This interactive learning theories timeline highlights 50 key ideas or research papers related to nine key theories which can inform the design of blended and online learning in Higher Education.

My choice of these nine theories stems from a synthesis of three major books on learning theories: Schunk (2020), Lefrançois (2019) and Harasim (2017). You may find the first post in this learning theories series ‘What are learning theories and why are they important for learning design?’ useful when interacting with this timeline.

Forgetting curve

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve shows how quickly we forget information over time if we make no attempt to retain it. Cognitivism

Classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory proposes that we learn behaviours through association where two stimuli are linked together to produce a new learned response in a person or animal. Behaviourism

Law of Effect and Law of Exercise

Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike proposed the Law of Effect (that consequences, either rewards or punishments are a necessary condition for learning) and the Law of Exercise (that learned behaviour fades without practice and is strengthened with practice). He also showed that transfer depends on the similarity of the situations or domains. Behaviourism

John B. Watson and Behaviourism

John B. Watson

John B. Watson was the first to use the term ‘behaviourist’. A behaviourist approach is only concerned with observable stimulus-response behaviours and states that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment. Watson’s methodological behaviourism asserts the mind is tabula rasa (a blank slate) at birth. He is also notable for emphasising scientific and objective methods of investigation. Behaviourism

Schema theory

Frederic Bartlett

FC Bartlett was the first person to write about schemas. Schema theory is a branch of cognitive science concerned with how the brain structures knowledge. A schema is an organised unit of knowledge for a subject or event. It is based on past experience and is accessed to guide current understanding or action. Cognitivism

Theory of cognitive development

Jean Piaget

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development reflects the fundamental ideas of constructivism. His theory was focussed on children, rather than all learners. Constructivism

Operant conditioning

B.F Skinner

B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence. Behaviourism

Contiguous conditioning

Edwin R. Guthrie

Edwin Guthrie’s contiguity theory proposes that learning results from a pairing close in time to a response with a stimulus or situation. Behaviourism

Short Term Memory 7 +-2 chunks

George A. Miller

George A. Miller theorised that most adults can store 7 plus or minus 2 items in their short-term memory because our memory only has a certain number of “slots” in which items could be stored. Cognitivism

Constructivist theory

Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner in his book ‘The Process of Education’ proposed that students are active learners who construct their own knowledge. Constructivist theory states that learning takes place in contexts and that learners form or construct much of what they learn and understand as a function of their experiences in situations. Constructivism

The Modelling effect

Bobo doll experiment

Bandura, Ross and Ross carried out the Bobo doll experiment. They found that children who had observed an adult behaving violently towards the Bobo doll were more likely to act aggressively towards it themselves when given the opportunity. These findings indicate that learning takes place not only when individuals are rewarded or punished for their own behaviour, but also when they observe another person exhibiting violent behaviour – a process called observational learning.

Sociocultural theory

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory is a constructivist theory which emphasises the importance of social interactions and sociocultural factors for learning. Constructivism

Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner. The term ‘proximal’ refers to those skills that the learner is ‘close’ to mastering. Constructivism

Subsumption Theory

David Ausubel

David Ausubel’s subsumption theory suggests a way of creating instructional material that helps learners organize their content in order to make it meaningful for transfer. He suggested the use of Advanced Organizers as tools that mentally help learners learn and retain knowledge, enabling them to combine new with already known information. Cognitivism

Theory of cognitive growth

Jerome Bruner's book 'The process of education'

Jerome Bruner’s theory of cognitive growth does not link changes in development with cognitive structures as Piaget did. Instead it highlights the various ways that children represent knowledge. Constructivism

Conditions of learning

Robert Gagné and his Conditions of Learning book

Robert Gagné’s Conditions of Learning book is a foundational text in the field of Instructional Design. The conditions include internal conditions (prerequisite skills and cognitive processing requirements of the learner) and external conditions (environmental stimuli that support learners’ cognitive processes). He proposed five categories of learning outcomes and nine events of instruction. Cognitivism

Multi Store Model of Memory

Atkinson and Shiffrin

Atkinson and Shiffrin’s multistore model of memory proposes that memory consists of three stores: a sensory register, short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM). Information passes from store to store in a linear way, and has been described as an information processing model (like a computer) with an input, process and output. Cognitivism

