Program Goal II: Student Learning

In order to make effective classroom decisions, teachers must have a firm understanding of the learning and developmental processes. This understanding must include knowledge of learning theories and their classroom applications as well as developmental stages and theories of development. The paragraphs that follow describe those aspects of this set of knowledge that we believe are essential for beginning teachers.

Learning Theories and Their Classroom Applications: Learning theories are often divided into two categories: behaviorism and cognitivism. This summary will follow that traditional organizational format. However, humanistic perspectives on teaching and learning, which are central to our department's emphasis on community and holistic learning, will also be described.

Behavioral Theories: According to Omrod (1999), behavioral theories focus on tangible, observable behaviors or responses. In fact, behaviorists define learning as "the relatively permanent change in behavior brought about as a result of experience or practice" (Huitt, 1998, p.1). For the purposes of this summary, two categories of behavioral learning theories will be described: operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Social cognitive theory (formerly social learning theory) is also described here.

Operant Conditioning: Having much in common with Edward Thorndike's Connectionism , particularly its "Law of Effect," modern operant conditioning theory is based on B. F. Skinner's principle that "all behaviors are accompanied by consequences, and these consequences strongly influence (some might say determine) whether these behaviors are repeated (Snowman, McCown, & Biehler, 2012, p. 227). Behavioral change and, thus, learning are a function of the consequences that follow a behavior. Additional specific components of the operant model that are important for classroom teachers include shaping, chaining, extinction, punishment, and schedules of reinforcement. The operant model has greatly influenced K-12 education and resulted in a variety of teaching models and techniques (Huitt, 1998). These include the use of behavioral objectives, contingency contracts, applied behavior analysis, mastery learning, programmed instruction, and early forms of computer-based instruction (Omrod, 1999). The Madeline Hunter (1980) model, Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP), as well as direct instruction, which emphasizes modeling and practice, draw heavily from this model (Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun, 2009).

Classical Conditioning: Based on the work of such pioneers in learning theory as Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, classical conditioning explains learning on the basis of associating or connecting stimuli through a process "in which a neutral stimulus becomes conditioned to elicit a response through repeated pairing with an unconditioned stimulus" (Schunk, 2012, p. 490). Not a particularly useful theory for instructional design, classical conditioning is often used to explain the development of emotional responses, especially fears and anxiety. Therefore, an important implication of this paradigm for teachers is that students should experience academic learning in environments that elicit pleasant rather than unpleasant emotions (Omrod, 1999).

Social Cognitive Theory: Formerly known as social learning theory, Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1971) evolved from behaviorism (Bigge, 1982). However, "the current version of social cognitive theory incorporates elements of both operant conditioning and information processing . . ." (Snowman, McCown, and Biehler, 2012, p. 279). This theory focuses on learning from one's social environment where "learning occurs enactively through actual performance and vicariously by observing models, by listening to instructions, and by engaging with electronic materials" (Schunk, 2012, pp. 159-160).  Unlike the basic operant conditioning model, social learning theorists emphasize the acquisition of beliefs and attitudes as well as behaviors. Additionally, the theory incorporates the concept of self-regulation, which can be defined as the ability to regulate one's own behavior through applying internalized standards (Omrod, 1999). Implications for classroom teachers based on social learning theory include helping students develop self-efficacy, or confidence in their abilities to "learn or perform behaviors at designated levels" (Schunk, 2012, p. 498); understanding the effectiveness of modeling (or demonstrating) new skills students are expected to learn; and helping students develop self-regulatory behaviors "by teaching such techniques as self-instruction, self-monitoring, self-reinforcement, and self-imposed stimulus control" (Omrod, 1999, p. 144).

Cognitive Models: The current cognitive view of learning has its antecedents in Gestalt theory (which emphasized learning through insight) and the work of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner (Omrod, 1999). As Lefrancois (1999) noted, cognitive learning theory emphasizes mental events rather than overt, observable behaviors. Therefore, its focus is on the formation of schemata (or concepts) and the acquisition, processing, organization, and storing of information. Three cognitive approaches to learning and their related classroom applications are summarized below: information processing theory, reception learning/expository teaching, and constructivism/discovery learning. Though not necessarily a cognitive model, experiential learning is also described here.

Information Processing: "Information processing is not the name of a single theory: it is a generic name applied to theoretical perspectives dealing with the sequence and execution of cognitive events" (Schunk, 2012, p. 164). This theory seeks to understand and explain the acquisition, storage, and recall of information (Snowman, McCown, and Biehler, 2012). According to Lefrancois (1999), the most widely used information processing model is basically a memory model and divides human memory into three levels: sensory, short-term, and long-term memory. Sensory memory involves the very short, unconscious recognition and availability of sensory data. Attending to or focusing on information from sensory memory transfers it to short-term memory, where it can be stored for up to 20 seconds (Lefrancois, 1999). The capacity of short-term memory can be improved by chunking or combining pieces of related material (Huitt, 2000). Moving information from short-term to long-term memory requires encoding, which involves rehearsal, elaboration, and organization. Increasing meaningfulness and distributing practice or rehearsal over several sessions can facilitate the transfer of information to long-term memory (Snowman, Biehler, and McCown, 2012). Recommendations based on information processing theory for improving student learning include gaining students' attention at the beginning of the lesson, bringing to mind relevant prior knowledge, presenting information in an organized manner, increasing meaningfulness, emphasizing important aspects of information to be learned, minimizing interfering information, helping students chunk or group related pieces of information, providing opportunities for students to elaborate on new information through active learning, helping students to use mnemonic techniques, providing opportunities for distributed practice or rehearsal, and helping students develop metacognitive skills (Snowman, Biehler, and McCown, 2012; Huitt, 2000).  Many current instructional technologies "support information processing by helping students to organize and mentally represent ideas . . ." (Snowman, Biehler, and McCown, 2012, p. 276).

Reception Learning is often associated with the ideas of David Ausubel (1963). This form of learning, which involves receiving and processing structured information that has been presented by the teacher, is described in our knowledge base for Learning Goal IV, Instruction.

Discovery Learning and Constructivism: Often associated with the work of Jerome Bruner (1966) and Jean Piaget (1960), discovery learning refers to the process of obtaining knowledge through one's own efforts. In the classroom, discovery learning often occurs though structured or directed activities that require students to manipulate, investigate, and explore materials that may lead them to discover important principles or relationships (Schunk, 2000). Therefore, students are not presented with concepts and ideas in their final form, but rather are required to formulate them for themselves. Though structured discovery learning has long been a part of the science curriculum, the latest trend in discovery-based learning, constructivism, has resulted in renewed and multidisciplinary interest in this form of learning. Cognitive constructivism, based on the ideas of Jean Piaget and others, holds that students are active learners who construct and give their own meaning to knowledge based on their prior experiences and background knowledge. The type of learning best occurs through exploration of a topic from multiple perspectives and through active manipulation of materials (Schunk, 2012). Social constructivism, which has its roots in the views of Lev Vygotsky and others, "emphasizes the role of culture and social interaction in meaningful learning" (Snowman, Biehler, and McCown, 2012, p. 331). Conditions that foster learning from the constructivist perspective include "the use of realistic learning tasks (situated learning)" and discussions that allow "students to share different perspectives of realistic problems" (Snowman, Biehler, and McCown, 2012, p. 363). See Learning Goal IV: Instructional Strategies for an expended explanation of discovery learning and constructivism.

Experiential Learning: According to Kolb (in Sternberg and Zhang, 2000), experiential learning distinguishes itself from cognitive and behavioral learning theories in that it emphasizes the primary role that experience plays in human learning and development. However, it has much in common with constructivism as this theory defines learning as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (Kolb 1984, p. 41.). Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle contains four critical components that facilitate learning: the concrete experience, the reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. While Experiential Learning is commonly associated with the Outward Bound program, classroom teachers across many disciplines incorporate direct experiences for students as part of their school-based curricula (Moore 2010).

Humanistic Models: Based on the work of psychologists and educators such as Abraham Maslow (1970), Carl Rogers (1951), and A.W. Combs (1982), the humanistic approach "to learning is largely constructivist and emphasizes cognitive and affective processes" (Schunk, 2012, p. 351). Humanists believe that education should be holistic and enhance the total development of the person, not only cognitively, but socially and emotionally as well. (Rothstein, 1990). Those who support this model, therefore, often incorporate teaching and learning strategies that integrate feelings, values, and social skills along with knowledge (Schunk, 2000). Humanists also believe that students learn best in warm, trusting classroom environments where they are given choices and allowed to express their creativity. Specific instructional approaches consistent with humanistic theory include not only discovery learning/constructivism (see description under cognitivism), but also nondirective instruction, cooperative learning, discussion-based learning, and holistic learning. These techniques are thoroughly described within our knowledge base, Goal IV, Instruction.

The Brain and Learning: Within the past 20 years, much has been written about "brain-based learning. Though caution is advised in accepting the claims and ideas offered by proponents of brain-based learning, the 12 principles provided by Caine, Caine, McClintic, and Klimek (2009) for engaging the brain in meaningful learning seem reasonable and have much in common with ideas from other theories of learning:

  1. All learning is physiological, suggesting that factors such as stress, exercise, and nutrition affect learning.
  2. The brain/mind is social, and learners should be engaged in social interactions.
  3. The search for meaning is innate. Lessons, such as those using discovery-based strategies that stimulate this tendency, are particularly effective.
  4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning; therefore, lessons presented in context, such as through thematic teaching, help students identify patterns and connect new content with previous experiences.
  5. Emotions are critical to patterning. Students learn and form patterns best in classrooms with a favorable emotional climate.
  6. The brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously. Presenting bits and pieces of information outside of their context is ineffective.
  7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception. Therefore, the entire classroom environment affects student learning.
  8. Learning always involves both conscious and unconscious processes. Encouraging active, intentional processing through reflection and metacognition enhance learning.
  9. There are at least two approaches to memory: archiving isolated facts and skills or making sense of experience.
  10. Learning is developmental, and teaching should engage developmental shifts and steps.
  11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat associated with helplessness.
  12. Each brain is uniquely organized, and its structure is affected by learning. Using multiple approaches and teaching through multiple modalities will appeal to students' individual interests and learning preferences.

Human Development: Human development can be defined as "changes over time in the structure, thought, or behavior of a person due to both biological and environmental influences" (Craig and Kermis, 1995, p.11). In order to make effective classroom decisions, teachers need to have a thorough understanding of these changes, both as explained by developmental theories and as evidenced by the characteristics of students at different stages of development.

Developmental Theories: "Developmental theories are sets of statements that propose general principles of development" (Bee and Boyd, 2010) and offer different perspectives and explanations of developmental processes. Since no one theory adequately explains all facets of development, teachers must have knowledge of multiple developmental theories. Five such theories are described below:

Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory: Psychoanalytic (or psychosexual) theory deals primarily with personality and postulates that human "behavior is motivated by inner, unconscious forces, memories, and conflicts" (Feldman, 1998, p. 26) that often stem from early life experiences. According to this theory, there are three basic structures of the personality: the id (which consists of the irrational libidinal drives that motivate the person to seek pleasure and sexual gratification), the ego (the rational part of the mind), and the superego (essentially the conscience which counterbalances the impulses of the id). Development occurs through a sequence of five psychosexual stages (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital) which focus on a body part (or erogenous zone) that becomes the center of pleasure or gratification (Rice, 1997). Defense mechanisms such as denial, repression, rationalization, and displacement, which serve the important purpose of temporarily distorting reality to relieve anxiety or reduce conflict, are also important components of Psychoanalytic theory. Though primarily of historical interest, an understanding of Freudian theory may give classroom teachers insight into the importance of unconscious feelings and drives that motivate some student behavior.

Erikson's Psychosocial Theory: Derived to some extent from Psychoanalytic Theory, Erikson's Psychosocial Theory places more emphasis on social and environmental factors as the primary determinants of personality. It describes eight psychosocial crises, or turning points, which may result in either positive or negative characteristics. Successful resolution of early crises facilitates the positive resolution of later crises while a negative outcome of an early crisis makes it more difficult to positively resolve later ones (Erikson, 1963). The most important psychosocial crises for K-12 teachers to understand are Industry vs. Inferiority (which corresponds to the elementary school years and plays an important role in the development of self-concept) and Identity vs. Role Confusion (which corresponds to adolescence and can result in either a strong sense of personal identity or confusion about one's role in life).

Learning Theory as an Explanation of Development: Proponents of learning theory attempt to describe and explain developmental changes on the basis of classical and operant conditioning, as well as modeling and imitation. (Bee and Boyd, 2012). These concepts and their classroom applications are described above within the section on theories of learning.

