Psychological theories of learning

theory As a student, I have always heard of the term ‘theory’ ever since primary and secondary schools. Yet I do not really have curiosity to find out the meaning of the term because I thought it is not necessary to be learnt. However, until I started my degree program, I have come across psychological theories in most of the modules I took. Until then I realized those theories exist in daily life unconsciously. For example, I am taught about different psychological theories and meanwhile the lecturers are actually implementing those theories into practice in daily lesson.

faces2nrPsychology Psychological theory is a set of study that is based on hypothesis and evidences (Cherry.K, 2012) . It usually represents a concept or a idea that has been tested and experimented for a long period of time. Psychological theories are used to provide an insight on how people think, feel, and behave. In other words, we can understand more about human thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Different approaches of psychological theories have been introduced and proposed by psychologists to explain and predict various aspects of human behavior such as Behavioral Theories, Cognitive Theories, Constructive Theories and Humanist Theories.

images  Although there are various psychological approaches to education, but there is no single theory or approach that can be applied or worked for everyone. This is because everyone is unique and can be differentiated by one another. However, they do give me some useful information as a future teacher. First and foremost, the theories identify individual’s learning styles and provide a better understanding on how people absorb and retain new information. With the information given, I can accept individual differences and acknowledge their participation regardless of their levels of understanding and mastery. For example, I learnt about Piaget’s cognitive theory in the previous semesters and what I understand about Piaget’s theory is that a child’s cognitive development is varied and he believed that children think differently than adults. He studied children from infancy to adolescence, and carried out many investigations using his three children (McLeod, 2009). He then came out with 4 universal stages of cognitive development which explained that every child will go through each stage in order to develop their cognition and no stage can be missed out. It implies that every learner learns according to their own pace,  therefore as a teacher, I could assess the learners current level of understanding by various assessments to get information about their progress. I can use the information to design my instruction and lesson plan in order to ensure that suitable tasks are set based on the level of the learners’ development. Also, if some children are facing difficulties in solving equation, I would understand the idea that they have different levels of cognitive development from others and it does not indicate that they are poor in the particular subject. So I can give them some guidance and time to complete their task without thinking they are not smart or they have learning difficulties. A very true experience of myself, I have a cousin who is 11-year-old this year, I am his teacher at home as I help him in completing his homework regularly. He always looks confused when it comes to his homework. At first, I scolded him just because he could not think of the answer whenever I asked him question. However when I started learning about Piaget’s theory, I realized that I have made a big mistake that hurt him badly because different children learn differently according to their development. Also, I could not expect him to think as the way I think, instead I should think from his perspective. This is definitely a wake up call for me to accept his level of development  without criticizing him for not doing well. Although sometimes I will still get frustrated if he could not understand what I am talking about, yet I am trying to give him more encouragement and support rather than criticism from now on.

download (1)  Secondly, psychological theories provide different pedagogics that can be implemented and applied in the education. As teacher is the critical figure in a student’s learning journey , I think that there is a need to have lots of teaching strategies in my mind that can be retrieved easily  in order to ensure that students are fully engaged during the lesson . For instance, constructivism is one of the psychological theories that proposed that learners are active creator of their own knowledge while teachers are the facilitator of their learning (Huitt,2009). One of the applications of Constructivism in the classroom would be to articulate new constructed knowledge with students’ previous experience.They come to learning situations with already formulated knowledge, ideas, and understandings. Therefore the prior knowledge is essential for the new knowledge they will create. I as a teacher could act as a facilitator by giving them opportunity to construct their own knowledge. As an example, I can show a picture of a leave to the students and ask them to measure the length of the leave. Instead of telling them that they can use ruler to measure it, I give them time to reflect and construct their own methods of measurement. Some might use their hair as a tool whereas some might offer the idea that they can use hands to measure the length. Hence, I can tell the students which method is the most accurate way of measuring and acknowledge their effort in constructing new knowledge. The teaching method in this approach emphasizes more on student-centered learning rather than teacher-orientated learning.


