while. So one possible effect of repeated presentation of a stimulus or event is that one habituates to it: One’s initial reaction to the stimulus or event decreases in intensity because of the repeated presentation. But stimulus presentations can have a whole range of other effects. For instance, the first time that you hear a new song on the radio, you often don’t like it as much as after you have heard it a few times. This shows that repeated stimulus presentation can change one’s liking for the presented stimulus.

Associative learning can be defined as changes in behavior that are due to the repeated pairing of different stimuli or events. The term conditioning is basically a synonym for associative learning. There are two basic types of conditioning. First, Pavlovian or classical conditioning refers to a change in the reaction to a stimulus that is caused by this stimulus being paired with another stimulus. For instance, a dog might initially not react to the sound of a bell, but might start to salivate upon hearing the bell (i.e., change in behavior) when the ringing of the bell is paired repeatedly with the delivery of food (i.e., pairing two stimuli). Second, operant or instrumental conditioning refers to changes in behavior that are the result of a behavior being paired with a certain stimulus. For instance, rats will press a lever more frequently (i.e., change in behavior) if that behavior is followed by the delivery of food (i.e., pairing of the behavior and a stimulus). The main difference between the two forms of conditioning is that the animal or person does not have any control over the events in Pavlovian conditioning (e.g., the bell and food are paired no matter what the dog does) but does have an impact on the events in operant conditioning (e.g., the food is presented only if the rat presses the lever).

For most of the 20th century, behaviorist theories dominated research on conditioning. These theories postulated that conditioning occurs in an automatic, unconscious way and does not involve any cognitive processes. This long-standing dominance of behaviorist theories has led to a tendency to use the term learning theory to refer to these theories. But use of the term learning theory is problematic. First, the behaviorist theories focused mainly on associative forms of learning and not on other forms. Hence, none of these theories provides a theory of all forms of learning. Second, behaviorist theories cannot account for a wide variety of findings in research on conditioning.

Since the end of the 1960s, it is clear that cognitive processes do play an important role in conditioning. For instance, ample evidence indicates that conditioning in humans depends heavily on whether the person is aware of the link between the associated events (e.g., the fact that the bell always precedes food). In fact, there is little evidence for automatic, unconscious conditioning in humans.

Learning Theory Implications

Some have concluded, on the basis of these results, that conditioning does not occur in humans and that learning theory does not apply to humans. But conditioning does occur in humans because the behavior of people changes as the result of pairing two stimuli or a behavior and a stimulus. For instance, people do stop at railway crossings because they have learned that the flickering of the lights will be followed by the arrival of a train. Likewise, they will often start to dislike a certain food when eating that food was followed by nausea. It remains useful to see these associatively induced changes in behavior as forms of conditioning because this provides a framework for studying and understanding these behaviors. Which processes (i.e., automatic or controlled) are involved in conditioning is an important question. Probably several types of processes can play a role under certain conditions. But this question needs to be answered by research rather than by claiming that conditioning is only conditioning if it is the result of certain (i.e., automatic and unconscious) processes. Because of these potential dangers, it seems best to avoid using the term learning theory unless one specifies which specific theory one has in mind.


  1. Domjan, M. (2005). The essentials of conditioning and learning (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  2. Schwartz, B., Wasserman, E. A., & Robbins, S. J. (2002). Psychology of learning and behavior (5th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.