Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, Vol. 7, No. 2, June 2006

Human Behavior In The Context of Training: An Overview Of The Role of Learning Theories as Applied to Training and Development

Mohammed S. Chowdhury,  Monroe College


This paper traces the idea from the postulated theories of learning concerning human behavior in the context of training. The study suggests that for effective training learning is a precondition. Many of the theories of learning, though derived from investigations carried out in laboratory conditions, are substantially different from the practical conditions under which human learning takes place but have great implications in training and development. Each of the theories has much to contribute to enrich our understanding of the learning situations though none of them is most appropriate under all the circumstances. The situation is analogous to building a house, where sometimes a hammer is a most effective tool, sometimes a screwdriver, and at other times a saw. The training director is like a house builder who selects different tools as different problems emerge (Hergenhahn, 1976). By and large, the theories and principles are the means to achieve an end (e.g., transfer of learning) and not an end in themselves.

Key words:  learning, transfer of learning, learning theories, training, development

1.         Introduction

Following the increasing role of learning theories in educational psychology, there has been an ongoing trend with the educators and trainers to highlights the importance of learning theories in training. But as the learning theory is multidisciplinary involving areas such as educational psychology, organizational behavior, training and development, and social psychology, both academics and practitioners have undertaken diverse studies in different directions. An understanding of these theories is essential to find out their implications in the field of training and development.  This paper attempts to examine the learning theories with special reference to their roles as applied to training and development.

What is learning?  To a layman learning refers to knowing something. But psychologists do not agree with this simplistic layman view about learning. Although there is no acceptable definition of learning, a generally accepted definition of learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of experience (Robbins, 1998). This means that an external observer has to recognize that learning has taken place (e.g., acquiring a vocabulary, learning to drive a car). Belkin and Gray (1977) define learning a change in the individual as a result of some intervention. It may be viewed as an outcome or as a process. Rogers (2003) views learning as a task-conscious or acquisition learning (learning involved in parenting or with running a home) and. On the other hand learning conscious or formalized learning arises from the process of facilitating learning. It is educative rather than accumulation of experience. Formalized learning makes learning more conscious in order to enhance it.  Smith (1982) views learning as a product (the acquisition of a particular set of knowledge), process (how learners seek to meet needs and reach goals), and a function (how learners are motivated, what brings about change).

Training is an instructor-led, content-based intervention, leading to desired changes in behavior (CIPD, 2005). In training, learning is viewed as an intervening variable to cause behavioral change, which is a dependent variable and the experience or practice works as the independent variables. Two processes or stages of learning in the context of training are evident, namely the process of acquiring skills, knowledge and concepts, and the process of putting these into actions. This differentiates training from education. In fact, training means a well set of defined actions undertaken to achieve the predetermined goal, while in educating neither the objective is given nor is the means of getting it distinct (Skinner; 1968). Of course, this extreme view is one with which many educators would not agree.  Despite this, the fact remains that training is goal-oriented and, unlike education, each action is pre-scheduled. Learning in the context of training, therefore, is well connected with the post learning application, otherwise known as the transfer of learning. Learning is an integral part of training.

Learning is a personal act. We each place our own personal stamp on how we learn, what we learn and when we learn.  How we learn is a question that begs the answer--based on learning theory. The literature on learning theory provides a powerful knowledge base that offers answers to these questions. This becomes the guidance in the design, development and implementation of an effective training and development program. This paper attempts to profile various learning theories and seeks to examine the role of these theories as applied to training and development.

2.         Theories Of Learning: An Overview

Numerous viewpoints concerning learning process exist today. As a context to better understanding all of the theories of learning, we classify learning theories into four paradigms. These are (a) behaviorism, (b) constructivism, (c) cognitivism, and (d) social learning theories (Bandura’s Social Learning and Double Loop Learning of C. Argyris).

2.1.      Behavioral Theories

J.B. Watson who is said to be the father of Behaviorism studied animal’s response to conditioning based on the experiments of Ivan Pavlov. Watson (1913) concluded learning as a sequence of stimulus and response actions in observable cause and effect relationships.

Behaviorism focuses on objectively observable behaviors and discounts mental activities. Behaviorists focus on eliminating maladaptive, conditional reflexes, and developing more adaptive ones, often working with people suffering from irrational fears or phobias (Alberto & Troutman : 2003). They view learning as the acquisition of new behavior and identify two different types of conditioning as a universal learning process: These are (a) classic conditioning and (b) operant conditioning.

