5 time-tested learning theories to modernise your training scheme

Owain Simpson, Content Writer · 18 Sep

Greek philosophy and cognitive psychology might not seem immediately relevant to most HR and L&D professionals' day to day. But by borrowing the learning theories of yesteryear we can streamline and increase the efficacy of today's training schemes. Here are five time-tested leaning theories to sink your teeth into.

When developing your training scheme it's important to account for how people learn. This is where learning theories come in. These are theories from psychology and philosophy ranging back all the way to Aristotle on how people gain knowledge and skills, and thus how best to cater to them so that their training is as effective as possible.

Effective training will be quicker and your trainees will come out as more developed and ready to face the challenges that their roles will throw at them. This will ultimately give you better returns on your training schemes. With this in mind, here are five learning theories that could help to improve your training scheme, making it more effective and therefore give it better returns.

1. Behaviourism

The learning theory of behaviourism is based on the assumption that all learning is conditioned. Basically, we learn by repeated positive and negative reinforcement. So when we are rewarded for performing certain tasks or we are punished for other tasks then we will respond so that in the future we are more likely to be rewarded or less likely to be punished. This is a very old principle of learning and is most prominent in the way that we train animals.

The most famous example of conditioning in the case of behaviourism is Pavlov’s Dogs. The founding father of behaviourism Ivan Pavlov used experiments where he modified his dog’s reactions to stimulants by isolating and then reinforcing specific reactions.

Although this learning theory has seen most examples drawn from animal experimentation and then generalised extrapolation to humans, it's clear that behaviourism accounts for a very fundamental way of learning that has featured in most of our pasts.


It's unlikely that you would find an adult today who hasn’t learnt this way, especially in their early childhood. It's partly its simplicity that means that behaviourism has been and continues to be a successful method for training at all levels. One might see performance based bonuses as being a positive reinforcement in the behaviouristic sense. From this we can start to see that rewards can be very useful in a training setting.

With your trainees it's definitely worth considering if there are goals within your training scheme that you could lay out to positively reinforce good habits or useful skills. You might focus these on results and use the behaviourist learning theory as a way to incentivise and motivate high performance with cash bonuses for meeting or exceeding training targets.

You might however want to take this further and reinforce and develop the habits that lead to meeting these targets in the first place – using feedback might be one way to do this.

Before you do this you need to make sure that firstly your ‘rewards’ are ethical and legal, you also need to make sure you properly understand what an employee will consider a reward. You might find that less is more, and good feedback from a respected manager or mentor could be as effective as a bar tab for a monthly office night out. Whatever you decide to make the rewards make sure it's doing its job at positively reinforcing.

2. Cognitivism

Cognitivism is a more complex learning theory than behaviourism. The theory views the mind of a learner as a unique information processor. In order to teach or to know how an individual can learn you are required to understand how the person thinks. This process is often termed opening the black box. You are required to know what will make your trainee interested and motivated to learn.

In implementing constructivist ideas within a training scheme you will need to have systems in place that allow you to properly get to know each individual because according to cognitivism each learner is an individual and therefore learns in their own way. You will need to be able to build a profile for each trainee on the most effective way to present them with information, how best to engage their specific talents.

The key to using cognitivism is first to understand your new recruits as best you can. A good way to do this is to ask them yourself with feedback sessions on how well their training is going or assessing the effectiveness of different training techniques through regular consolidation quizzes.


This is obvious an intensive and therefore expensive learning theory to implement, and quite the opposite to behaviourism. You will need to strike a balance between these approaches and you’ll need to find this balance based on your own businesses needs and resources.

If you are trying to fill specialist roles where the training of new recruits is very important then you will need to invest more in cognitivist techniques of personalised development programmes; but if the roll is less skills focussed and more about motivating the individual then you might be able to lean more heavily on behaviouristic based techniques.

3. Constructivism

The constructivist learning theory is based upon the understanding that learners are never blank slates. When they're presented with new information they understand it and assimilate it based on their history, the way they think, the environment they are in and many other considerations that subtly alter the knowledge that is being passed to them.

It's common for people to misunderstand constructivism as being about the fact that learners don’t require instruction or teachers and that they can learn everything on their own. However, this is not the case it's simply that the learner builds on what already makes up their way of thinking and as such everyone will pick up knowledge in different ways and interpret it somewhat differently.

