Behaviorism, cognitivism, and humanism in adults education



There are different learning theories in education that help guide the educational process, promoting better management of information and of the teaching profession. These theories are also very much important in relation to adults in higher education where they provide a better understanding of learners and how best these individuals and teachers can work with each other.  This paper shall critically discuss three learning theories, namely behaviorism, cognitivism, and humanism, and relate their relevance to adults in Higher Education.

Main Body

Behaviorism relates to the concept of conditioned response, where the responses and behavior of humans and animals can be trained or taught using therapeutic techniques (Stables and Gough, 2006). Humans, according to Watson (cited in Faryadi, 2007) can be remanufactured to behave in a certain way and this process can be managed with fear, in some cases love or anger.  A behavioral educator would argue that effective learning can best be secured by making changes in behavior (Faryadi, 2007). He would also focus on behavioral goals to secure the specific learning tasks (Birzer, 2004). In effect, people would learn through their interactions with the environment and with other people (Faryadi, 2007). Learning would come about because such learning is linked to a condition with such condition also associated with the environment (Crow and Tian, 2006). Learning would also come about because people align themselves with accepted laws and principles of behavior and discipline (Faryadi, 2007). It is in this context that the words of Wegner (2005) can best be considered: “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him”.

This theory also relates to positive reinforcement and motivation with negative reinforcement also an important teaching technique (Faryadi, 2007).  Behaviorism is important in traditional ways of teaching especially for teachers who believe in rewards and punishments in teaching (Muijs and Reynolds, 2015). However, this theory has lost its influence and authority by more forward-thinking theorists in education (Faryadi, 2007).  Behaviorism is criticized for not addressing the complexities of human behavior and it has not considered linguistic generativity (Ingvarsson and Morris, 2004). The theory seems to focus on how to control human behavior not how learning can be facilitated.

Behaviorism is also not comprehensive nor is it holistic as it does not include discussions on the human mind (Muijs and Reynolds, 2015).  Human behavior is a complicated matter and cannot be understood simply through experimentations (Eischens, 2003).  Behaviorism also relates to the mechanistic approach.  This approach relates to the science of predicting human activities and reactions (Watson, 1930). People learn to act and behave by reacting to stimuli and by giving in to favorable or negative punishment (Faryadi, 2007). Positive reinforcement can promote the possibility that the reaction or behavior would actually be repeated (Abramson, 2013).  Teachers who apply or use this approach present their students with drills. They praise and reward the good grades of their students (Abramson, 2013). The students now come to understand that the corresponding reaction to good grades would be positive reinforcement, and do their best to repeatedly experience such positive reinforcement (Abramson, 2013).

Programmed learning is also used by teachers practicing behaviorism. This technique has gained popularity in the computer age (Kelly and Crosbie, 1997). Through programmed learning, the prior knowledge of the student is assessed, and depending on the student’s line of expertise, the student can be guided through books or computer programs. The learning materials are grouped into different frames (Taber,, 1965). Questions are asked following each frame and students react or receive the necessary feedback after each frame. For instance, learners may be presented with a test using the computer where favorable responses would get a positive reaction from the computer and a wrong answer would yield an encouragement to try again (Keller and Schoenfeld, 2014). Reinforcement, in this case, can lead to better retention of knowledge.  Teachers who use such a paradigm would consider development as an appropriate reaction. The personalities of individuals include habits and it is the job of the teacher to ensure that the student would develop good habits (Keller and Schoenfeld, 2014). Learning, by nature is considered additive and different factors would be added to previous information and such additional data can be managed using different kinds of reinforcement (Keller and Schoenfeld, 2014).


In cognitivism, there is a focus on gaining knowledge and internal mental processes; it is much more proximate to rationalist and mental structures (Bower and Hilgard, 1981). Learning is associated with some changes in conditions of knowledge, not so much with changes in the possibility of reactions.  This theory focuses on the learning processes and focuses on issues on how data is admitted, adopted, managed, and “retrieved by the mind” (Ertmer and Newby, 2013, p. 51). It focuses now on what learners would actually do with the knowledge they have gained and how they were able to gain such knowledge (Jonassen, 1991).  Acquiring knowledge refers to the mental process which calls for internal coding by the learner (Ertmer and Newby, 2013).  Learners are considered active partners in the learning process.  Factors affecting learning focus on the functions which the environment would have in managing the learning process.  Instructional explanations, as well as demonstrative examples, are considered important in managing and guiding the learning process for students (Cooper, 1993). Also, the focus is indicated on the functions that practice would have on corrective feedback. Some minor differences can still be seen between the behaviorist and cognitive theories, however, the active qualities of learners are seen differently (Sudmale, 2015). The cognitive theory would highlight the mental processes of the learner which would cause reactions and admits related processes in mental planning as well as objective-setting, as well as organizational styles and applications (Shuell, 1986). This theory argues that environmental signs and elements, on their own, cannot cover all types of learning. Added aspects cover the way learners would manage or transform data.  The thoughts of the learners including his beliefs are very much crucial in managing the learning process (Winne, 1985).

