Sample Psychology Research Paper on Behavioral and Cognitive Learning Theories

Behavioral and Cognitive Learning Theories


Learning theories refer to theoretical contexts that try to define the processes of assimilating, processing, and recalling skills learned. Towards this end, various theories have been developed in a bid to explain the mechanisms of learning. For example, various studies have been conducted to examine the impact of cognitive and emotional influences on the learning process. Additionally, experience has also been shown to influence learning. Cognitive and behavioral approaches are among the two main perspectives of learning (Cecil, 2008). Whereas the cognitive approach views learning as involving knowledge acquisition and the subsequent processing of information, behavioral approaches explain learning regarding behavior. The premise of this essay is to explore these two learning theories regarding historical development, key concepts, and their usage in research support. The essay will further examine the educational implications of learning in the classroom setting, along with the biblical worldview about learning behavior in humans. Finally, the most effective learning theory between the two shall be identified. 

Historical Development of Each Theory

Cognitive theory has a rich history of input from diverse cognitive theorists. Among the earliest key figures in this field was George Kelly who viewed individual differences as a consequence of humans’ ability to predict and interpret events that have an impact on them. Albert Ellis was another pioneering figure of the Cognitive theory. His A-B-C model hinges on the understanding that individuals go through Activating Event (A) daily, and how we interpret such events enable us to develop certain Beliefs (B) regarding such events. Consequently, the ensuing Emotional Consequence (C) is chiefly due to our beliefs (Brandimonte, Bruno, & Collina, 2006). Jean Piaget was also influential in the development of the Cognitive theory. According to Piaget, the environment has a huge impact on the process of learning. Another key researcher in cognitive learning was Jerome Bruner, whose main concern was on linking mental processes to the learning process. Bruner emphasized that learning ought to take place through discovery. Robert Gangne identified the various types of learning. These and other researcher have been instrumental in ensuring that cognitive learning theory remains a force to reckon with in the psychology domain.

John B. Watson is widely credited with having developed behaviorism in 1913. He was interested in studying the responses of organisms to small stimuli. Watson was convinced that psychology only gave an objective view of behavior through observation. Ivan Pavlov was also pivotal in advancing behaviorism through his classical conditioning experiment in which he reported that unconditioned response is due to the unconditioned stimulus. Skinner founded the radical behaviorism through his Operant Response theory (Peel, 2005). Albert Bandura recognized modeling and rehearsal as fundamental learning mechanisms. Bandura further acknowledged reinforcement as a ‘reciprocal influence.’ Another behaviorist who was instrumental in propagating behaviorism is Fred Luthans. He has been credited with introducing behaviorism in business management. He achieved this through the introduction of

the organizational behavior modification.

Key Concepts of Each Theory

Cognitive theory is concerned with people’s thoughts, comprehension, and knowledge.

The cognitive approach believes in the experimental study of internal mental behavior. Further, the theory holds the view that a mediational process often takes place between input/stimulus and output/response (Aliakhbari et al., 2015). This, in turn, influences the outcome of behavior. Examples of mediational events include perception, problem-solving, memory, and attention. They are described as mediational processes since they mediate between response and stimulus. Mediation processes precede the response but are preceded by the stimulus. Consequently, cognitive psychologists believe that understanding these mediational processes is instrumental in understanding behavior. Further, the Cognitive theory seeks to demonstrate how individuals understand and represent the environment. It also relates to conscious thinking. 

Ormrod, (2016) examined behaviorism as a tool for enabling learners to understand observational learning. A key concept of behaviorism is the supposition that a learner is basically passive, and consequently, he/she reacts to environmental stimuli. Behaviorists believe that learners begin with nothing and that behavior is determined mainly by negative and positive reinforcements. Both negative and positive reinforcements improve the likelihood of the antecedent behavior recurring. Conversely, punishment, whether negative or positive, reduces the likelihood of the antecedent behavior recurring. Whereas negative punishment signifies that a stimulus has been withdrawn, the reverse signifies that a stimulus has been applied (Aliakhbari et al., 2015). Accordingly, learning depends on the learner’s change of behavior. Unlike the Cognitive theory, Behavioral theory is only concerned with the study of external observables, which includes response and stimulus. Behaviorists are convinced that we cannot study internal behavior simply because we are unable to perceive what takes place in an individual’s mind. Accordingly, it becomes almost impossible to objectively compute it.