This is a very important lesson to remember when thinking about you training programme. It's essential that you remember your new recruits may be fresh and impressionable starting in this new industry, sector or business but that this doesn’t mean they haven’t got history and haven’t been influenced by other things that effect how they think now.

Each trainee will have come from a different place, sometimes marginally different, sometimes radically different. Two new recruits, one who is a graduate in engineering from Glasgow and one who is a graduate in the same degree but from Bristol are likely to think very differently.

You need to be able to detect these differences and respond. Try to understand how they think differently and check that the information you give them has been received in the way that you need it to be.

constructive learning

A good way to do this is tasking your recruits to relay their learning back to you. This might be through presentations at the end of training and where they can demonstrate the skills they are trying to develop. Or it might be less formally simply making sure your trainers ask enough questions to assure you that your training methods are effective.

These back and forth dialogues concerning the material covered in your training scheme will ensure you are better placed to check that your trainees’ backgrounds are only helping to augment the learning process and not interfering with it.

4. Experiential Learning

This theory is less cognitive and more practical. Basically it puts the emphasis of learning in experience, where problem solving and intuition are the drivers of development. It's less important how the learner learns and more important that they are kept in environments where they can develop. You might consider this to be along the lines of chucking the trainee in the deep end.

However, in order to implement this learning theory successfully there needs to be effective supervision and mentorship. The cycle of experiential learning starts obviously with the experience. From this experience your trainee will then require time to reflect, when the pressure eases and they have time to think about what worked and what didn’t in the situations they found themselves in.

After this time of reflection the trainee will have developed processes that they will expect to be effective so that the next time there is less trial and error involved when they have their next experience. This obviously then leads to the closing of the cycle by the trainee testing these processes on a new experience.

It's essential that you have experienced mentors in place to prompt your trainees at each of these stages and to help them. This shouldn’t be considered a sink or swim kind of learning but rather the responsibility that comes with each experience needs to be managed and judged by your senior team members so as to optimise the learning for your new recruits.

Experiential learning

Experience is extremely valuable in training programmes and it's really important you allow your new recruits to get a real taste of what their future roles will require. At the same time just putting them in this setting is not enough; you must ensure that they are supported and you need to balance the experiences they gain with the time they have to process and learn from them.

5. Connectivism

This is the most modern of our learning theories. It was devised at the dawn of the world wide web and emphasises the importance of bringing together many people and different methods of learning. The idea being that learners naturally find their own way to the best form of presentation of information for them. It puts stock in the individual as being sensitive to how information is presented and also assumes that individuals can find the best way for them to learn for themselves.

A common presentation of this type of learning is the chain of sources used when a new trainee is trying to understand how best to complete a task they are given. They might start out reading a document linked to the task’s brief. This document is meant to guide them through a new task but the document is too dense and has too much detail for them.

The learner therefore goes online and looks on YouTube for someone presenting the information but again the video they find takes the wrong slant. In the comments of the video though is a link to a forum on the subject and in this forum they find a really good explanation that fits their needs and conveys the information in a form that suits them best.

This connectivity through digital media is the focus of this learning theory and is really important in how all levels of employees including trainees now deal with new tasks.

It's essential that you allow for connectivism in your training scheme. The simplest way you can do this is give your trainees full access to a range of different sources for their development. This might mean paying for them to access relevant journals or databases of publications and putting in place forums for them to ask more experience employees guidance on how to complete tasks.

Shared learning

If you were very enthusiastic about the idea of connecting people as a learning aid, then creating a forum where your employees can have dialogue with employees from other businesses in the same field could be a good step.

Using this learning theory in your training programme is about offering your trainees the most opportunity to connect with others so that statistically you have more of a chance of hitting the nail on the head with the perfect explanation for each trainee as an individual. This method of training can be especially effective if your training scheme is large as trainees effectively sort themselves and you don’t need to put so many resources into understanding how they learn as individuals.

All of these learning theories offer insights into the different ways that people can develop. Each is not a complete picture but all emphasise important parts of how we learn. It's therefore a very good idea to bear these in mind when developing you training programme. If you do, then you are giving your trainees the best chance at becoming the crack team of your business in the future. Understanding how your trainees learn will ultimately mean you can train them better.

It will also better connect them to your business and have knock on effects with motivation and their effectiveness. In the end this will mean better returns on your investment in training your employees and as such these old school theories could make you all the more cutting edge.

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