Teaching in Higher Education: Exploring Learning and Teaching

by: Ed Carbonell

There are several learning theories that explain how people learn. Observations on learning dates back as early as the time of Ivan Pavlov in the 1800’s. Pavlov researched about classical conditioning in the areas of Behaviourism. He discovered that learning exists through reinforcement of a natural reflex wherein he used dogs and observed them in labs noticing that they would associate food with the sound of the bell. This is just one of the few theories that explore how people learn. Through time, several learning theories and philosophies were developed which has formed as the basis for today’s pedagogy in higher education.

Let’s look at the various learning theories…

· Behaviourism

In Behaviourism, learning is observed and measured through change in behaviours (Rogers & Horrocks 2010). The behaviourists in the 19th century studied animals to observe how learning works. In the experiments of J.B.Watson, learning is measured by responses brought by a certain stimulus, thus he concluded that learning is formed through stimulus-response connections (Child, 2004).

Another famous psychologist who studied learning on the Behaviourist point of view was Ivan Pavlov. He discovered that dogs would salivate in the presence of a stimulus such as bell sounds especially when this is associated with food. His study was strictly focused on physiological reflexes and the discovery of this conditioning with sounds and food and salivation was done by accident. With this finding, he wrote about two processes involved in conditioning, in which learning is obtained by reinforcement: classical and operant conditioning (Child 2004).

Ø Classical Conditioning – learning new behaviours are involuntarily obtained via association of a stimulus. The example of this is Pavlov’s observation of the dog salivating associating the sound of the bell with food (Gagne 1985).

Ø Operant Conditioning – learning new behaviours are conditioned voluntarily through reward systems. The reward serves as the stimulus for learning (Gagne 1985).

· Cognitivism

Ø Cognitivism views learning as something from within – referring to the mental processes from within such as memory, storage, assimilation, and retrieval of information to gain new knowledge as well as apply the new knowledge gained. The human mind is capable of learning through schemas, and through schemas the mind is able to associate patterns to expand ones learning (David, 2015). In Cognitivism, learning is also viewed as something that occurs as a result of prior knowledge or experience.

Ø Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development is an example of how learning is viewed on the contructiivist point of view. In this view, learning is developed through several stages starting from the sensorimotor stage during infancy to the formal operations stage in adulthood. Learning is formed through mental constructs of the world called schema and that through the stages, the adult is able to learn more complex information as the mind develops into the further stages (McLeod, 2018)

· Humanism

Ø The Humanist view is that behaviour is not only in the view of the observer, but also on the individual’s inner feelings and self-image. Furthermore, humanism also believes that learning is influenced by personal meanings and that everyone is capable of contributing to society provided that the needs are fulfilled

Ø Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains about the human needs of man in that in order to attain the higher level needs, man must first fulfill the basic needs in order to appreciate the more advanced needs. The needs according to Maslow are: physiological needs, safety and security, love & belongingness, self-esteem, and self-actualisation.

· Constructivism

The Constructivists believe that learning is obtained from creating meaning out from experience (Kristinsdottir 2001). Hodson also mentions about constructivism and learning in that learning occurs internally on someone else’s head, independent of the instruction (Hodgson, 2003).

The various theories have strictly defined themselves in that they are interested only on specific areas as to which it is defined. Behaviourism for example, is interested only on what is observable as cognitive is concerned to what really occurs inside the mind during the learning process such as attention, perception, encoding, storage and retrieval of information. As education practitioners, it is important that we explore various learning theories in our teaching sessions rather than sticking to only one in order to tailor our teaching according to student’s needs. Each theories have their own strengths and weaknesses and it is because of these that we have to consider other theories as well.

It is also important to note that how we teach students will depend on what type of course or topic we are teaching as well as the nature of the course. Some courses are very well prescribed by their professional bodies in which these professional bodies themselves set standards as to what they should expect of students whereas there are also those courses in which a high level of creativity is encouraged. You also have courses which includes some practical involvement like in laboratories or placements in various institutions and centres like hospitals and clinics. The approach on how theory is implemented in practice can be very different, and that is up to the lecturer or teacher to critically evaluate as to what works best in the situation. The teacher can design the teachings based on the learning theories. It may be one theory or a combination of the theories but the most important is that for adult learners, active learning should take place rather than passive. According to Brame (n.d.), active learning is beneficial to learners in that learners are likely to retain information and apply what they have learned. It is then up to the teacher as to how this will be planned in class to implement that type of teaching that promotes vigorous engagement in the learning content , the type which is highly applicable in higher education.


Gagne, R. M. (1985). The Conditions of Learning: Fourth Edition. Association Learning. USA: CBS College Publishing

Child, D. (2004). Psychology of the Teacher: 7th Edition. Learning theory and Practice. London: Continuum

David L. (2015). “Cognitivism,” in Learning Theories. Available at: https://www.learning-theories.com/cognitivism.html. [Accessed 19 June 2020]

Hodgson, D. (1999). Teaching and Learning Science: Towards a Personalised Approach. Berkshire. Open university Press

Kristinsdóttir, S. (2001). Constructivist Theories. [online] Available at: http://mennta.hi.is/starfsfolk/solrunb/construc.htm [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].

Brame, C. (n.d.). Active Learning. [online] Vanderbilt University. Available at: https://wp0.vanderbilt.edu/cft/searchresults/?q=Active+Learning&submit= [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].

Rogers, A. and Horrocks, N. (2010). Teaching Adults: Fourth Edition. The Nature of Learning. England: Open University Press

McLeod, S. A. (2018). Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Simply Psychology. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html [Accessed: 19 January 2020]

Humnist learning Systems (2020). What is Humanism. [online] Available at: https://humanistlearning.com/whatishumanism/ [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].

Published by Nurse Talks

Nurse Talks is developed to hopefully share talks about nursing, health & academics. It can be a resource for nurses and health professionals however all are welcome. I also aim to share information about health & wellness which is a very important aspect of our lives.

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