3 learning theories to consider when creating eLearning

category: engagement
If you want to deliver a successful and engaging eLearning course, you need to keep in mind how users learn. Understanding the process in which people absorb information and retain knowledge is a crucial part of the development process.

A good course requires the learner to have achieved their objectives; it’s much more than just having strong content. Learning theories are frameworks that are proven to meet the needs of your audience and help them maximise the takeaways from your course. There are certain considerations to take into account when thinking about how best to serve your target audience. If you can grasp this while planning out your course material, you can considerably improve the end results. Here are the three key learning theories you should know, and how they might help when you are planning your eLearning content.



Behaviourism is a theory based on the concept of trying to reinforce good or positive behaviours. It’s really about encouraging learners to respond to something in a certain way, using reward or some sort of stimulus. This is typical in a school classroom where a teacher will reward or reprimand students for how well they behave. In terms of eLearning, this theory is about motivating the learner to help them stay on track. Using praise and buzzwords create positive emotions – for example, terms like “Excellent!” or “You’re doing really well!” in response to a set of correct answers will reinforce knowledge.

Repetition and drill exercises are also a core method of behaviour-based learning. This might not be the most engaging method of teaching, but it does have its uses. Flashcards are an effective way to teach vocabulary in a foreign language because it strengthens memory recall. In financial services, it is often obligatory for employees to complete quarterly eLearning that reinforces essential values such as data privacy, customer service and even whistleblowing. The idea behind this is to drill these good behaviours into all employees and improve company culture.

This is not necessarily a practical framework to teach in-depth topics, but it can definitely help to refine some of your content. It would be a good idea to start a module with a set of rules or guidelines to aid the learner. You might teach them to look for the “top tips” section at the end of each topic so that they instinctively look to absorb these important bits of information.


Cognitivism looks at learners a little bit differently to those in the behaviourism school of thought. When we learn something new, we must process the information in our brains for us to make sense of it. Rather than teach a person what is right or wrong, cognitivism looks to encourage building the thought process behind it. There would be little use in teaching someone how to drive a car by using a book, for example. They need to carry out the process of driving a car to really understand how to use it. Likewise using real-world examples for new IT systems would be much easier to digest than a set of instructions. Even just adding diagrams or process maps can add context in a user’s mind.

One way that cognitivism can be used in eLearning is by teaching the material to the learner and then asking them to justify it. You might pose a question like “Why do you think this is?” or “Explain why X and Y lead to Z.” This encourages true understanding of a topic rather than simply trying to remember certain things. Having a discussion board integrated into your course allows users to discuss the content with each other, and provide answers to peers. While you should have multiple methods of assessment, this is just another way to encourage the cognitive process and improve learning.


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Those who favour constructivism as the best framework believe that all individuals are different and have unique learning styles. The way that one person approaches a problem will be different from how their colleague does. A lot of this is based on previous experiences and how they have handled similar situations in the past.

This style is very open-ended and really allows users to make up their own mind about a situation or experience. It is somewhat similar to cognitivism in that it encourages problem-solving abilities in the learner but not necessarily in a right or wrong format. Case studies or simulations would be good examples of constructivism, as the learner can see how this particular problem or situation has been approached in a real-life scenario. They can take away good solutions to help reinforce their own view or style of working.

This is a great way to actually teach the learning process in an individual but requires a solid base of knowledge to have success. If you want to teach a team how to build customer-centric products, you could get them working collaboratively in groups to help brainstorm and discover new ideas. There is no single solution here, but the process is what’s most important. For eLearning, assessments that require research would be one method to implement this. University essays are a great example of this framework, as the student must build their own argument.

As you can see, there are different situations in which you might use these frameworks, and they should be used simultaneously for best results. Think about what your topic is, how difficult it might be for your target audience, and what methods of learning would help to aid understanding. As a general rule of thumb, you want to set supportive guidelines (behaviour), reinforce core concepts through different methods (cognitive) and encourage process learning (constructive). There’s no set way to teach learners, but a mixed delivery can help to appeal to a wider audience.

If you are interested in reading more about learning theories, this collection of materials from University of California is a good place to start.