By Mary Caldwell, Department of Music and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 

How Students Learn: Some Key Theories

What do we mean by “learn”?

  • At the most basic level, by “learn” we usually mean how students ABSORB, PROCESS, RETAIN, and UTILIZE information.
  • If we expand on what we mean by “learn,” we could also be referring to: memorization, process of constructing concepts, developing ability to think critically, learning as personal development, acquisition of motor skills, goal meeting, etc.

What about learning styles?

  • Learning styles are based on the idea that there are multiple approaches to or 'styles' of learning. We each have the potential to use one or more of these styles depending on the task and the degree to which we feel comfortable with an approach.  If we aim to include as many learners as possible, we should provide assignments and exercises that deploy as many available learning styles as possible over the course of a term.  There are many models of learning styles; among the most popular is Neil Fleming’s VARK: *V*isual learners; *A*uditory learners; *R*eading-writing preference learners; and *K*inesthetic learners or tactile learners. However, learning styles are different than learning theories, the latter being more descriptive than prescriptive.

So, what are learning theories?

  • Learning theories are conceptual frameworks that attempt to describe the learning process, which better helps both instructors and students understand the complex activity of learning. Theories range widely, from the familiar “Pavlovian conditioning” to the more recent move towards experiential learning. Each of the numerous theories is not exclusive-overlap between and among theories is frequent and no one theory is considered to be more or less effective than another. In part, the usefulness of learning theories lies in their flexibility and their role in promoting innovative and learner-focused classrooms. In general, learning theories are influenced by the idea that learning takes place either internally, externally, physically, mentally, personally, and/or environmentally-in some cases, a theory will focus on one or more of these “locales of learning.”         

The -ISMs of Learning

Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, Humanism, and Connectivism


  • Learning is reacting to external stimuli either through classical conditioning (reflexive response to stimulus) or through operant conditioning (reinforcement of behavior by reward or punishment)
  • In the Classroom:
    • Students are motivated to learn by receiving grades on tests, exams, and quizzes
    • Students acquire information by listening and responding to lectures
    • Students aim to memorize material, while classroom activities include call-and-response exercises to quiz retention


  • Learning is process of acquiring, organizing, evaluating, and storing information
  • In the Classroom:
    • Students are able to synthesize ideas or concepts in readings and “teach back” the material
    • Students compare and analyze ideas and create own framework for interpretation in assignments
    • Instructors focus on creating assignments that are attuned to students’ skill levels and that involve incremental learning goals (i.e. the focus is in the process of learning)
  • Cognitivism largely rejects behaviorism but is closely related to constructivism


  • Learning is process of constructing subjective reality based on previous knowledge and objective reality; this theory can also involve transformative learning where basic frameworks of understanding are altered within a student.
  • In the Classroom:
    • Instructor asks students to share personal responses to reading then leads a discussion that builds on these responses rather than on outside information.
    • Assignments (in-class or otherwise) are designed to allow students to draw on their personal interests and specializations when making new arguments.


  • Learning occurs within a social context and includes observational learning, imitation, and modeling.
  • In the Classroom:
    • Instructor models skills such as close reading, analysis, or criticism
    • Students required to perform modeled skills in class in pairs or groups
    • Students observe a task then repeat it themselves, either alone or collaboratively


  • Learning occurs through making connections or networks of knowledge; the theory is based on the idea that knowledge exists in the world rather than simply in one’s mind.
  • In the Classroom:
    • Students participate in Think-Pair-Share Activities that provide immediate access to different perspectives and ideas
    • Small group work and discussion-based activities provide opportunity for the exchange of information among students and between the students and the instructor

Further Resources