Chapter 6: Theories of Learning

Man sitting outside, looking engaged in reading the open book he holds in front of him.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. —Aristotle, Greek philosopher


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
  • Describe the relationship between emotional intelligence and self-regulation
  • Identify the types of thinking that contribute to successful intelligence
  • Describe the role of creative thinking in the learning process

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 human mind that enables us to reflect on our own mental states. It is defined as “cognition about cognitive phenomena,” or “thinking about thinking.”[1] 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.[2]

Metacognition includes two clusters of activities: knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition.[3] 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.[4]

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.

In this video, a student who has learned about metacognition finds ways to explain it to her friends by having them think about their own practices, and through telling a bad joke:

Each of the characters in this video is able to find ways they use metacognition in their daily lives. Can you think of ways you apply metacognition to be more successful at school work or other tasks?

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 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, he or she begins 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.[5]

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.

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 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.[6] See Figure 1, below.

Bloom's Taxonomy depicted as a pyramid

Figure 1

The following table describes the six main skill sets 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).

Remembering When 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
Understanding Understanding 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
Applying When 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
Analyzing When 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
Evaluating With 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
Creating With 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 correctly label them. Flash cards, 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 learning levels with regard to student success in college.

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.

Theories of 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 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 theories of learning presented here will provide frameworks to help you make sense of all this thinking and act on it in ways that most effectively support your learning.

Model of Strategic 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 Weinstein[7], 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, academic environment, and self-regulation:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Finally, 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.

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.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important element of self-regulation. It can be defined as the ability of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s). Those with high levels of emotional intelligence are able to recognize and reflect on their own emotions and those of the people around them; they are also able to respond to those emotions in ways that minimize negative consequences and support the achievement of intended goals.

The following video provides a deeper look at emotional intelligence in the words of Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who has researched and written extensively on the topic:

Successful Intelligence

While the model of strategic learning focuses on the interaction between individual knowledge, abilities, and environment, other theories place greater emphasis on rounding out one’s cognitive abilities to be able to approach and solve problems in different ways. In his theory of successful intelligence, for example, Robert Sternberg[8] proposes that to be successfully intelligent is to think well in three different ways: analytically, creatively, and practically. Typically, only analytical intelligence is valued on tests and in the classroom. Yet the style of intelligence that schools most readily recognize may well be less useful to many students in their adult lives than creative and practical intelligence.

  • Analytical thinking encompasses the ability to think abstractly and process information effectively. People high on this dimension are able to think critically and analytically. Analytical thinking emphasizes effectiveness in information processing and is characterized by high test scores and high I.Q. scores.
  • Creative thinking includes the ability to formulate new ideas, to combine seemingly unrelated facts or information. It emphasizes insight and the ability to invent new solutions and is overlooked by test scores.
  • Practical thinking covers the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions and to shape the environment so as to maximize one’s strengths and compensate for one’s weaknesses. It emphasizes intelligence in a practical sense. People high on this dimension quickly recognize what factors influence success on various tasks and are adept at both adapting to and shaping their environment so that they can accomplish various goals. Practical intelligence is not reflected in test scores.

Successful intelligence is most effective when it balances all three of its analytical, creative, and practical aspects. It is more important to know when and how to use these aspects of successful intelligence than just to have them. Successfully intelligent people don’t just have abilities, they reflect on when and how to use these abilities effectively. Another chapter provides a closer look at analytical, or critical, thinking; right now, we’ll take a closer look at creative thinking.

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is an invaluable skill for college students because it helps you look at problems and situations from a fresh perspective. Creating thinking is a way to develop novel or unorthodox solutions that do not depend wholly on past or current solutions. It’s a way of employing strategies to clear your mind so that your thoughts and ideas can transcend what appear to be the limitations of a problem. Creative thinking is a way of moving beyond barriers and it can be  understood as a skill—as opposed to an inborn talent or natural “gift”—that can be taught as well as learned.[9]

As a creative thinker, you are curious, optimistic, and imaginative. You see problems as interesting opportunities, and you challenge assumptions and suspend judgment. You don’t give up easily. You work hard.[10] Is this you? Even if you don’t yet see yourself as a competent creative thinker or problem-solver yet, you can learn solid skills and techniques to help you become one.



  • Evaluate your attitude toward problem-solving in the context of cultivating creative thinking.


  • Access Psychology Today’s Creative Problem-Solving Test at the Psychology Today Web site.
  • Read the introductory text, which explains how creativity is linked to fundamental qualities of thinking, such as flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity.
  • Then advance to the questions by clicking on the “Take The Test” button. The test has 20 questions and will take roughly 10 minutes.
  • After finishing the test, you will receive a Snapshot Report with an introduction, a graph, and a personalized interpretation for one of your test scores.

Complete any further steps by following your instructor’s directions.

Creative Thinking in Education

Now that you have taken the creative problem-solving self-assessment test, do you have a better sense of which creative thinking skills and attitudes you have, and which ones you might want to improve upon? College is great ground for enhancing creative thinking skills. The following are some examples of college activities that can stimulate creative thinking. Are any familiar to you? What are some aspects of your own college experience that require you to think creatively?

