Compare and Contrast Different Theoretical Perspectives on Learning


The learning process has for a long time been an important topic of discussion among educators and philosophers. The rationale for discussing various theories is to understand the foundation of learning and how the process takes place (Edgar 2012, p. 1). Various theorists have developed a divergent hypothesis on how people learn and acquire knowledge from their environment, including from other people. Various philosophers advanced their idea on how people learn from when they are born until later in their lives. Notably, the theories affect the teaching and learning process, explaining the prominence of studying them in details. Teachers must comprehend fallacies and their formation as well as how they compare to their understanding and affect the learning process (Edgar 2012, p. 1). Some of the commonly used learning theories are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the social learning theory. Although theories provide a better understanding of the foundation of learning, comparing and contrasting different theoretical perspectives on education would provide a deeper understanding of their hypothesis about the learning process.

Learning Theory

Although each learning theory is approached differently, research has proven that they have various similarities and differences. The analysis of different theories reveals that people are diverse when it comes to learning approaches. Therefore, theoretical frameworks are the basis for understanding how, why, and where people learn (Bell, Tzou, Bricker, & Baines 2012, p. 269). The similarities in the philosophies of knowledge are informed by the fact that learning is universal to human beings. However, differences are inherent in human life explaining the disparities in theories that inform the learning process. Human differences play a critical role of disparity as individuals visit related operating value systems over different periods (Bell, Tzou, Bricker, & Baines 2012, p. 269). The differences play a role in explaining how and why people learn.

Consequently, the different theorists have established their hypothesis deeply understanding the diversity in the social and cultural contexts within which learning occurs. Furthermore, people learn different things through cognitive modification of behavior (Schunk, 2012, p. 2). Importantly, the various elements of the learning theory have an impact on the way learning takes place in varied settings. Hence, understanding the three theories of learning informs teachers and students about the most important aspects of learning. Before exploring the similarities and differences among the three theories, it would be imperative to define and provide a background of each theory.

Classical Conditioning

Simply stated, classical conditioning is the form of learning where the learner associates two different stimuli to respond. The theory proposed by Ivan Pavlov associates learning with an automation process that occurs whenever there is a stimulus strong enough to create a response previously caused by different stimuli. Hence, the theory presents a form of associative learning in which individuals adjust to reactions, depending on the association between a stimulus in the environment and another that an individual perceives or produces (Michael 2017, p. 2). The theory further reveals that people learn the internal model of their surroundings from what they have experienced in the past (Gershman & Niv 2012, p. 255). According to the experiment performed by Pavlov on dogs, he realized that the dogs would salivate any time the attendant who fed them arrived in the room with food. Hence, associating the stimuli with what was already produced within them made dogs salivate. The stimuli, either the sound of the attendant or presence of food, created the behavior change in dogs. The theory shows that information was programmed into the mind, which was evoked any time a stimulus was presented.

Operant Conditioning

The theoretical framework is based on the role of consequences in stimulating learning. B.F. Skinner (1938) is the philosopher behind the proposal of operant conditioning theory. The theory is based on behavior change as a result of reinforcement awarded following the desired response (McLeod 2007, p. 1).  Consequently, the theorist identified three types of reactions of operants that can create behavior modification, which includes neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishers. The neutral operant is the setting where an individual cannot repeat a new behavior. Reinforcers enhance the possibility of a repeat in the behavior, while punishers reduce the potential of repeating a negative behavior. Hence, operant behavior is the control of behavior based on the consequences (Staddon & Cerutti 2003, p. 116). Consequently, learning occurs from the experience of behavior emanating from reinforcement. The theory further relates to behavior modification using reinforcement, punishment, and extension. The reinforcement makes a person continue behaving expectedly. It is worth noting that with reinforcement, the behavior is likely to increase, while punishment would discourage the target behavior.

The Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura proposed the social learning theory. The philosophy is based on the learning process that occurs through learning from observing one’s environment and repeating what has been observed over time. Therefore, learning is a psychological process, and hence, the behavior is modified through observing environment severally (Bandura, 1971, p. 3). Hence, learning occurs through what an individual experiences directly, from observing how other people behave. The theory is claimed to occur in between cogitative and behaviorist learning hypothesis, since it does not fall squarely into any of these two categories. Social learning is the most commonly used approach model of learning as it applies to various contexts due to the potential of people to observe and learn from their social environment. Social learning theory has been conceptualized as individual learning that occurs in social circumstances (Reed et al. 2010, p. 3). For example, positive learning occurs when an individual is influenced by norms such as imitating and modeling positive behavior in society. However, the same process can occur when a person learns negative behavior from the environment. After all, learning transpires through observation of behavior for a prolonged period and imitating it in the social context.

Similarities between the Three Theories

Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the social learning theory are all important concepts in explaining how learning takes place. Although they are based on different aspects of the learning process, the theories reveal how an individual is capable of learning and changing the state of mind through information acquisition (Reed et al. 2010, p. 3; McLeod 2007, p. 1; Michael 2017, p. 2). Critically, the theories relate to how learning occurs in different contexts, such as in the classroom and organizational setup. Furthermore, the theories apply to development education and global learning from the perspective of providing relevant stimuli and reinforcement. The global education is meant to equip learners to contribute positively to the globalized world. Hence, it is critical for teachers to deliver teaching and to learn effectively to support development and global issues. They refer to the modern changes in learning caused by various developments, including globalization, which has increased the flow of information.

