Learning Models, Theories, Neuroscience - what’s the difference?


igital learning has come a long way in the past 30 years. Research into how humans learn has developed with increasing pace as new technologies and scientific studies grant us insight to the brain and mind. There is now a plethora of different overlapping learning models, theories and neuroscience to inform your learning design.

However, if you’re new to the field of digital learning, it can feel overwhelming and difficult to know what to read first, what to trust or where to start, particularly if you’re unsure what the difference is between models, theories and neuroscience.

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All three are essential parts of a learning science toolbox. In this blog, we’ll break down the jargon and define them one by one.

What is the difference between learning theories and learning models?


To put it succinctly, neuroscience is the science of the brain.

Neuroscience uses the scientific method and tools such as MRI and CAT scans to examine the physical structures of the brain and how different areas of the brain respond to different stimuli.

For example, studies have shown that as we encounter stimuli, neurons fire in our brains. Neurons that fire simultaneously build pathways that are strengthened through repeated activation in a process known as neuroplasticity. Stronger neural pathways fire quicker, allowing for quicker recall of knowledge that has been encountered many times before, while weak neural pathways may be “trimmed” if they are rarely activated, resulting in knowledge loss.

Neuroscientific research provides a physical basis for understanding how humans learn. However, it is rarely able to fully answer questions about the non-physical reasons for learning. The value of neuroscience is found in its ability to corroborate learning theories and models.

Learning Theories

Learning theories can experience significant overlap with models, and often the two are misnomered. Furthermore, some learning theories are primarily expressed through models. However, we’ll do our best to distinguish the two!

Learning theories are academic concepts that seek to explain how humans process information into knowledge. 

Learning theories are usually proposed and tested by cognitive and educational psychologists. Because they seek to provide broad explanations for how humans learn, they usually involve a web of interrelated ideas that evolve over the course of decades as hypotheses are challenged, affirmed or disproven. 

No one learning theory has ever been able to fully explain the complex forces at work in the process of learning. Each theory has different strengths and weaknesses and some speak more to the experiences of children (pedagogy) or adults (andragogy).

Learning theories can be swept into broad categories. The more well-known include behavioural theories, cognitive theories, experiential learning, transformational learning and social theories of learning.

One of our favourite learning theories at HowToo is constructivism. Constructivism is a cognitive learning theory pioneered by Jean Piaget that explains the process of learning through assimilation, accommodation and construction of knowledge.

What are learning theories? What are learning models?

Learning Models

In contrast to large, amorphous learning theories, learning models are frameworks that seek to define specific mechanisms of learning. Models hone in on a single process, approach, topic or situation. They often provide concrete information that can shape or be directly used in learning activities. For example, the verbs associated with the different tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy can be taken and used when designing learning objectives.

Learning models can often be best explained through the use of a chart, diagram, flow or other visual sequence. Others, such as the AGES model, can employ acronyms.

The best learning models find their roots in neuroscience and feature in broader learning theories. Sadly, many learning models are not, including some popular ones. Such models are often debunked over time and gradually fall out of favour.

Which to choose?

Hopefully you’ve realised by now that it’s not a matter of choosing any one over the other. Rather, expert learning designers have a broad knowledge across multiple theories, models and neuroscience, and are able to pull from all three to form their own approach. As you develop your own approach, it’s important to research and critically assess the concepts you encounter as not all are created equal.

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Mar 4, 2021
Learning Design

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