Principles of Learning: Theorists to Education and Learning Theories

Table of contents

Inquisitive and self-directed learning is a natural behavior for young children. They marvel at each new discovery and strive to understand the meaning behind every question in their world. However, older children seem to be resistant to learning unless directed. By teachers or parents with various forms of external recognition (Deci and Ryan, 1981). Their enthusiasm and inner desire for understanding has diminished. Learning, to older children has become directly connected to demands, controls, and rewards.

In order to understand why this attitude toward learning develops. The concept of motivation in education must be defined and examined in a theoretical sense. Motivation is an essential condition of learning (Ray, 1992, p.3). A motivating condition may be defined as an emotion, desire, physiological need. Or similar impulse that acts as an incitement to action.

Ray (1992) comments that motivation in education is concerned with students’ motivation to learn (p.3). With the understanding of these defined concepts in hand, we can begin to examine the reasons behind school age children losing their enthusiasm for learning. In order to comprehend the reason for the undermining of this intrinsic behavior, we must acknowledge the basic theories of motivation from an eclectic standpoint. By embracing the concepts of learning from both a behaviorist and cognitive point of view, a teacher can tailor the use of reinforcement in the classroom to commit the students to achieving academic excellence with enthusiasm and devotion.


Humanistic behavior and learning techniques are viewed from many different positions of psychological theories (Ramirez, 1983). In order for a teacher to effectively apply these psychological principles in their classroom, they must become knowledgeable in the various conflicting theories. Looking at the theoretical aspect of motivation to learn provides background information about the basic nature of different learning processes (Ericksen, 1974). The locus of control in motivation is the subject area where separate theoretical views come into play. People have either an internal locus of control, an external locus of control, or are simply amotivated.

Intrinsic motivation is a state where the relevance for the learner of the content of the material is the main reason for learning. Extrinsic motivation for learning is a state where the reasons for the learning effort have nothing to do with the content of the learning material. A good learning performance serves only as a means for achieving some desired end result. (Marton, 1982, p.8)

Amotivated people tend to be passive and non-responsive. They seem to believe that they cannot have a meaningful impact on their environment, so they tend not to behave. They frequently feel helpless and are easily upset. Their learning is slow and seems to be painful (Deci and Ryan, 1981, p.2)

The question of how people learn divides learning theorists into one of three major groups: behavioral [classical and operant conditioning], cognitive [insight, latent and observational learning], and eclectic [combinations of behavioral and cognitive theories] (Banks and Thompson, 1995, p.226). Behaviorism, in a contemporary sense, does not rely on solely stimulus/response motives as does classical conditioning. B.F. Skinner developed the concept of behaviorism that focuses on reinforcement as the only factor necessary to explain motivation. This division of behaviorism is classified as operant conditioning (Kolesnik, 1978).

Operant conditioning is more useful in explaining our voluntary behavior and is considerably more relevant to the problems of motivation (Kolesnik, 1978, p.77). Kolesnik comments that the basic tenet of operant conditioning is that behavior is shaped by its end result. The concept of consequences implies some system of reward or punishment, some form of pleasure or pain, some type of positive or negative reinforcement. This whole concept of operant conditioning supports the theoretical view of extrinsic motivation.

Cognitive theories, on the other hand, emphasize the point that our behavior is not determined by discriminative or reinforcing stimuli in and of themselves but by our perceptions or interpretations of those stimuli (Kolesnik, 1978, p.109). This implies that in a classroom situation, learning depends not only on external stimuli such as the explanations, demands, and expectations of teachers but more so on what those stimuli mean to us.

Kolesnik states that cognitive psychology places a greater stress on the process of learning than it does on the outcomes and tends to rely more heavily on intrinsic rather than extrinsic forms of motivation. William Glasser played an essential role in intrinsic motivation of learning through the development of the control theory. The control theory emphasizes the idea that everything people think, do, and feel is generated by what happens inside of them (Banks and Thompson, 1995).

Ideally, motivation should be intrinsic. Students should want to study the subject for its own sake or for the sense of accomplishment in learning something new. Since many students are not intrinsically motivated, however, extrinsic rewards can sometimes offer a first step toward increased motivation (Practitioner, 1987, p.3).

Human beings experience all three of these motivational states at one time or another. Teachers must acknowledge the experiences of these motivational sets in the classroom and implement individualized instruction in order for students to encounter learning at its highest quality. In order to tailor our instructional practices toward developing intrinsically motivated students in the classroom, the use of extrinsic rewards must be carefully analyzed and measured.

Tailoring Extrinsic Reinforcement

As stated before, if extrinsic reinforcement is used incorrectly, the students’ enthusiasm and inner desire to learn can be incapacitated. This undermining occurs because extrinsic rewards create a dependency between the behavior and the reward. The answer to this problem lies in the nature of rewards and communications which they contend have either one of two aspects: controlling or informational (Deci and Ryan, 1981, p.8).

Deci and Ryan define that the function of the controlling aspect is to bring about a certain behavioral result that is desired by the one who is giving the reward. The function of the informational aspect is to provide information to the recipient that is relevant to their performance. Even though every reward contains these two aspects, the conveyance of the reward determines its effects on intrinsic motivation.


In an experiment where two groups of subjects were paid prior to completing a task. One group was paid controllingly and the other was paid informationally. The group of subjects that were paid informationally were more intrinsically motivated to complete the task (Enzle, Ross, Rosenfield, Folger, and Adelman, 1980). This experiment supports the fact that informational reinforcement enhances intrinsic motivation.

This idea can easily be applied to the classroom with use of both tangible and verbal rewards. The important point from the studies mentioned is that the effect of rewards and communications on intrinsic motivation depends on whether they are interpreted by the recipients as being primarily informational or primarily controlling (Deci and Ryan, 1981, p.10). This application is very important in schools because rewards and communications are essential parts of educational systems (Deci and Ryan, 1981).

Concluding Recommendations

The eclectic view of the concept of motivation to learn must then be acknowledged because even though it is ideal to be intrinsically motivated, to discard implementation of extrinsic forms of motivation or avoid the fact that some students will be amotivated at times would not be realistic.

After reviewing behavioral and cognitive theories of learning, it appears to be obvious that the most effective measure to be taken to motivate students to learn would be to implement the best parts of each of the mentioned theoretical concepts (Banks and Thompson, 1995). Behaviorist make a strong argument for limiting the study of learning to observable behavior that can be counted and analyzed for its meaning. Observable behavior is easy to validate and changes are recognizable (Banks and Thompson, 1995, p.273).

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