Given the importance of defining theories of education that can apply to the contemporary learning contexts, it is critical to establish how the three philosophies can be used. It is evident that, learning takes place when there is a change in the mindset through the collection and processing of information. The theories explain the role of behavior modification, especially in educational settings where teachers seek to support knowledge acquisition by the learners in the local and global contexts. Classical conditioning, operant condition, and social learning theories explain the role of behavior modification using stimuli, rewards, reinforcement, or punishment. The three approaches maintain that learning does not take place in a vacuum. Hence, there should be some conditions (stimuli) in the environment for the learning to occur (Seitz, Kim, & Watanabe 2009, p. 701). For instance, the three theories are applicable in learning organizations through rewards which have been proven to evoke motivation unconsciously. In the currently globally competitive environment, the theories help human resource management to look for reward systems that will motivate employees to become productive. The same can be applied in teaching students to view the world beyond their local contexts. For example, through behavior change using stimuli and reinforcers, teachers can encourage students to change behaviors that contribute to climate change.

Motivation plays an important role in enhancing an individual’s attention, which maintains or reproduces the information that has been learned. Teachers understand the critical role that motivation plays in the learning process because students have a reason to engage in the process (Turner, Christensen, & Meyer, 2009 p. 361). For example, the motivation emanates from the realization that behavior is going to be rewarded. From a global context, the expected reward for a change such as protecting the environment is addressing the negative effects of climate change. The three approaches reveal aspects of motivation to influence the development and global learning. In the case of the classical conditioning, the motivation is the stimuli (such as the food in the case of the dog) (Gershman & Niv 2012, p. 255). In the case of the operant conditioning, the source of motivation is the reinforcement (reward) that comes from the desirable behaving (McLeod 2007, p. 1). From the same perspective, without the punishment, an individual would not stop the negative behavior. In social learning, the motivation is the social environment that has the critical aspects from which the person can learn (Reed et al. 2010, p. 3). For example, the individual can learn from a role model without which there would be nothing to learn.

The three theories relate to behavioral learning regardless of the method used and the context in which they are used. The learning process can be used in behavior change campaigns as a learning process to eliminate negative behaviors and adopt approaches that are more positive (Prochaska 2013, p. 15). For example, they can be used in health promotion where people are expected to change their behavior to prevent disease and build a healthier community. In addition, they are useful in promoting behavior change in students and in organizational settings to adopt practices such as corporate social responsibility. Incorporating the theory in both development and global learning contexts will provide the necessary incentives to address global challenges such as climate change. Hence, even though social learning theory borders between cognitive and behavioral theories, it relates to the other two due to the behavioral aspect of the change created in the learning process.

The primary similarity between the operant and classical conditioning is that learning takes place through association. The idea is supported by the argument that some desired outcomes emanate from unconscious behavior (Custers & Aarts 2010, 47). Hence, there should be some form of stimuli that motivate the behavior and associated action. More importantly is that the stimulus that affects the conscious is usually the initial stage in the pursuance of a goal. The theories play an important role in global organizational settings because of goal-setting tendencies. Such environments require that clear corporate objectives are set and that conditions are provided for their achievement. They also relate to global goals aimed at addressing challenges such as environmental degradation. From the perspective of the operant conditioning, there have to be stimuli that motivate the positive change in behavior to achieve the goals.

Classical conditioning is similar to operant conditioning from the perspective of the attendance of the stimuli for a behavior to occur. In addition, classical conditioning is based on an association between the new and the prevailing stimuli (Michael 2017, p. 2), while operant conditioning allows learning through associating the behavior with a reward or punishment (Staddon & Cerutti 2003, 116). People learn to work hard while positive behavior becomes integrated into their thoughts when they have the right conditions to determine the behavior and positive reinforcements. For instance, in organizational settings, employees require a conducive work environment and positive reinforcers, such as competitive remuneration to become highly productive. Notably, none of the behaviors in the two theories will last without reinforcement. For example, if the food is withdrawn, the dogs will stop salivating on seeing the person who feeds them. Similarly, in the operant conditioning, withdrawing the reward can make the person revert to the old behavior. Similarly, withdrawing punishment can encourage an individual to emulate a negative response.

Differences between the Theories

While both classical and operant approaches are similar in relation to their use of association in the learning process in different contexts, social learning theory takes a rather different perspective. Indeed, social learning involves an environment that is conducive to learning. The person has to observe behavior in the environment to imitate and model it to the point of becoming the norm (Bandura, 1971, p. 4). Social learning theory is the most applicable approach to global learning, especially in the modern world where information is accessed through social media platforms. The new learning environment has brought global issues closer to the learner while providing various incentives and role models that support the learning process. Social learning differs from the need for continued reinforcement of behavior in classical and operant conditioning. For the social learning theory, the process is not so much dependent on reinforcement as long as the social conditions, such as social media are available for learning to occur.

