Types of Learning

While it may seem unnecessary to observe “there are many different kinds of learning,” the importance of those differences and the effects that a failure to recognize those differences can have on learning experiences are often overlooked even by experiences teachers.  While these types of learning are presented as different, most learning environments are places in which these are integrated, the boundaries and definitions are not clear, so effective learning often finds these kluged together.


One of the earliest psychological theories to be applied to learning was behaviorism. According to this idea, humans learn by associating rewards with actions; we tend to continue to do (learn) that which is positively rewarded and avoid that which is negatively rewarded. The type of learning associated with behaviorism is called conditioning. It was the dominant theory applied to teaching for much of the 20th century, although researchers have found it does not explain human learning very well. Conditioning is useful when one is trying to establish habits, but the outcomes are unpredictable. Most experienced educators have abandoned conditioning as a tool for organizing their teaching.


One of the most commonly used methods of learning in informal settings is observational learning. Learners watch those who are experienced do and listen to those describe what they want to learn, then figure out how to do it. Beyond trial-and-error, observational learning is a highly-guided method of learning, and learners assume greater responsibility for their learning as they become more skilled. Observational learning also tends to be a very social form of learning with teachers demonstrating and guiding and learners asking.

Statistical Learning

Some learning occurs when the learner is exposed to consistent patterns for many, many repetitions. For example, many rules of grammar are learned by hearing the same pattern for years; we learn the past tense of verbs and can apply to “add an –ed suffix” long before being taught that rule in school.

Perceptual and Motor Learning

 Both the ability to learn by perceiving elements of the environment and the ability to learn how to control one’s body in predictable ways can learn to actions that are unconscious, but that are developed through practice and appropriate teaching. Once we learn to walk, for example, we are able to carry out that skill “in the background” and in seemingly effortless control. If adults learn to walk again, they quickly realize how much coordination must be relearned to refine this motor skill.

As an adult, I have developed a taste for watching soccer. As I have learned more about the game, and heard experts’ interpretations of matches and plays, and had them direct me to watch for important aspects of individual and team play, I have become a more independent perceptual learner. I now react in the same way to good play as more experienced soccer fans, so I have learned to perceive what they learn.

Declarative Learning

For many generations, much of the curriculum we were expected to learn comprised facts that we could state. Our relationship with declarative knowledge has certainly changed in the digital age. While we can “look up” almost every bit of declarative knowledge we need, in many instances our performance depends on knowing information immediately. For this reason, many teachers facilitate students’ learning facts in classes.

The default approach to learning facts has been be memorization. Teachers can introduce mnemonics and other strategies for connecting facts to others or to general themes. These strategies tend to improve retention of facts.

Learning through Inference

Once they understand the world or systems, humans build models that they use to predict what will happen and they draw conclusions based on their observations. Because many models can be constructed and inferences made based on irrelevant observations or inaccurate or inefficient models, this type of learning is best accomplished with the guidance of a teacher. When interacting about models, the leaners and the students are leveraging social learning to construct shared knowledge, thus it can be very effective.