  • Design sample exam questions to test your knowledge as you study for a final.
  • Devise a social media strategy for a club on campus.
  • Propose an education plan for a major you are designing for yourself.
  • Prepare a speech that you will give in a debate in your course.
  • Arrange audience seats in your classroom to maximize attention during your presentation.
  • Participate in a brainstorming session with your classmates on how you will collaborate on a group project.
  • Draft a script for a video production that will be shown to several college administrators.
  • Compose a set of requests and recommendations for a campus office to improve its services for students.
  • Develop a marketing pitch for a mock business you are developing.
  • Develop a plan to reduce energy consumption in your home, apartment, or dorm.

How to Stimulate Creative Thinking

The following video, How to Stimulate the Creative Process, identifies six strategies to stimulate your creative thinking.

  1. Sleep on it. Over the years, researchers have found that the REM sleep cycle boosts our creativity and problem-solving abilities, providing us with innovative ideas or answers to vexing dilemmas when we awaken. Keep a pen and paper by the bed so you can write down your nocturnal insights if they wake you up.
  2. Go for a run or hit the gym. Studies indicate that exercise stimulates creative thinking, and the brainpower boost lasts for a few hours.
  3. Allow your mind to wander a few times every day. Far from being a waste of time, daydreaming has been found to be an essential part of generating new ideas. If you’re stuck on a problem or creatively blocked, think about something else for a while.
  4. Keep learning. Studying something far removed from your area of expertise is especially effective in helping you think in new ways.
  5. Put yourself in nerve-racking situations once in a while to fire up your brain. Fear and frustration can trigger innovative thinking.
  6. Keep a notebook with you, or create a file for ideas on your smartphone or laptop, so you always have a place to record fleeting thoughts. They’re sometimes the best ideas of all.

Problem-Solving with Creative Thinking

Creative problem-solving is a type of problem-solving that involves searching for new and novel solutions to problems. It’s a way to think “outside of the box.” Unlike critical thinking, which scrutinizes assumptions and uses reasoning, creative thinking is about generating alternative ideas— practices and solutions that are unique and effective. It’s about facing sometimes muddy and unclear problems and seeing how things can be done differently.[11]

As you continue to develop your creative thinking skills, be alert to perceptions about creative thinking that could slow down progress. Remember that creative thinking and problem-solving are ways to transcend the limitations of a problem and see past barriers.

1 Every problem has only one solution (or one right answer) The goal of problem-solving is to solve the problem, and most problems can be solved in any number of ways. If you discover a solution that works, it’s a good solution. Other people may think up solutions that differ from yours, but that doesn’t make your solution wrong or unimportant. What is the solution to “putting words on paper?” Fountain pen, ballpoint, pencil, marker, typewriter, printer, printing press, word-processing… all are valid solutions!
2 The best answer, solution, or method has already been discovered Look at the history of any solution and you’ll see that improvements, new solutions, and new right answers are always being found. What is the solution to human transportation? The ox or horse, the cart, the wagon, the train, the car, the airplane, the jet, the space shuttle? What is the best and last?
3 Creative answers are technologically complex Only a few problems require complex technological solutions. Most problems you’ll encounter need only a thoughtful solution involving personal action and perhaps a few simple tools. Even many problems that seem to require technology can be addressed in other ways.
4 Ideas either come or they don’t. Nothing will help— certainly not structure. There are many successful techniques for generating ideas. One important technique is to include structure. Create guidelines, limiting parameters, and concrete goals for yourself that stimulate and shape your creativity. This strategy can help you get past the intimidation of “the blank page.” For example, if you want to write a story about a person who gained insight through experience, you can stoke your creativity by limiting or narrowing your theme to “a young girl in Cambodia who escaped the Khmer Rouge to find a new life as a nurse in France.” Apply this specificity and structure to any creative endeavor.

If you are interested in learning more about ways to stimulate your creative thinking, check out the website Creativity Techniques A To Z for inspiration. Chapter 7 goes into much more detail on analytical, or critical, thinking, and will discuss how critical and creative thinking complement each other in the problem-solving process.


  • 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 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.
  • Emotional intelligence is an important factor in self-regulation.
  • Successful intelligence involves a combination of analytical, creative, and practical thinking.
  • Creative thinking helps you look at problems from fresh, new perspectives. Everyone has creative thinking skills, even those who don’t think of themselves as “creative.”

  1. Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 10906-911.
  2. Hussain, D. (2015). Meta-Cognition in Mindfulness: A Conceptual Analysis. Psychological Thought, 8(2), 132-141. doi:
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016.
  6. Wilson, Leslie Owen. "Anderson and Krathwohl - Bloom's Taxonomy Revised." The Second Principle. 2013. Web. 10 Feb 2016.
  7. 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.
  8. Sternberg, R. J. (1997). Successful intelligence. New York: Plume.
  9. Mumaw, Stefan. "Born This Way: Is Creativity Innate or Learned?" Peachpit. Pearson, 27 Dec 2012. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  10. Harris, Robert. "Introduction to Creative Thinking." Virtual Salt. 2 Apr 2012. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  11. "Critical and Creative Thinking, MA." University of Massachusetts Boston. 2016. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  12. Harris, Robert. "Introduction to Creative Thinking." Virtual Salt. 2 Apr 2012. Web. 16 Feb 2016.