Classic Conditioning:  This is a process of learning by temporal association in which two events that repeatedly occur close together in time become fused in a person’s mind and produce the same response (Comer, 2004). That means learning occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus. Pavlov's theory of classical conditioning is considered a major cornerstone of behaviorist theories of learning. According to Pavlov's experiment, when food is placed in a dog's mouth, salivation takes place; food is unconditioned stimulus and the salivation, the unconditioned reflex. When some neutral stimulus, such as the ringing of a bell, is combined with the presentation of food and is repeated for a period of time, the dog salivates with the ringing of the bell, even though food is not given. The ringing of the bell is the conditioned stimulus while salivation is the conditioned response or reflex (Dembo: 1994). The result of this experiment led to the formation of Pavlov's classical conditioning in which an individual responds to some stimulus that would ordinarily produce such a response.

Operant Conditioning: Operant conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced.  If a behavior is rewarded, that behavior is repeated. B.F. Skinner is considered the best-known behaviorist to use reinforcement techniques and is responsible for much of the sophistication of modern training and teaching. The theory of B.F. Skinner is based upon the idea that learning is a function of change in overt behavior. Changes in behavior are the result of an individual's response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. According to Skinner, voluntary or automatic behavior is either strengthened or weakened by the immediate presence of a reward or punishment (Skinner: 1968).

  The most important aspect of Skinner's contribution to training is the significance attached to the organism, which is essentially active in the environment in the emitting behavior. According to Skinner, the job of the trainer is to ensure the right behavior is reinforced Thus, the trainer should have the clear idea about the terminal behavior of the trainees, and the trainer should closely follow the trainees to appropriately reinforce correct responses. This is the purpose of programmed instruction. Burns (1995) notes that much Competency Based Training is based on this theory.

2.2       Cognitive Theories

Cognitive theories view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which human process and store information." (Good and Brophy, 1990). Cognitive is governed by an objective view of the nature of knowledge and what it means to know something; the transition from behavioral instructional design principles to those of a cognitive style was not entirely difficult. The goal of instruction remained the communication and transfer of knowledge to learners in the most efficient and effective manner possible. (Bender et al, 1995)

Classical Gestalt Theory and, Tolman’s Sign Learning Theory, which is otherwise known as purposive behaviorism, are the most important cognitive theories relevant to training. The gestalt psychologists explain that learning is neither a matter of adding new traces nor subtracting old ones but of changing one gestalt into another. They view learning as a purposive, exploitative, imaginative and creative process of developing new insights or modifying old ones (Biggie, 1964; Hill, 1963).  Hill (2002) treats motivation is a crucial aspect of learning process. It is closely related to arousal, attention, anxiety, and feedback/reinforcement. Weiner (1990) points out that behavioral theories tend to focus on extrinsic motivation (rewards) while cognitive theories deal with intrinsic motivation (i.e., goals)

Tolman's theory is an attempt to combine the advantages of cognitive and connectionism theories. Tolman (1932) states that what an individual learns serves as "the lay of the land," which gradually develops a picture of the environment known as the "cognitive map". Once he is given a problem, he uses the map to solve it by selecting alternative ways and means.  Three characteristics of Tolman’s theory (Hill, 1963; Morea, 1972; Hillgard & Bower; 1975) include: (a) it is concerned with goal directed behavior, not with conscious experience; (b) it explains learning in terms of the effects of external stimuli on behavior; and (c) it considers that behavior is changed through an organism’s experience of the environment.

The points that assume importance in the context of training and development are (a) individual behavior is goal directed so training should take into account the trainee's goal;  (b) learning is a meaningful process so training must evolve a process where the learner can understand what he learns; and (c) each learner learns through his own cognitive map. The trainer should take this into account and organize a program on the basis of the cognitive maps of the learners.

2.3.      Constructivism

Constructivism is recognized as a unique learning theory in itself. Behaviorism and cognitivsm both support the practice of analyzing a task and breaking it down into manageable chunks, establishing objectives, and measuring performance based on those objectives. Constructivsm, on the other hand, promotes a more open-ended learning experience where the methods and results of learning are not easily measured and may not be the same for each learner.