Research Support for Each Theory

Kaya Yilmaz’s article endeavors to provide an outline on the impact of the Cognitive theory on learning and in particular, its theoretical basis, illustrative teaching techniques, and inferences for classroom practices. Yilmaz (2011) starts by tracing the use of cognitivism in learning back to the 20th Century due to what he calls an inability by behaviorism to explain how and why people process and interpret information.  According to Yilmaz (2011), we have various elements that impact on cognitivism, including reciprocal teaching and anchored instructions. Other aspects of cognitivism that Yilmaz (2011) has identified include cognitive apprenticeship and inquiry learning. The reasons for the suggestion of these cognitive techniques in teaching is because cognitivism helps to show how learning occurs in varying settings by equipping teachers with strategies that enhance students’ learning. Therefore, the ensuring learning paradigm would be of benefit to teachers as they endeavor to assist students realize the subject’s objectives.

Swann (2013) endeavored to explore the effect of the Cognitive Learning theory on student engagement with the eLearning course when applied in the classroom setting. The study findings revealed two phases in enhancing courseware pedagogy. Whereas the first phase entailed the addition of audio, the other phase encompassed adding audio and removing most of the on-screen text. This aided in the flow of language content via the auditory channel. The study findings also revealed that a majority of e-Learners experience high levels of engagement as they transition from older designs with no provision for audio to the more advanced stages characterized by limited on-screen text and full audio. Learners characterized by intrinsic motivation do not experience engagement or boost following the use of cognitive pedagogies in learning. That is, the cognitive theories and their application in eLearning courseware lead to considerable broadening of this mode of learning.

Concerning the Behavioral theory, Peel (2005) explored the various forms of criticism leveled against behaviorism, including that learning ought to be based on gaining a deep understanding of concepts as opposed to skills or behavior acquisition. However, Peel (2005) finds fault in such criticism arguing that we should not view such criticism as being flawed completely without giving thought to the possible gains by coaches from these types of interventions. Peel (2005) has also introduced NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) as a type of an integrative methodology applied to coaching. He states that it enables coaches to gain self-motivation and personal effectiveness. The article is beneficial to coaches as it equips them with an understanding of the value of behaviorism in their professional careers.

Fryling, Johnston, and Hayes (2011) examine behaviorism as a tool for enabling us to understand observational learning. From the study, Fryling, Johnston, and Hayes (2011) opine that inter-behavioral perspective provides a detailed understanding of observational learning. Besides, it is also quite comprehensive and hence demands no extra constructs for further explanation on intricate processes (Fryling et al., 2011). The findings of this paper are significant in that they can be easily integrated with those from the current scholarship and research in behavior analysis.

Educational Implications

The Behavioral theory is widely applied in the classroom setting and has proven beneficial to both teachers and students. The theory results in both bad and good implications in the classroom setting. The behaviorist teacher involves his/her students in a lot of practice in a bid to perfect the learning process. Such an over-emphasis in practice could, however, overshadow other important classroom activities like discovery learning or discussions. The behaviorist teacher also applies recitation and drills in a bid to encourage rote learning. This practice hinges on the understanding that learners absorb what they are taught through repetition of tasks (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). Cognitive theories hold that learning hinges on past knowledge and experience and that the social environment is crucial in enhancing learning. The theory further contends that learning takes place internally. Consequently, teaching strategies ought to be executed in such a manner as to facilitate the cognitive activity. To encourage cognitive learning, teachers are advised to use demonstrations and to ask their student questions to establish if their students have understood the information taught correctly. An effective teacher endeavors to focus on maintaining and attaining attention. Managing attention gets better with the development of the learning process. This is because older students have learned the skills of filtering distracting stimuli, thereby enhancing attention (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). Some of the teaching strategies that a teacher should adopt in a bid to facilitate cognitive learning include checking student’s past knowledge and if they have gained any attention, posing questions to them, and assisting students with encoding of information so that they can store it into their long-term memory.

