Chapter 6: Theories of Learning

Chapter 6: Theories of Learning


Learning Framework: Effective Strategies for College Success

Chapter 6: Theories of Learning

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Define thinking and thought
  • Describe metacognition and how it applies to your learning
  • Identify the stages of the learning process
  • Define learning objectives
  • Use Bloom’s taxonomy to interpret learning objectives and adjust your expectations accordingly
  • Explain the model of strategic learning

Theories of Learning

Theories of Learning

What Is Thought?

Cogito ergo sum.” This famous Latin phrase comes from French philosopher René Descartes in the early 1600s. Translated into English, it means “I think, therefore I am.” It’s actually a profound philosophical idea, and people have argued about it for centuries: we exist, and we are aware that we exist, because we think. Without thought or the ability to think, we don’t exist. Do you agree? Even if you think Descartes got it wrong, most would say that thought is intimately connected to being human and that, as humans, we are all thinking beings.

What, then, are thinking and thought? Below are some basic working definitions:

  • Thinking is the mental process you use to form associations and models of the world. When you think, you manipulate information to form concepts, to engage in problem-solving, to reason, and to make decisions.
  • Thought can be described as the act of thinking that produces thoughts, which arise as ideas, images, sounds, or even emotions.



Metacognition is one of the distinctive characteristics of the human mind that enables us to reflect on our own mental states. It is defined as “cognition about cognitive phenomena,” or “thinking about thinking.” Metacognition is reflected in many day-to-day activities, such as when you realize that one strategy is better than another for solving a particular type of problem, or when you are able to recognize how your own experiences and perspectives may impact how you understand, react to, or judge certain situations.

Metacognition includes two clusters of activities: knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition. Metacognitive knowledge refers to a person’s knowledge or understanding of cognitive processes. In other words, it is the ability to think about what you know and how you know it. This includes knowledge about your own strengths and limitations as well as factors that may interact to help or hinder your learning. Metacognitive regulation builds on this knowledge and refers to a person’s ability to regulate cognitive processes during problem-solving. You use metacognitive knowledge to make decisions about how to approach new problems or how to effectively learn new information and skills. This involves using various self-regulatory mechanisms like planning ahead, monitoring your progress, and evaluating your own efficiency and effectiveness in learning a task.

To give a concrete example of these metacognitive activities, let’s apply them to how you study for an exam. Knowing that your cell phone’s notifications tend to distract you from studying is an example of metacognitive knowledge: you are aware of your phone’s potential to hinder your learning. Metacognitive regulation requires you to take action based on this knowledge and would involve you making the conscious decision to put your cell phone where you cannot see or hear it or to turn it off completely, while you study. In doing so, you regulate your use of your phone to help yourself be more successful in preparing for your exam.

Watch this supplemental video where Dr. Stephen Chew from Samford University explains how to use metacognition to help you get the most out of studying.

How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Part 1 of 5, "Beliefs That Make You Fail... Or Succeed"


Stages of the Learning Process

We said earlier that metacognitive knowledge involves thinking about the cognitive process, about what you know and how you know it. An important first step in developing metacognitive knowledge about yourself as a learner is to develop an awareness of how we learn new things. Consider the experiences you’ve had with learning something new, such as learning to tie your shoes or drive a car. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after some struggling, it became second nature. These experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: This will likely be the easiest learning stage—you don’t know what you don’t know yet. During this stage, a learner mainly shows interest in something or prepares for learning. For example, if you wanted to learn how to dance, you might watch a video, talk to an instructor, or sign up for a future class. Stage 1 might not take long.
  2. Conscious incompetence: This stage can be the most difficult for learners because you begin to register how much you need to learn—you know what you don’t know. This is metacognition at work! Think about the saying “It’s easier said than done.” In stage 1 the learner only has to discuss or show interest in a new experience, but in stage 2, they begin to apply new skills that contribute to reaching the learning goal. In the dance example above, you would now be learning basic dance steps. Successful completion of this stage relies on practice.
  3. Conscious competence: You are beginning to master some parts of the learning goal and are feeling some confidence about what you do know. For example, you might now be able to complete basic dance steps with few mistakes and without your instructor reminding you how to do them. Stage 3 requires skill repetition, and metacognition helps you identify where to focus your efforts.
  4. Unconscious competence: This is the final stage in which learners have successfully practiced and repeated the process they learned so many times that they can do it almost without thinking. At this point in your dancing, you might be able to apply your dance skills to a freestyle dance routine that you create yourself. However, to feel you are a “master” of a particular skill by the time you reach stage 4, you still need to practice constantly and reevaluate which stage you are in so you can keep learning. For example, if you now felt confident in basic dance skills and could perform your own dance routine, perhaps you’d want to explore other kinds of dance, such as tango or swing. That would return you to stage 1 or 2, but you might progress through the stages more quickly this time since you have already acquired some basic dance skills.