Constructivsts believe that all humans have the ability to construct knowledge in their own minds through a process of discovery and problem solving. The extent to which this process can take place naturally without structure and teaching is the defining factors amongst those who advocate this learning theory. Jean Piaget (1970), a Swiss psychologist, observed human development as a progressive stage of cognitive development. His four stages, which commence at infancy and progress into adulthood, characterize the cognitive abilities necessary at each stage to construct meaning of ones environment. In this sense, Piaget’s theory is similar to other constructivists’ perspectives of learning (e.g., Vygotsky). Fundamentally, Constructivism is a cognitive learning theory because of its focus on the mental processes that construct meaning. Other important learning theories equated with cognitive psychology are Scaffolding theory of Lev Vygotsky, and J. Bruner's Construtivist theory. Lev Vygotsky’s theoretical framework is that the culture we live in influences our social and cognitive development. Vygotsky (1978) writes: "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (p, 57) (intrapsychological). He further adds that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span, which he calls the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD). The implication of his theory for training purposes is that the job of an educator has to identify this zone and to find out where the child was situated in this zone and build upon their specific level through a "scaffolding process". Building from what the learner knows is in essence anchoring the learning on past experience. A major theme in theoretical framework of J Bruner is that learning is an active process in which the learner constructs new ideas or concepts based upon their inherent /past knowledge. Much of the theory is linked to child development research (especially Piaget). In his most recent work, Bruner (1986, 1990) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning. Under the theory of constructivism, trainers can focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in trainees. Trainers can tailor their strategies to the trainee’s responses and encourage trainees to analyze, interpret, and predict information.

2.4.      Social Learning Theories

Research on learning process continues, and it is impossible to give an integrated summary of them. Therefore, some authors gave them a common name of "Current Learning Theories School" (This & Lippitt, 1966, Hilgard & Bower, 1975). These theories include, for example, modification of behavioral theories, improvement upon gestalt theories, and integration of gestalt and behavioral theories. Most of the more recent research on learning is carried out in such a manner that they transcend the boundary of one particular discipline. Thus, concepts and principles of such areas as biology, neurophysiology, mathematics, statistics, physics and chemistry are also being used in learning theories.

Some of the learning theories, especially the Social Learning Theory of Bandura and Double Loop Learning of Argyris, have been found to have great relevance in the context of training and development. Bandura's social learning theory got the widest acceptance because of its complete but parsimonious interpretation of social learning (Davis & Luthans, 1980; Manz & Sims, 1981). Bandura’s theory explains human behavior in terms of a continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental determinants. Learning takes place both as a result of experienced responses (i.e, operant view of learning) and vicariously through observing the effects on the social environment of other people's behavior.  In explaining his theory of modeling, Bandura (1969, 1976, 1977) considers four distinct components or sub-processes: attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivational processes. These processes explain the acquisition and maintenance of observational learning or modeling (Davis & Luthans, 1980)

Social learning theory plays an important role in training and development. First, the manager, by becoming a role model for his/her coworkers, can improve their behavior. In fact employees are more likely to imitate their superiors than their peers because of their status, experience and reward power. Second, modeling has a considerable role to play in implementing a self-managed approach through self-observation and self-monitoring (Davis & Luthans, 1980). Third, for improving the effectiveness of training, a vicarious or modeling principle has been proposed to be used in four stages, namely, 1) presentation of models displaying the desired behaviors, 2) imitation or rehearsal by the observer of the modeling behaviors; 3) social reinforcement or favorable recognition for adoption of the modeled behaviors by the observer; and 4) transfer of training to encourage the use of learned behaviors back on the job (Goldstein & Sorcher, 1974; Manz & Sims, 1981).

Argyris (1976) proposes double loop learning theory, which pertains to learning to change underlying values and assumptions. The focus of the theory is on solving problems that are complex and ill structures and which change as problem-solving advances. In single loop learning members of an organization respond to environmental changes by detecting and correcting errors which permit the organization's underlying norms, policies and objectives (Argyris, 1978). In recent years Argyris has focused on a methodology for implementing action theory on a broad scale called "action science" and the role of learning at the organizational level (Argyris, 1993). The double-loop learning theory of Argyris is especially relevant to management education and training. Individuals must learn to discriminate the difference between their perceptions and reality (espoused Vs theory-in-use). Such learning primarily takes place through social interactions.