It has been 16 years to play a role as a student and it is still counting. When I sat back and tried to reflect on which particular theory of learning has been applied and used by my teachers in daily lessons, it is surprising that only one theory pops out , which is the Behaviorist Theory. Behaviorism believed that people’s mind is a blank slate when born, so all the behaviours are shaped or learnt through conditioning. As the picture shown above, conditioning is a process that uses stimulus to get the desired response or behavior. Also, behaviors can be repeated through reinforcement in which teacher praises for students who pay attention in the class, so the students tend to pay more attention in all the classes in order to get praise from the teacher. When think about Behaviorism, reinforcement and punishment are always associated with this and they are always the first to come to my mind. They are commonly practiced in classroom setting but I did not realize that they are actually parts of behaviorism.

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Trace back to my primary school experience, when I raised up my hand to ask a question during the lesson, my teacher would praise for my behavior in front of my classmates that I had raised a good question which nobody had thought of. Thus, I felt a sense of proud of myself and her praise had somehow made me to reassure my ability. So I tend to ask a lot of questions in her class just to receive more compliments from the teacher. Before learning the theory, I have never thought that my behavior is actually being reinforced by the praise, I just knew that I enjoyed to be praised because it kinds of boost my confidence in this particular subject. Now I realized that my teacher was using positive reinforcement to increase the desired behavior by praising me. On the other hand, punishment is inevitably being applied in the classroom. This is definitely not a new word for me because I believe that everyone must have experiences being punished in school as me. To be frank, I would not think that punishment is actually an application of theory, it is just a typical action that most of the teachers will use in respond to disruptive behaviors. Of course I had done something undesired and received punishment from the teachers in my secondary school. There was once I had my meal in the classroom instead of canteen during the recess, because I brought my own food and was lazy to eat in the crowd. This was a school rule that nobody was allowed to eat in the classroom. Unfortunately, I was caught by a prefect and sent to the discipline room. The discipline teacher gave me a black remark and it was shown on my school report. Even though it was not a corporal punishment, but it had its effect on me because the black remark would leave a bad impression of me when other people saw the report. Since then, I was very cautious of my behaviors in school and made sure I did not against the school rules. Punishment actually helps a lot in decreasing and eliminating students’ undesired behavior.


Furthermore, one of the applications of Behaviorism in the classroom is drill and practice. Drills refer to the repetitive practice of different skills (Lewis, 2004). It gives students an opportunity to learn certain concepts quickly and effectively as they can master the basic skills step by step. It is common when it comes to learning a language. For example, when learning new vocabularies, my teacher would list down a list of words and had us writing them for 10 times for each word. This was a drill in practice so that we could remember all the words. Other than that, when I wrote words wrongly in the essay, my teacher would actually ask me to copy the whole essay for correction, especially in primary school. Also, even in essay writing, my teacher used to give everyone of us an essay and asked us to memorize for the exam in primary school. When it came to exam, we basically wrote everything we memorized with a little bit of own thoughts.  Besides that, surprisingly that learning mathematical subjects such as book keeping, drill and practice was actually used by my teacher. The purposes of using drill and practice seem pretty obvious which are mastering the types of questions and approaching the questions easily in the exam. For instance, after learning a new topic in book keeping, my teacher would give us more than 10 worksheets to practice in order to ensure that all of us remember how to solve the questions.