Take a moment to watch the following video by Kristos called The Process of Learning. As you watch, consider how painful it can be—literally!—to learn something new, but also how much joy can be experienced after it’s learned. Note that the video has no audio.

The Process of Learning - Kristos

You can see that the skater, through repeated practice, must identify where he is going wrong, what he is doing that prevents him from landing the skill. Over time, he is able to isolate the problems and gradually correct them, until he is ultimately successful in mastering the new trick.


The Power of Thought

As a result of many amazing and potent research discoveries, the scientific community is learning a great deal about how plastic, malleable, and constantly changing the brain is. For example, the act of thinking—just thinking—can affect not only the way your brain works but also its physical shape and structure. While thinking is not a substitute for practice, you might be surprised to find how far it can get you. The following video explores some of these discoveries, which relate to all the thinking and thoughts involved in college success.

The Scientific Power of Thought

The following sections will help you to think more deeply and critically about your own thinking and learning. They will introduce you to some theories that help explain how people learn and how we can improve our learning. You will be able to think about your own learning in the context of these theories to identify your own strengths and areas where you can work to improve your learning process.


What Are Learning Objectives?

What exactly are learning objectives? You may have already noticed them—like the ones at the top of this page—throughout this course. Learning objectives specify what someone will know, care about, or be able to do as a result of a learning experience. When your professor states a learning objective, it describes what you can expect to get out of a particular class, assignment, or reading.

Paying attention to learning objectives can help focus your attention on the most critical aspects of a learning experience. If you read the objectives closely, it can also help you determine how deeply you are expected to engage with the material. We will now look at Bloom’s taxonomy, which provides a framework for interpreting learning objectives.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

In 1956, Dr. Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist who was particularly interested how people learn, chaired a committee of educators that developed and classified a set of learning objectives, which came to be known as Bloom’s taxonomy. This classification system has been updated a little since it was first developed, but it remains important for both students and teachers in helping to understand the skills and structures involved in learning.

Bloom’s taxonomy divides the cognitive domain of learning into six main learning-skill levels, or learning-skill stages, which are arranged hierarchically—moving from the simplest of functions like remembering and understanding, to more complex learning skills, like applying and analyzing, to the most complex skills—evaluating and creating. The lower levels are more straightforward and fundamental, and the higher levels are more sophisticated. See Figure 1, below.

Bloom's Taxonomy depicted as a pyramid

Figure 1

The following table describes the six main skillsets within the cognitive domain and gives you information on the level of learning expected for each. Read each description closely for details of what college-level work looks like in each domain (note that the table begins with remembering, the lowest level of the taxonomy).