Dual Coding Theory

Allan Paivio

Allan Paivio’s dual coding theory assumes that there are two cognitive subsystems, one specialized for the representation and processing of nonverbal objects/events (imagery), and the other specialized for dealing with language. Cognitivism

Levels of Processing

Craig and Lockhart seminal paper

Craik and Lockhart’s levels of processing theory focuses on the depth of processing involved in memory, and predicts the deeper information is processed, the longer a memory trace will last. Cognitivism

Episodic and semantic memory

Endel Tulving

Endel Tulving proposed a distinction between episodic, semantic and procedural memory. Semantic memory is a part of the long-term memory responsible for storing information about the world. Procedural memory is a part of the long-term memory responsible for knowing how to do things, i.e. memory of motor skills. Cognitivism

Arousal theory

Donald Hebb

Donald Hebb’s arousal theory of motivation suggests that people are driven to perform actions in order to maintain an optimum level of physiological arousal.
Motivation and self-regulated learning

Working Memory Model

Baddeley and Hitch

Baddeley and Hitch argued that the picture of short-term memory (STM) provided by the Multi-Store Model is far too simple. They proposed the idea of Working Memory (WM) which is short-term memory. However, instead of all information going into one single store, there are different systems for different types of information. Cognitivism



Wood, Bruner and Ross devised the term ‘scaffolding’. Scaffolding consists of the activities provided by the educator, or more competent peer, to support the student as he or she is led through the zone of proximal development. Support is phased out as it becomes unnecessary, much as a scaffold is removed from a building during construction. The student will then be able to complete the task again independently. Constructivism


Albert Bandura

For Albert Bandura self-efficacy refers to personal beliefs about one’s capabilities to learn or perform actions at designated levels. In gauging their self-efficacy individuals assess their skills and capabilities to translate those skills into actions.
Motivation and self-regulated learning

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory book cover

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory proposes that mediating processes occur between stimuli and responses and that behaviour is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning.

Elaboration theory

Charles Reigeluth

Charles Reigeluth’s elaboration theory suggests instruction should be organized in increasing order of complexity for optimal learning. It proposes seven major strategy components: (1) an elaborative sequence, (2) learning prerequisite sequences, (3) summary, (4) synthesis, (5) analogies, (6) cognitive strategies, and (7) learner control. Cognitivism

Expectancy-Value Theory

Eccles and Wigfield

Eccles and Wigfield’s expectancy-value theory suggests that behaviour is a function of how much one values a particular outcome and one’s expectation of obtaining that outcome as a result of performing a behaviour. Motivation and self-regulated learning

Attribution theory

Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory is concerned with how individuals interpret events and how this relates to their thinking and behaviour. Attribution theory assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do, i.e., attribute causes to behaviour.
Motivation and self-regulated learning

Social Cognitive Theory

Social foundations of thought and action book cover

Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory emphasises the role of the social environment in learning. By observing others (models), people acquire knowledge, rules, skills, strategies, beliefs and attitudes.

Performance vs Mastery goals

Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck defines two main types of goals: Performance and Mastery goals. Mastery goals – also called learning goals correspond to the desire to learn, that is, to the desire to improve one’s knowledge and task-mastery. Performance goals correspond to the desire to promote a positive evaluation as compared to others.
Motivation and self-regulated learning

A Social Cognitive approach to motivation and personality

Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett

Dweck and Leggett’s paper ‘A Social Cognitive approach to motivation and personality’ examines the extent to which an individual believes change is possible, largely determines their ability to affect change.
Motivation and self-regulated learning

Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning

John Sweller

John Sweller devised Cognitive Load Theory. In this early paper on Cognitive Load Theory, he proposes that the main distinguishing factor between experts and novices in problem-solving is domain-specific knowledge and that conventional problem-solving skills are not effective in acquiring schemata. Cognitive Load Theory

Adaptive Control of Thought

John Anderson

John Anderson’s Adaptive Control of Thought (ACT) theory provides a model of cognitive architecture which attempts to explain how all components of the mind work together to produce coherent cognition. Cognitivism

Situated learning

Jean Lave

Jean Lave’s situated learning theory proposes that thinking is situated (located) in physical and social contexts.