Biblical Worldview

The Bible contains numerous verses in which the subject of learning behavior in humans has been explored. For example, Proverbs 18: 15 states that the wise pursue knowledge whereas the intelligent seek knowledge. This means that humans have a tendency to seek knowledge and become wiser. Elsewhere, Proverbs 9 states that, “instructions are necessary for increased learning and wisdom.” What this means is that human beings following learning instructions because they allow them to pursue knowledge processes and become wiser. The Bible also recognizes the value of internalized learning as hypothesized by cognitive theory. For example, Proverbs 22: 6 states that if parents train their children as they ought to, the child will forever cherish these teachings even in old age and will not abandon these.

The Bible further recognizes learning as a continuous process in 2 Timothy 3:7 in which it is stated that man is always hungry for additional knowledge and this hunger is insatiable. Many Christian educators recognize a strong association between students’ intellectual development, worldview development, and spiritual formation. The inclusion of teachers’ worldview into the learning process goes a long way in broadening the students’ worldview thinking. To such educators, true education involves the moral and rational nurturing of a spiritual process. They also recognize that if at all they are to inculcate into their students a biblical worldview, it is important first to include the biblical facts and truth into the instructional curriculum and methodology. This, in turn, forces students to view every element of their lives through the lens of the scripture. Consequently, they will be able to adopt a biblical worldview.

Most Effective Theory of Learning

Constructivism and behaviorism remain very relevant theories in the teaching practice.  Cognitive learning is a more effective learning strategy in comparison with behaviorism. This is because it enables learners to develop their individual cognitive abilities to process, store, recollect, and connect in an effective and efficient manner. For example, the use of visualization helps to enhance the student’s recall and retention rates. Also, the model allows learners to extend and integrate their mental models, which cannot be easily achieved with the behavioral model. Cognitive psychology views learners as information processors, as opposed to responses to external stimuli.  Accordingly, cognitivism explores some of the intricate mental learning processes that behaviorists have chosen to ignore. The recognition of a learner as a processor of information has ensured that reading textbooks and lecturing becomes the preferred methods of teaching. Since the cognitive theory is viewed as a change in mental association or representation as a result of the learner’s experiences, it, therefore, suits the description of an effective learning process in which the students take an active role in the learning process. This is unlike the Behaviorist theory in which a student’s experience is thought to influence the change of behavior in computed ways.

Whereas the behaviorism theory demands that the teacher identify the most effective strategy to condition students to the learning process and hence utilize it, on the other hand, the cognitive theory holds that students should bear such a responsibility so that they take charge of their cognitive processes during learning. This is useful in that it encourages innovativeness in the learning process, as opposed to merely evaluating the habits of learners. Accordingly, the cognitive theory facilitates the evaluation of applied thinking.


Behavioral and cognitive theories are among the leading theories used in the classroom setting today. Cognitive theories are concerned with people’s comprehension, thoughts, and knowledge. Conversely, behavioral theories perceive individuals as passive learners, and that he/she reacts to the environment. Various researches have been conducted in support of each of these theories, with emphasis on their theoretical basis and application in classroom practice. In particular, Yilmaz’s study sought to determine the effect of cognitivism on learning, whereas Swann was interested in the impact of cognitivism on student engagement with e-Learning courses. Elsewhere, Peel endeavored to outline the beneficial aspects of behaviorism when applied in the coaching practice, while Fryling et al. studied behaviorism as a technique that promotes observational learning. Behavioral and cognitive theories are widely applied in the classroom setting with noticeable benefits for both students and teachers. The Bible has distinctly explored the learning behavior in humans, including man’s thirst for knowledge and wisdom, and the need for enhanced learning. While behaviorism is very relevant to the teaching practice, cognitivism is the more effective of the two theories. This is because cognitivism recognizes the learner as a processor of information, and hence tasks him/her with the responsibility of taking charge of the learning process. This promotes innovativeness.


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