RememberingWhen you are skilled in remembering, you can recognize or recall knowledge you’ve already gained, and you can use it to produce or retrieve definitions, facts, and lists. Remembering may be how you studied in grade school or high school, but college will require you to do more with the information.identify · relate · list ·  define · recall · memorize · repeat · record · name
UnderstandingUnderstanding is the ability to grasp or construct meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages. Each college course will introduce you to new concepts, terms, processes, and functions. Once you gain a firm understanding of new information, you’ll find it easier to comprehend how or why something works.restate · locate · report · recognize · explain · express · identify · discuss · describe · review · infer · illustrate · interpret · draw · represent · differentiate · conclude
ApplyingWhen you apply, you use or implement learned material in new and concrete situations. In college, you will be tested or assessed on what you’ve learned in the previous levels. You will be asked to solve problems in new situations by applying knowledge and skills in new ways. You may need to relate abstract ideas to practical situations.apply · relate · develop · translate · use · operate · organize · employ · restructure · interpret · demonstrate · illustrate · practice · calculate · show · exhibit · dramatize
AnalyzingWhen you analyze, you have the ability to break down or distinguish the parts of material into its components, so that its organizational structure may be better understood. At this level, you will have a clearer sense that you comprehend the content well. You will be able to answer questions such as what if, or why, or how something would work.analyze · compare · probe · inquire · examine · contrast · categorize · differentiate · contrast · investigate · detect · survey · classify · deduce · experiment · scrutinize · discover · inspect · dissect · discriminate · separate
EvaluatingWith skills in evaluating, you are able to judge, check, and even critique the value of material for a given purpose. At this level in college, you will be able to think critically, Your understanding of a concept or discipline will be profound. You may need to present and defend opinions.judge · assess · compare · evaluate · conclude · measure · deduce · argue · decide · choose · rate · select · estimate · validate · consider · appraise · value · criticize · infer
CreatingWith skills in creating, you are able to put parts together to form a coherent or unique new whole. You can reorganize elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing. Creating requires originality and inventiveness. It brings together all levels of learning to theorize, design, and test new products, concepts, or functions.compose · produce · design · assemble · create · prepare · predict · modify · plan · invent · formulate · collect · generalize · document combine · relate · propose · develop · arrange · construct · organize · originate · derive · write

Reading and interpreting learning objectives is a metacognitive act, as the information can help you determine the level of learning expected of you and give you clues as to how you can prepare for assessment. For example, if your objective is to identify the parts of an atom, you should first recognize that being able to “identify” information falls within the domain of “remembering”; you will need to memorize the parts and be able to correctly label them. Flashcards, labeling a diagram, or drawing one yourself should be sufficient ways to prepare for your test. If, however, your objective is to calculate atomic mass, you will need to know not only the parts of the atom but also how to account for those parts to come up with the atomic mass; “calculate” falls within the domain of “applying,” which requires you to take information and use it to solve a problem in a new context.

You can explore these cognitive domains further in the two videos, below. The first is from the Center for Learning Success at the Louisiana State University. It discusses Bloom’s taxonomy of learning levels with regard to student success in college.

Bloom's Taxonomy

This next video, Bloom’s Taxonomy Featuring Harry Potter Movies, is a culturally-based way of understanding and applying Bloom’s taxonomy. You can download a transcript of the video here.

Bloom's Taxonomy feat Harry Potter.m4v


Model of Strategic Learning

Thinking comes naturally. You don’t have to make it happen—it just does. But you can make it happen in different ways. For example, you can think positively or negatively. You can think with “heart” and you can think with rational judgment. You can also think strategically and analytically, and mathematically and scientifically. These are a few of the multiple ways in which the mind can process thought. To exercise metacognition is to think about your own thinking and cognitive processes. What are some forms of thinking you use? When do you use them, and why?

The Model of Strategic Learning presented here will provide a framework to help you make sense of all this thinking and act on it in ways that most effectively support your learning.

The word “strategic” suggests the execution of a carefully planned strategy with the intent of achieving a specific goal. The model of strategic learning, as outlined by Claire Ellen Weinstein, provides a comprehensive framework for developing appropriate strategies for learning given the unique conditions of each learner for any given learning experience. The model incorporates the learner’s skill, will, and self-regulation, as well as the academic environment they operate in.