The source of learning is another basis for the differences between the three theories. While operant conditioning learning is based on what is acceptable and reinforced (McLeod 2007, p. 1), social learning theory depends on what the person can observe and learn from (Bandura, 1971, p. 4).  For example, students can learn through social learning by observing their teachers as role models while through operant conditioning the teacher has to reinforce a behavior for the learning to take place. The model plays a major role in integrating development and global learning to education at an early age where students are taught to view the world as a global village.

However, operant conditioning and social learning are somewhat related and differ from classical conditioning. For example, learning can take place through a social learning model when one observes positive behavior being rewarded. Such situations can occur in organizational contexts. Therefore, to build a globally competitive organization, the management should consider using positive rewards to reinforce performance as well as for employees to learn from those being awarded. Such acts can make an individual observe, learn, imitate, and model the behavior being reinforced. Similarly, upon observing someone gets punished for negative behavior, a person is more likely to learn and avoid it to evade punishment. However, the same does not occur in classical conditioning because of the need for an association between two stimuli.

Unlike operant conditioning, the social learning theory and classical conditioning are biologically-motivated. Nonetheless, the biological reaction in classical conditioning is unconscious, while conscious in social learning. When the attendant came into the room, the dogs would salivate though the action was unconscious. In social learning theory, the biological aspect is different and relates to the cognitive change that occurs through observation. The theory is the basis for the formation of the idea of a personal learning environment that becomes the source of formal and informal learning (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012, p. 3). The idea is critical in the modern social media environment that supports global education where users consciously gain knowledge of the information presented. The idea is critical in the modern social media environment where users consciously gain knowledge of the information presented. In social learning theory, learning cannot occur without the environment and the potential to observe what is happening therein. Furthermore, the three models are different in terms of their response approach. For instance, social learning is an intentional response while classical conditioning is an involuntary reaction. When learning transpires in the social learning environment, it is possible to be conscious of the effect.

A significant difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning is that the outcome of the conditioning process does not entirely depend on a single stimulus. Classical conditioning is a passive involuntary process where the learner interacts with two stimuli, the new one and the prevailing one based on experience. The process involves programming of things in the mind of the individual (Custers & Aarts 2010, p. 48). The idea should be used in the learning process because of the need to program information in the minds of a learner. On the contrary, the person engaged in the learning process under operant conditioning is an active participant. For example, the person knowingly engages in a positive behavior due to the expected reward as a result of the action. However, this is unlike the classical conditioning where the person is not in control over the response to the stimuli.

Operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that the former has an incentive or reinforcement to perform the behavior. In classical conditioning, there is no need for an incentive and there is no right or wrong action. For example, conditioning lacks the element of being rewarded for engaging in a particular action or punished for wrong behavior. The theory is most useful where individuals, such as employees develop internal motivation to perform a specific action. Hence, whatever condition is caused by the new stimuli in relation to the prevailing experience is what the person engages in. Social learning theory differs from the two perspectives because of the lack of the reinforcement and the connection of two stimuli. From the social learning theoretical perspective, a person imitates and models a particular behavior based on what they do and the possibility of getting a similar outcome as the original behavior (Bandura 1971, p. 3). Social learning depends on the potential of the individual to learn from the social environment.

The Relationship between the Theories and Research, Policy, and Practice

Regardless of the differences and similarities of the three theories, they are useful in research, policy, and practice. In research on learning, the unique aspects of the theory, such as the use of stimuli and reinforcement should form a strong basis for understanding the learning process. In policy-making, especially in organizations, theories are applicable when developing effective reward systems to motivate employees. Similarly, they can be used in school settings to motivate students to perform well. Therefore, educators should understand the most appropriate theory to apply in teaching students with diverse needs. The theories can support global learning by enabling educators to develop skills, knowledge, and values base to provide a better education for students on how to relate and experience the global world. The theories also differ in explaining how learning takes place in different contexts. The conditions that are necessary for a person to learn according to one approach are different from those essential for learning in another theory. Hence, Reinforcement learning (RL) applies sequential experiences with states and the means for assessing the outcome of the learning process (Gläscher, Daw, Dayan, & O’Doherty, 2010. p. 585). Hence, whichever theory is being applied, educators should strive to understand the outcome through assessment since results differ according to the theoretical foundation.


Theorists have for a long time tried to unravel the mystery of the learning process by explaining the foundation and the conditions through which a person learns. Consequently, they have developed a number of theories that explain the process. Among the commonly used theories are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the social learning theory. Each of the theories has the foundation to explain the learning process. Classical conditioning clarifies learning as taking place when there is an association between two stimuli. Operant conditioning suggests that learning transpires through reinforcement, either reward or punishment. According to social learning approach, learners acquire knowledge through observation, imitation, and modeling of other people’s behavior. While the three theories are similar in that they relate to learning and behavioral change, they differ in various ways, including the way learning occurs and the conditions necessary for the process. Understanding the differences plays an important role in the use of the theories in practice.

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