There are however issues in the application of cognitivism wherein, same as behaviorism, knowledge is given and is considered absolute (Sudmale, 2015). The input-process-output model is also considered mechanistic as well as deterministic.  It also does not consider individuality too much and there is not much focus on affective qualities (Sudmale, 2015).

Cognitivism also uses data processing in order to understand how individuals perceive, how they remember, and explain what is happening around them (Kitto, 2013).  Since cognitivism focuses its questions on information processing metaphors, the argument on mental processes is objectively based on the level by which metaphors are actually subjective (Kitto, 2013).  While behaviorism and cognitivism are different from each other, cognitivism is not free from criticism.  Cognitivism however does overcome the issues observed in behaviorism, especially in reflexes as well as reinforcements that cover human actions; human behavior is also not believed to predict human actions or behavior (Kitto, 2013). Cognitivism also seeks to consider more than just the principles of behaviorism as it seeks to understand how people reason, how they make their decisions, how they make mistakes, and how they may remember.  In effect, there are essential parts of human experiences, but these cannot be understood and explained using behavior only (Kitto, 2013). Still, as it is rooted in mechanism, cognitivism would very much have to go through reductionism. This may not provide much room for relevant human actions.  Cognitivism can eventually go through advances and in the process, its policies and responses can change (Kitto, 2013). However, different inputs, as well as outputs that can help explain human behavior and reactions, may not be able to explain how individuals reach a point of self-actuation.  Machines, in general, would not have any inherent meanings; however, in humans, there is an internal filter that helps manage and create meaning (Kitto, 2013).

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In humanism, the focus by Carl Rogers has been on applying the results of his studies to more person-centered teaching. This type of teaching is empathetic, caring, and more genuine.  These are primary qualities seen among educators observing this type of teaching (Roberts, 2016).  This approach also focuses on the choices of students and the ability of these students to control the direction of their education.  These students are called on to make choices that may cover daily activities or setting future goals (Roberts, 2016). This would call on students to highlight specific aspects of interest for a time of their choosing. This is a type of learning which is also concerned about the learning of students and their concerns. These educators understand that feelings are very much crucial in the learning process (Roberts, 2016). These teachers also do not distinguish between cognitive and affective domains in learning.  This would also be associated with the curriculum, wherein the different activities focus on different activities for the student, by note-taking as well as lectures (Ozuah, 2016). Grades are not considered relevant and self-evaluation is given more priority.

One of the criticisms about the humanist model is the fact that its provisions and concepts are too general, and vague (Ozuah, 2016). Critics point out that subjective ideas including authentic and actual experiences can be difficult to measure.  Real experiences for a single individual may not be real for others.  As such, critics argue that conclusions gained from subjective discussions are often difficult to assess, often making studies in humanistic principles not reliable (Ozuah, 2016).  Also, critics argue that humanistic psychology is not considered a true science as it often includes common sense, and is too subjective. Nevertheless, it is considered advantageous especially as it focuses on specific choices as well as actions. This model focuses on the idea of individuals on what it actually means to be human. It also highlights personal goals and ensures one’s personal fulfillment (Marion and Gonzales, 2013).  Finally, this model presents researchers with a framework by which they can understand human behavior, especially as it evaluates a person in relation to the environment and in relation to what he is actually feeling (Marion and Gonzales, 2013).

This theory however is very much problematic in application because it does not have concrete options to manage specific issues. It focuses on free will, however, it is hard to establish specific techniques to be used under these conditions (Marion and Gonzales, 2013). There are also issues in this theory and its power to assist those with learning disabilities or related issues.  This theory also generalizes some human qualities which are not generally admitted as complete.  Some learners may or may not generally be good or would not accept humanistic precepts in learning.  It is not appropriate to argue that people would have similar ideas about learning and even if they do, the applicable learning tools cannot easily be determined (Marion and Gonzales, 2013). Some individuals may admit to unfavorable choices even where there are better solutions available.  These issues impact the humanistic model. Still, even with these issues, this theory has already been used in different ways. Some admit that this theory is considered the foundation for change (Marion and Gonzales, 2013). It may not be enough, however, it may be important for use in major personality changes


The discussion above is a critical analysis of behaviorism, cognitivism, and humanism among adults in higher education.  Behaviorism focuses more on conditioned behavior which may best be applied to young people, not adults.  This model admits that human behavior can be learned using the concepts of reward and punishment. Cognitivism mostly focuses on rational structures in learning.  This may apply well to adult learning as it focuses on presenting supporting information and data to the learning process. Finally, the humanist model mostly presents as learning being a caring and nurturing process. This model may not always apply well to adult and higher learning. Nevertheless, as long as the learners can adjust well to such conditions, both cognitive and humanistic models can serve adult learning well.

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