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However, everything has its pros and cons and those applications have their constraints in students’ learning. As an example, reinforcement sometimes emphasizes too much on extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation. My teacher would give us a reward when we completed our homework within a given time. As a result, everyone would compete with each other and finish their own work no matter which methods they used. It would be copying from other people work or simply wrote something in order to get the reward. But the underlying fact was that learning did not exist as it only focused on the product of learning instead of the process. As in Mathematics which requires problem solving skill and logical thinking skill, if students copy from others, they are not actually learning but just trying to get to the end quickly without putting their effort in completing the assignment. So the purpose of reinforcement is defeated. In addition, sometimes the punishment can be too slight or too harsh which would bring the undesired consequence. I have once whipped by my teacher for wearing a pair of short length socks, but it was a light hit and I did not feel any pain. Thus, I did not really care or scare about the punishment and it did not have an effect on me. What did not change was that I continued wearing the socks. Another example would be my teacher used to reprimand my friend for not passing his exam in front of the class. She might not realized that she actually hurt my friend and eliminated his motivation to further his study. Even I felt embarrassed and sad for him, imagine how hard it was for him to stand with the situation. The setback of this punishment was that my friend disliked the teacher even more and refused to pay attention during her class.


Last but not least, one of the setbacks of Behaviorism is the passive learners are trained. The picture shown on the left indicates that knowledge are given to the students without having them to take part of it. As the example mentioned earlier, copying the whole essay for correction did not provide chance for us as students to discover our own mistake, instead the teacher would wrote down what we have done wrong. Frankly, I just focused on copying the essay in order to pass up rather than thinking of the words that I wrote wrong. Students are supposed to have better impression of their mistakes and be aware next time, but for me, I usually forgot the purpose of correction because I just wanted to get it done. By doing the worksheets of the same topics for so many times, I tend to memorize how it is done rather than internalize the skill to do it. It was because some of the worksheets only had difference in terms of the numbers, but the construction of the questions remained the same. It did not elicit critical thinking and allow me to apply problem solving skill either. In terms of essay writing, we were trained as a passive learner because essay was supposed to be constructed by the students so that they could reflect on their past experience and wrote their own essay. Also, creativity was discouraged because we just memorized what the teacher gave. When it came to standardized testing  such as UPSR and PMR where we could not rely on the materials that provided by our teacher, we tend to get lost and did not know how and what to write as we were not used to construct our own essay.

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So how do we avoid the setbacks in the future? Well, we have to know what kind of reinforcement to give that would bring the desired consequence. We have to be aware of the use of reinforcement, do not simply reinforce the behavior without considering whether it would benefit in teaching and learning process. For example, we should always put learning in the forefront, so what we can do is to make the statement clear that students do not only have to pass up their homework on time, but they have to show their working instead of just giving the answer. Therefore, students would know that their effort is appreciated and they would show their working in order to get rewarded. Nowadays, corporal punishment is no longer a trend in classroom setting. As a teacher, I think that we have to think of the appropriate punishment that will bring out the most pleasant outcome. For instance, if I want to stop my student from wearing violative socks, I could use verbal warning for the first time, if she keeps ignoring it, I would then give her a black remark. Also, reprimanding students for not doing well in the exam is definitely a no, as teacher, we should respect students no matter how they perform. Instead of reprimanding, I would provide feedback and guide the students for more improvement.


Having said that, drill and practice is effective for learning new Chinese words as we will recognize the structure of the words by practicing them. However, we could implement some elements of Constructivism which is shifting the students from passive learner to active learner. Especially in Mathematics, instead of writing down the working and the answers on the board, sometimes we can have them to formulate their own solution and decide which is the most effective way to use. When it comes to essay writing, we can help students to articulate their past experience to the topics of essay, so that they can construct their own essay with the guidance of teachers.

In a nutshell, no psychological theory can stand alone, the best way would be incorporatimg all of them into teaching and learning process for a better outcome. However, it depends on various factors to decide on which approach to use such as our own teaching styles, students’ learning styles and needs. It is usually easier said than done as we need years of experience to make teaching effective.


Cherry, K. (2012). What is a theory. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from About Education:

Huitt, W. (2009). Constructivism. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from Educational Psychology Interactive:

Lewis, V. (2004). The advantages and disadvantages of practice and drill in teaching. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from Ehow:

McLeod, S. (2009). Jean Piaget. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from Simple Psychology:


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