Digital learning environments have gained huge traction in recent months. How can we draw on theory and research to design the best possible EdTech tools for students?

Theories of learning, developed by educational psychologists over decades, describe how students acquire and retain knowledge. In this summary, we consider five overarching paradigms of learning and explore how they can be harnessed to support education in digital learning environments.

1. Behaviourism

Behaviourism asserts that learners are “blank slates” and will learn based on repetition of external stimuli.1 Positive and negative reinforcement can be used to shape outcomes.

In this paradigm, punishment and reward systems are important. Digital assessment can optimise this by giving instant, actionable feedback.

2. Cognitivism

Cognitivism, which arose in the 1950s as a response to behaviourism, views the process of knowledge acquisition through the “black box” of the human mind. In this view, underlying mental structures and processes such as memory, thinking and problem-solving are key. That is, cognitivism attends to beliefs, attitudes, and values of students, believing that these influence how the students respond to information delivered to them.2

Ertmer and Newby suggest that “the real focus of the cognitive approach is on changing the learner by encouraging him/her to use appropriate learning strategies’.3 Digital resources can be designed to give students greater control of their own learning, facilitating autonomy over when, where, on which device, and what to study.

3. Constructivism

According to constructivism, learners actively build their own knowledge and understanding of the world based on their experiences, and by linking their previous experiences to new information.4

An environment conducive to reflection, discovery and teamwork would support this theory of learning. Social connections are also often emphasized by constructivists. EdTech can draw on these insights to support learning through the use of chat rooms, self-exploration, online forums, synchronous video call discussions, and so on.

4. Humanism

Humanistic learning puts students at the centre and is highly personalised. In this paradigm, learning helps individuals achieve self-actualisation (the highest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs).5 According to this view, everyone has a “natural desire to learn”, and teachers should foster this, encouraging self-evaluation and exploration by students.

In this view, a cooperative, supportive environment in which the educator is seen as a facilitator, rather than someone whose primary role is to impart information, will promote learning.

5. Connectivism

This is a relatively new theory which suggests that individuals learn by forming connections. Learning may occur across peer networks, and this may be in an online environment (such as a Massive Open Online Course).6 Much of the popularity of digital learning grows out of the connectivism paradigm. Connectivism emphasises the autonomy of students and how they choose to learn.

In this view, educators should focus on connecting learners to other learners and networks of knowledge. The process is valued over the end product. Essentially, the educator’s role (similar to constructivism) is to introduce a learning environment, in which students make connections for themselves or through collaboration with each other.7


1 Paradigms of Education. 2020. Behaviourism: Paradigms Of Education. [online] Available at: <>.

2 Ertmer, P. and Newby, T. 2020. ‘Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective’. Performance Improvement Quarterly 26 (2), 43-71.

3 ibid.

4 Nola, Robert and Irzik, Gürol. 2006. Philosophy, Science, Education and Culture. Springer Science & Business Media, p. 175.

5 Maslow, A. H. 1943. ‘A theory of human motivation’. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

6 Learning Theories. 2020. Connectivism (Siemens, Downes) – Learning Theories. [online] Available at: <>.

7 ibid.