Because of the importance in human interaction in management, social learning theory (particularly modeling and role-playing) provides general framework for many aspects of management education. Coaching and monitoring are commonly used management development techniques that attempt to harness social learning in the work place (e.g., Rossett, 1990)

3.         Discussion

Learning theories are the basic raw materials, which are applied in training activities. It is, therefore, essential that the trainer understand the learning theories so that he or she can design the effective training program. Schon (1990) defines design as “the process by which things are made…. designers make presentations of things to be built” (p, 110). The behaviorists, the cognitivists, and the humanists emphasize different aspects of the teaching-learning process in their approaches. While behaviorists focus on external environmental conditions resulting in observations and measurable changes in behavior, constructivists believe that all humans have the ability to construct knowledge in their own minds through a process of discovery and problem-solving. On the other hand, the humanists emphasize on emotions, attitudes of human behavior that influence learning.

 Although all learning theories permeate all dimensions of training, none of them is most appropriate under all circumstances. Depending on the trainees and training approaches, different learning theories may apply.  The training director, as mentioned previously, is just like a house builder who selects different tools as different problems arise. Consider the example of three approaches to training, which are: (a) the traditional approach to training, (b) the experiential approach, and (c) the performance-based approach (Rama et al, 1993).   In traditional approach to building a house (training), the training director designs the objectives, contents, techniques, assignments, plans, motivation, evaluation etc, while in experiential approach, the training director incorporates the experiences wherein the trainee becomes most active and influence the training process. In this approach trainers and trainee jointly determine the objectives and other of the training.  On the other hand, performance-based approach to training measures goals through the attainment of a given level of efficiency instead of passing grades of the trainees.  Therefore, different tools are needed in different training styles like a house builder needs different tools for different problems. 

4.         Conclusion

A theory of learning provides a summary of vast amounts of knowledge relevant to the laws of learning in a concise manner. Learning theories not only explain how learning takes place but also why learning occurs. These theories provide us with a relevant conceptual framework for interpreting the learning processes and direct our attention to those variables that are crucial in achieving the desired goals.  Therefore, the training director gets the underlying structures of the learners' way of learning through this theoretical knowledge and can identify what particular behavior is involved in the proposed training program.

Using knowledge about how learning is produced (function) and about what happens when people learn (process), participants in effective training programs develop new knowledge and skills as teachers a, managers, and administrators (product). (Smith, 1982).  Learning theories provide learning organization necessary skills at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. That is, learning theories trigger the organizational improvement.

Different learning theories overlap (the same strategy for a different reason), and learning theory strategies are concentrated along different points of a continuum, depending on the focus of learning theory   and the level of cognitive process required. A behavioral approach can effectively facilitate mastery of the content of a profession (knowing what); cognitive strategies are useful in solving tactics where defined facts and rules are applied in unfamiliar situations (knowing how); and constructivist strategies are suited to dealing with ill-defined problems through reflection-in- action (Ertner and Newby, 1993)

None of the various suggestions and guidelines stemming from different learning schools is the most appropriate under all the circumstances, but each contributes to enrich our understanding of the learning situations. This situation is analogous to building a house, where sometimes a hammer is a most effective tool, sometimes a screwdriver, and still at other times, a saw. The training director is just like the house builders who select different tools as different problems arise (Hergenhahn, 1976). Therefore, the instructional designer must understand the strengths and weaknesses of each learning theory to optimize their use in appropriate instructional design strategy.

So it seems appropriate to state that learning theories are the guidance in the design, development and implementation of an effective training program designed to increase workforce competence, capacity for change, and competitiveness.                     

5.         Recommendation

Expanded emphasis on adult training, as part of a life-long learning philosophy requires additional study of the learning process. More adults are enrolled in training courses on a voluntary basis and a significant number are involved in the learning process through mandates from an employer. The goal of all these efforts should be to maximize the learning experience.

Studies should be undertaken to determine if changes in the population currently engaged in training can best learn through the use of the theories reviewed in this paper, or if there are other more relevant theories that can identify aspects of the learning process in training.

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Contact the Author:

Dr. Mohammed S. Chowdhury, Department of Business Administration, Monroe College, Bronx, NY 10468; Email: