If you are a new teacher, trainer or assessor, it can be quite confusing getting to grips with the many different theories of learning. When writing text books for the teaching qualifications, I try and put things into plain English as it might be the first time someone has heard about them.

This is article one of two and will briefly cover four theories, based on extracts from my book The Award in Education and Training (2014). Relevant references are at the end of the article if you wish to research the theories further. Next month I will cover another four.

  • Bloom's Domains of learning
  • Gagne's Conditions of learning
  • Kolb's Experiential theory
  • Laird's Sensory theory

Bloom's Domains of learning

Bloom (1956) stated that learning goes through five stages which can affect a person's thinking, emotions and actions.

These are known as cognitive, affective, and psycho-motor (respectively). Think of cognitive as the head (thinking), affective as the heart (emotions) and psycho-motor as the hands (actions).

When teaching your subject, you need to consider which domain you want to reach for your session aim. For example:

  • cognitive (subject - geography) learners will state the reasons for coastal erosion
  • affective (subject – the environment) learners will discuss their ideas for recycling
  • psycho-motor (subject – bricklaying) learners will build a two foot high wall.

You will also need to consider how you can address all learning preferences, particularly if your subject is psycho-motor and the majority of your learners are read/write. You can read more about learning preferences in my last article for FE News.

Attention is the first of the five stages of learning, which leads to a change in behaviour once learning has been successful:

  • attention
  • perception
  • understanding
  • short/long term memory
  • change in behaviour.

Your session aim should always be broken down into objectives. These will enable you to assess that learning has taken place. Bloom identified six different levels of learning with associated objectives that could be used. For example:

  • knowledge – list, recall, state
  • comprehension – describe, explain, identify
  • application – apply, construct, solve
  • analysis – calculate; compare, contrast
  • synthesis – argue, define, summarise
  • evaluation – criticise, evaluate, reflect.

Knowledge is the lowest level and evaluation the highest. It's useful to know which level your learners are aiming for, to ensure they can meet the objectives for that level.

Gagne's Conditions of learning

Gagne (1985) suggests that there are several different types or levels of learning. Each different type requires different types of teaching.

He identified five major conditions of learning:

1.  verbal information
2.  intellectual skills
3.  cognitive strategies
4.  motor skills
5.  attitudes.

Different internal and external conditions are required for each category of learning.
For example, for motor skills to be learnt, there must be the opportunity for learners to practise new skills rather than just learn about them. For attitudes, learners must be able to explore these, for example, discussing environmental issues.


In addition, this theory outlines nine events that activate the processes needed for effective learning to take place. Gagne believed all teaching and learning sessions should include a sequence of events through the nine levels. Each has a corresponding cognitive process (in brackets below):

  1. gaining attention (reception)
  2. informing learners of the objective (expectancy)
  3. stimulating recall of prior learning (retrieval)
  4. presenting the stimulus (selective perception)
  5. providing learning guidance (semantic encoding)
  6. eliciting performance (responding)
  7. providing feedback (reinforcement)
  8. assessing performance (retrieval)
  9. enhancing retention and transfer (generalisation).

Learning should take place if learners progress through the levels.

Kolb's Experiential theory

Kolb (1984) proposed a four-stage experiential learning cycle by which people understand their experiences, and as a result, modify their behaviour. It is based on the idea that the more often a learner reflects on a task, the more often they have the opportunity to modify and refine their efforts.

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