Learning Theories and Their Influence in the Classroom

A number of instructional theories that were developed years ago, still heavily influence the education system today. These theories include: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. Up until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the specific learning theories that have impacted me as a teacher and the different methods of instruction I use over a course of a day in my classroom. However, after some thoughtful examination, I can name many instances in which behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism have all had a role in the way I deliver instruction to my students each day. In addition, technology continues to have a major role in the way I deliver content to my students today and as a result I see aspects of connectivism being a part of my teaching repitore.


Ertmer and Newby (2013) describe behaviorism as a theory which “contends that responses that are followed by reinforcement are more likely to recur in the future” (p. 48). By using reinforcement, an individual can progress from basic to more complex skills. When thinking of behaviorism what comes to mind are many of the classroom management strategies I have used both in the past and currently. During my first year of teaching, I taught a grade 7/8 split. I found my classroom management strategies being challenged daily. Closer to the end of the year I told the students that if they could not behave in the classroom we wouldn’t be able to go on a field trip at the end of the year. Needless to say we did not go on a field trip that year. The next year I had most of the same students as I taught the grade 7/8/9 split. We had a discussion, and decided that if they could get to 250 “good behavior” points by the end of the year we would go on a camping trip. Well we did go that year, and honestly to this day it was one of the most enjoyable field trips I have been on to date.

The Primary Peach: How to Set-Up a Classroom Economy

Another classroom “behaviorist” system I have used is called the “classroom economy” developed by Raef Esquith. With this system students are assigned a job, given a monthly salary, and can earn bonuses by completing assignments, being at class on time or being caught being kind to a fellow peer. At the end of each month students are required to pay a standard rent for the desks and can choose to spend their money on items that are sold at the weekly auctions. Students are required to do extra cleaning at recesses if they do not have enough money to rent their desks at the end of the month. I don’t use this all year, but I have found students to be highly engaged with this activity. In recent years, I have been able to utilize technology and teach students how to use google spreadsheets and formulas to keep track of the amount of money that they have in their “bank accounts”. While this activity does encourage positive behavior in the classroom, it also promotes life skills such as budgeting.

Now while there are many “behaviorist” methods I use in my classroom, I know that this is not a model for everyone and I think it is important to recognize students of differing abilities. For example, a student ADHD will struggle with impulse control and therefore may have difficulty behaving for a reward or consequence. To this day I have found that one of the key teaching strategies I use is having a positive relationship with the students I teach. As Theodore Roosevelt once said ” Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”.


Ertmer and Newby (2013) describe cognitivism as a theory that ” stresses the acquisition of knowledge and internal mental structures and focuses on the conceptualization of students learning processes and addresses the issues of how information is received, organized, stored and retrieved by the mind” (p. 51). For me the ideas behind this theory are a large part of the curriculum that we as teachers use everyday. The outcomes state what the students need to know and the indicators suggest ways that students can demonstrate their understanding of this knowledge. For example, in grade 4 the outcome HC 4.1 states that students will: Investigate the interdependence of plants and animals, including humans, within habitats and communities. The indicators use words such as identify, classify, draw upon, analyze, construct, and describe; all of which are words that lead to teachers to create lessons that concpetualize knowledge in different ways.


According to Ertmer and Newby, constructivists focus on creating meaning from experience. It is critical that learning takes place in “realistic situations and is relevant to students’ lived experiences” (Ertmer and Newby, p. 59). Constructivists advocate that learning needs to include practice, knowledge and contexts. The constructivist view does not just focus on learning a concept, but rather challenges the learner to apply their knowledge to different situations. To me this means higher order thinking tasks.

When I think of the influence consructivism has had on my teaching I think of Michael Fullan’s 6 C’s.


Using the 6 C’s students are challenged to use their higher order thinking skills. They can apply and construct their knowledge to real world situations, which align with the constructivists view on learning theories. A big part of the 6C’s is communication. It makes me think of a more modern theory called “Connectivism” that has come about as a result of the digital age. Connectivism acknowledges that learning is not just an individual task, that occurs as a result of ones own experience, but that knowledge can be gained through the experience of others. Thinking of google and how easy it is to access endless amounts of information, connectivism points to the need for people to decipher through all of this knowledge to know what facts they find to be real and which ones perhaps are fake. I am finding to this be especially prevalent today with the constant flow of information regarding Covid-19, and the need to be able to tell which information is true and which information is not.

I agree with George Siemens point of view that “technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate and how we learn”. In addition Simons points out that past learning theories focus on how humans actually process information rather than on the value of what is actually being learned. I think this is an important point to consider, given the current technological age we live in. What has changed for me the most as a result of technology is the need for students to be taught about digital citizenship and how to safely and appropriately navigate this new world of endless information. I think it is important that as teachers we equip students with the skills they need to only communicate appropriately, but also sift through all the information that is readily available at their fingertips.


Ertmer, P., & Newby, T. (2013). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From An Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly 26(2), 43-71. https://northweststate.edu/wp-content/uploads/files/21143_ftp.pdf

Siemens, G. (2001). Connectivism: A Learning Theory For A Digital Age. https://jotamac.typepad.com/jotamacs_weblog/files/Connectivism.pdf


3 thoughts on “Learning Theories and Their Influence in the Classroom”

  1. Great post Alyssa,

    I agree, the first thing that came to my mind when we discussed behaviorism was definitely classroom management. As I mentioned in my post, this is something that I also utilized quite heavily in my first year of teaching, but have shifted a bit, and use it primarily for the classroom management piece now. I really like your idea of a classroom economy as it would not only be a good tool to promote positive behaviour and procedures but would be a great tie to the Social Studies curriculum. I’m thinking I may have to steal this from you and give it a try in my classroom later this year!

    Thanks again for a great read (and the great ideas).



  2. I like the classroom economy approach as well and appreciate that you identify that it’s not always a good fit for all students, however. I have used a similar model but have students set goals for how much money they hope to earn by the end of the month. If they reach their goal, they get to spend their money on things chosen from a student-created incentive menu and set a new, more difficult goal for the next month. If they don’t reach their goal, they still keep their money earned, but set a new goal and try again to achieve it the following month. This goal setting aspect teaches them to make realistic goals and holds them accountable to individually achieve it. Sometimes they are successful and other times they aren’t due to a number of factors. All in all, it’s a short term process which is reflected on and reset based on individual motivation and desire. Very applicable to life in general.


  3. Thanks for your post Alyssa. I definitely agree with you that relationships need to come first before the real learning can begin. Once that trust is built, there is often less of a need for the behavioral systems to be in place. It was great to hear about the classroom economy that you have used in the past. I wish I had my own classroom again to utilize many of the great ideas shared in this class!


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