Maslow's Needs Hierarchy: More of a motivational than a developmental theory, Maslow's Needs Hierarchy (Maslow, 1970) describes five levels of human needs: physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization. Lower level (or deficiency needs) must be satisfied before energy can be focused on self-actualization, which involves the development of one's full human potential (Craig and Kermis, 1995). Therefore, it is important for teachers to develop a classroom community that promotes feelings of safety, belongingness, and success.

Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory: Jean Piaget's theory (1960) describes four stages of cognitive development (sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations, and formal operations) and stresses that children think in qualitatively different ways during each of these stages (Philips, 1969). Therefore, it is important for teachers to understand the strengths and limitations of children's thinking and reasoning during each stage and plan instructional activities that are developmentally appropriate. Characteristics of the latter three stages of cognitive development are described below along with other age-related characteristics.

Developmental Stages: Since human development follows reasonably predictable patterns, an understanding of developmental stages helps teachers know what to expect of students at different ages. This knowledge is essential for planning age-appropriate instruction and recognizing those students whose development is delayed or disordered (Rothstein, 1990). For the purposes of this document, only developmental characteristics of preschool/kindergarten, primary, intermediate, junior high school, and high school students will be described. Unless otherwise referenced, all information below was drawn from Bee and Boyd (2012) and Herbert (2003).

Preschool and Kindergarten-Age Students (3 to 6): Physical development of preschool and kindergarten-age children is relatively rapid. In general, their large-muscle coordination is more advanced than their fine-motor development, and handedness may not yet be established. Children within this age range tend to manifest high levels of physical activity and need periodic rest periods. They often express emotions openly, both physically and verbally, and often show jealousy, particularly in regard to teacher attention. At this age level, play is the most frequent form of social interaction, and typically takes the form of associative play (unorganized play with other children) or cooperative play (organized play involving rules and assigned roles). Preschool and kindergarten-age children enjoy being dramatic, and often imitate behavior and roles drawn from television. Their language skills are developing rapidly, and though they are still making grammatical and articulation errors, their vocabulary at age five typically consists of over 2000 words. Intellectually, these children are most often in Piaget's preoperational stage, thus their thinking is often illogical and tends to be dominated by such characteristics as centration (the inability to attend to multiple aspects of a situation) animism (attributing animate qualities to inanimate objects), egocentrism (seeing and understanding situations and events only from their own perspective), and transduction (linking specific situations and events regardless of whether there is a causal relationship).

Primary-Grade Students (Age 6 to 9): Children within this age range share several characteristics and needs with preschool and kindergarten children in that their large motor coordination continue to be more advanced than their fine-motor skills. They still demonstrate a high level of physical activity and, thus, continue to need rest periods and a variety of learning activities that allow for physical activity. Socially, they tend to have best friends as well as selective enemies. Their play is primarily cooperative, though they still often have difficulty resolving disputes over rules. They tend to be eager to learn but need praise for their efforts as they may be easily offended by criticism or lack of attention. Their language skills continue to develop rapidly, and the average six-year-old has mastered nearly all the basic rules of grammar and has a vocabulary of more than 2500 words. Girls have typically mastered all speech sounds by the age of seven and boys by the age of eight. Intellectually, primary-grade children generally remain eager to learn and are often in a transition from preoperational to concrete operational thought (the characteristics of concrete operational thinking are described below).

Intermediate-Grade Students (ages 9-12): The most important aspects of physical development during this stage are the growth spurt and the onset of puberty. The growth spurt (a short, but rapid period of physical growth that occurs immediately before the onset of puberty) typically occurs at about age 10 for girls and 12 for boys. Thus, girls are often taller and heavier than boys during this stage which may result in embarrassment. Puberty (physical changes that mark the onset of sexual maturity), which occurs at about age 12 for girls and 14 in boys, as well as the biological changes it brings about may result in an increase in sexual concerns and curiosity. Socially, peers and peer conformity become increasingly important as social cliques begin to form. Cognitively, children of this age have generally moved into Piaget's stage of concrete operations, and therefore, their thinking is likely to demonstrate sociocentrism (the ability to understand that others may have a different point of view), conservation (understanding that objects remain the same even though their appearance may have changed), reversibility (the ability to return to the beginning of an intellectual operation), classification (the grouping and categorization of similar objects), and limited logical thinking (the ability to draw logical inferences, but only about concrete objects and situations). These intellectual skills are essential for effective academic learning.

Junior High School Students (ages 12-14): As is the case during the intermediate grades, physical development during junior high school is marked by the onset of puberty and its associated physical changes. These changes include the development of breasts, widening of the hips, and the onset of menstruation in females. For males, these changes include deepening of the voice, replacement of fat with muscle, and the appearance of facial hair. In addition to the gender-based maturational differences described above, there are also non-gender-based individual differences in the onset of the growth spurt and puberty. Early and late maturation have been the subject of much research and have offered mixed and somewhat inconsistent results. Though some studies have found advantages such as improved self-confidence for those with early physical maturation, not all studies have found these advantages.

High School Students (ages 14-18): The high school years are an important transitional period in which students move from adolescence to young adulthood. An important part of this transition is the achievement of a personal identity that results in a clear sense of self. The adolescent's peer group often plays an important role in identity development by providing emotional support and opportunities to experiment with various roles and behaviors. According to Craig and Kermis (1995), friendships are especially important during this period, and adolescents typically choose friends with similar interests and values. Cognitively, adolescence marks the transition from concrete operational to formal operational thought. Though not all adolescents make this transition during the high school years, those who do become capable of thinking abstractly, which allows them to hypothesize, systematically explore all logical solutions to a problem, reason by metaphor and analogy, understand proportionality, and think realistically about the future. One interesting phenomenon associated with adolescent cognitive development is adolescent egocentrism. This is characterized by the belief that the adolescent is continually being watched by others (imaginary audience) as well as a feeling of being special and invulnerable. This latter quality may lead to participation in reckless or dangerous activities. Though the adolescent years have traditionally been described in terms of emotional turmoil and increased rebelliousness, as noted by Craig and Kermis (1995), these descriptions are not characteristic of all adolescents. This developmental period can, however, be difficult for some students with problems such as delinquency, pregnancy, substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression being relatively common.

In concluding this section on student development, it is important to remember that the above information describes typical or average students. The development of any individual may vary greatly from the above descriptions, and this variation is not always a cause for alarm.


Ausubel, D. (1963). The psychology of meaningful learning. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Bandura, A. (1971). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bee, H. & Boyd, D. (2010). The Developing Child (12th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Bigge, M. (1982). Learning theories for teachers (4th Edition). New York: Harper and Row.

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Caine, G. Caine, McClintic, C & Klimek, K. G. (2009) 12 Brain/Mind learning principles in action: Developing executive functions of
         the human brain (2nd Ed.).
Thousand Oaks, Ca: Corwin Press Incorporated.

Combs, A. (1982). A personal approach to teaching: Beliefs that make a difference. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Craig, G. & Kermis, M. (1995). Children today. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Dacey, J. & Travers, J. (1991). Human development across the lifespan. Dubuque, IA: W. C Brown Publishers.

Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd Ed.).Toronto: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Feldman, R. (1998). Child development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Genesee, Fred. (2000). "Brain research: Implications for second language learning." ERIC Digests. Retrieved
         from .

Herbert, M. (2003). Typical and atypical development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Huitt, B. (1998). The behavioral system. Valdosta GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from

Huitt, B. (2000). The information processing approach. Valdosta GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved

Hunter, M. (1980). Teach more- faster. El Segundo, CA: TIP Publications.

Joyce, B., Weil, W., & Calhoun, E. (2009). Models of Teaching and Learning (8th Edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lefrancois, G. (1999). Psychology applied to teaching (10th Edition).Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd Ed.). New York: Harper and Row.

Moore, D. (2010). Forms and Issues in Experiential Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 124, p.3-13.

Omrod, J. (1999). Human learning (3rd Ed.) Upper Saddle river, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Piaget, J. (1960). The child's conception of the world. London: Routledge.

Philips, J. L. (1969) The Origins of the intellect: Piaget's theory. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Rothstein, P. (1990). Educational psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rice, P. (1997). Child and adolescent development. Upper Saddle river, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rogers, C. (1951). Client centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Schunk, D. (2000). Learning theories: An educational perspective (3rd Ed) Upper Saddle river, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schunk, D. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective (6th Edition). Boston: Pearson Publishing, Inc.

Snowman, J., McCown, R., & Biehler, R. (2012). Psychology applied to teaching (13th Edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Sternberg R. & Zhang, L. F. (Eds.), (2000) Perspectives on cognitive, learning, and thinking styles. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Last updated July, 2012 by E. Sass