  • Skill refers to the learner’s content knowledge, self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and ability to employ effective skills such as goal-setting, active listening and reading, and note-taking.
  • Will refers to the learner’s state of mind. This includes motivation, how you feel about learning (ranging from fear and anxiety to excitement and joy), beliefs about your abilities, and your level of commitment to personal goals.
  • Self-regulation is how the learner recognizes and manages each of these factors. To be strategic about learning, you may exert self-control in the form of time-management, emotional control, seeking assistance, and/or monitoring progress; a learner who does so is more likely to be successful than one who fails to self-regulate.
  • The academic environment encompasses factors that are external to the individual learner but still impact the learning process. Examples include access to academic support resources, the requirements of particular classes or assignments, teacher expectations, and the social context in which the learner lives.

Within this model, the learner is always at the center. Each learner is uniquely situated in terms of skill, will, and academic environment; it is also up to each learner to exercise self-regulation where possible to minimize or work around factors that interfere with learning and maximize those that support it.

This is an important model to understand, as it serves as the framework for this textbook and our course. You can watch this supplemental video, by Dr. Taylor Acee from Texas State University, for a good explanation and overview of The Model of Strategic Learning.

The Model of Strategic Learning


  • Thinking is the mental process you use to take in information and make sense of the world. Thought is the act of thinking that produces ideas, emotions, etc.
  • Metacognition is thinking about thinking. It involves metacognitive knowledge (what do you know and how do you know it?) as well as metacognitive regulation (how do you use what you know to approach different types of problems?).
  • In the stages of the learning process, you move from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence; metacognition helps you advance through the 4 stages.
  • Learning objectives state what you should know or be able to do as the result of a learning experience.
  • Bloom’s taxonomy divides the cognitive domain into six levels, based on the level of complexity.
  • Interpreting learning objectives can help you understand the extent to which you are expected to learn and be able to use the material.
  • The model of strategic learning takes into account a learner’s skill, will, academic environment, and their ability to self-regulate given these conditions.




  • Theories of Learning. Authored by: Laura Lucas and Heather Syrett. Provided by: Austin Community College. LicenseCC BY-NC-SA-4.0



  • Metacognition. Authored by: Lizzie Kittleman. Located at Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube License
  • The Process of Learning. Authored by: Brendan Hayword. Located at Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube
  • LicenseScientific Power of Thought. Authored by: Asap Science. Located at Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube License
  • How to Get the Most Out of Studying - Part 1. Authored by: Stephen Chew. Provided by: Samford University. Located at Domain: No Known CopyrightLicense Terms: Standard YouTube License
  • Bloom's Taxonomy Authored by: LSU Center for Academic Success. Located at LicenseAll Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube License
  • Bloom's Taxonomy featuring Harry Potter Authored by: Amanda Rusco. Located at Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube License
  • The Model of Strategic Learning Authored by: Dr. Taylor Acee. Located at Rights ReservedLicense Terms: Standard YouTube License


Cross, D. R., & Paris, S. G. (1988). Developmental and instructional analyses of children’s metacognition and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(2), 2131-142. Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 10906-911. 

Cross, D. R., & Paris, S. G. (1988). Developmental and instructional analyses of children’s metacognition and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(2), 2131-142. Schraw, G., Crippen, K. J., & Hartley, K. (2006). Promoting self-regulation in science education: Metacognition as part of a broader perspective on learning. Research in Science Education, 36(1-2), 1-2111-139. 

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 10906-911. 

Hussain, D. (2015). Meta-Cognition in Mindfulness: A Conceptual Analysis. Psychological Thought, 8(2), 132-141. doi: 

Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016. 

Wilson, Leslie Owen. "Anderson and Krathwohl - Bloom's Taxonomy Revised." The Second Principle. 2013. Web. 10 Feb 2016. 

Weinstein, C.E. , Dierking, D., Husman, J., Roska, L., & Powdrill, L. (1998). "The impact of a course in strategic learning on the long-term retention of college students." Developmental education: Preparing successful college students. Monograph ser. #24 (pp. 85-96). Columbia, SC: National Research Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, U of South Carolina.