Cognitive Theory of Learning vs. Behavioral Theory of Learing

In short, the behaviorist theory of learning is more based on the outcome of learning, while the cognitive theory focuses on the process of learning. The behaviorist view gives stimulus (positive or negative, punisher or reinforcer) to motivate the learner to produce the desired outcome. This is good to use in the classroom for things like classroom management and motivating children to do their work. Motivation can be given in the form of positive reinforcement (giving them something to reward a behavior, like candy when everyone does their homework), negative reinforcement(taking something away to reward behavior, like removing a final exam if everyone gets an A on their essays), positive punishment (adding something to discourage a behavior, like giving an extra assignment to a student who skipped class without excuse) and finally negative punishment(taking something away to discourage a behavior, like taking away a recess if the class was disrespectful to a substitute). The problem with this theory is that it is not very specific, it is also hard to instill intrinsic motivation to do their work and behave well.

The cognitive theory of learning focuses more on the learning process. It makes the brain comparable to a computer (it’s really more like 50 computers running at the same time, but for simplicity’s sake we will stick to one). Our brain gets an input of information and we have folders (memory) where we store this information. We check to see if it fits into one of our existing folders, and if it does not fit at all, we make a new folder, if mostly fits, we may have to expand our understanding of this content. Here is a video explaining how we do this:

This theory helps you understand how a child learns, but it does not give clear ways to incorporate it into the classroom, in that way it is somewhat vague. Even so, know how a student learns information is vital when creating lessons and units. It also considers each child as an individual, reminding teachers that not all students have the same amount of background knowledge.

I believe that both of these theories have their uses in the classroom, but I think that knowing how students learn (the cognitive learning theory) is something that will inform instruction the most. I hope to use the motivators described in the behaviorist learning theory effectively. If not used appropriately, punishments and rewards can become ineffective and sometimes even detrimental to relationships with students. I hope to incorporate the cognitive theory of learning to remind me to always check my students’ background knowledge, and make sure that they always have the necessary tools to master learning objectives. I also learned that students think and learn in different ways. It is important to cater to multiple learning styles to help students remember what I am teaching them.

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