Self-worth theory

Martin V Covington

Martin V Covington’s self-worth theory of achievement motivation assumes that the highest human priority is the search for self-acceptance and that “one’s worth often comes to depend on the ability to achieve competitively”.
Motivation and self-regulated learning

Self-regulated learning

Barry Zimmerman

Barry Zimmerman defined self-regulated learning as the self-directive process through which learners transform their mental and physical abilities into task-related skills. This form of learning involves metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral subprocesses that are personally initiated to acquire knowledge and skill, such as goal setting, planning, learning strategies, self-reinforcement, self-recording, and self-instruction.
Motivation and self-regulated learning

Communities of practice

Ettiene Wenger

Etienne Wenger summarises Communities of Practice (CoP) as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” This learning that takes place is not necessarily intentional. Three components are required in order to be a CoP: (1) the domain, (2) the community, and (3) the practice.

Goal theory

Paul R Pintrich

Paul R Pintrich’s goal theory emphasises that different types of goals can influence behaviours in achievement situations. In his view, this motivation had three components, namely: “(a) value (including task value and achievement goal orientation), (b) expectancies (including control beliefs, self-efficacy beliefs, and expectancy for success), and (c) affect (focusing primarily on test anxiety and self esteem).” Motivation and self-regulated learning

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Richard Mayer

Richard Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning specifies five cognitive processes in multimedia learning: selecting relevant words from the presented text or narration, selecting relevant images from the presented graphics, organizing the selected words into a coherent verbal representation, organizing selected images into a coherent pictorial representation, and integrating the pictorial and verbal representations and prior knowledge. Multimedia


Stephen Downes and George Siemens

George Siemens (2004) and Stephen Downes (2005) proposed Connectivism as the collective connections between all the ‘nodes’ in a network that result in new forms of knowledge. Connectivism

Cognitive-Affective Theory of Learning with Media

Roxana Moreno

The Cognitive‐Affective Theory of Learning with Media was devised by Roxana Moreno. It proposes that affective factors as well as individual learner characteristics impact multimedia learning. Multimedia

Self-determination theory

Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan

Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s self-determination theory links personality, human motivation, and optimal functioning. It posits that there are two main types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—and that both are powerful forces in shaping who we are and how we behave. Motivation and self-regulated learning

ARCS model of motivation

John Keller

John Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivation is based upon the idea that there are four key elements in the learning process which can encourage and sustain learners’ motivation: Attention, Relevance, Confidence and Satisfaction (ARCS).
Motivation and self-regulated learning

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory (2011) book cover

Sweller, Ayres and Kalyuga consolidated all of the research on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) in this book. CLT states that because short-term memory is limited, learning experiences should be designed to reduce working memory ‘load’ in order to promote schema acquisition. Cognitive Load Theory

Online Collaborative Learning theory

Linda Harasim

Linda Harasim’s Online collaborative learning (OCL) theory, is a form of constructivist teaching that takes the form of instructor-led group learning online. In OCL, students are encouraged to collaboratively solve problems through discourse instead of memorizing correct answers. The teacher plays a crucial role as a facilitator as well as a member of the knowledge community under study. Online collaborative learning theory

Social agency theory of multimedia learning

Multimedia learning cover

Richard Mayer’s social agency theory of multimedia learning proposes that social cues may prime social responses in learners that lead to deeper cognitive processing during learning and hence better test performance. Multimedia

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction

Colvin-Clark and Mayer's seminal book 'e-Learning and the Science of Instruction'

Colvin-Clark and Mayer’s seminal book ‘e-Learning and the Science of Instruction’ exemplifies the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning theory and provides research-based guidelines on how best to present content with text, graphics, and audio as well as the conditions under which those guidelines are most effective. Multimedia

Emotional design theory of learning with digital media

Emotions, technology, design and learning book cover

Plass and Kaplan’s proposed the Emotional design theory of learning with digital media to consider the impact of affect on learning. They argue that the emotional design of multimedia learning material can induce positive emotions in learners that in turn facilitate comprehension and transfer. Multimedia

Advances in Cognitive Load Theory

Advances in Cognitive Load Theory book cover

As Cognitive Load Theory developed, it has been used to generate a large number of instructional effects by reducing element interactivity, primarily associated with extraneous cognitive load. This book provides a summary of theoretical developments over recent years and the empirical consequences of that development. Cognitive Load Theory

Multimedia learning (Third edition)

Multimedia learning (third edition book cover)

The third edition of Richard Mayer’s ‘Multimedia Learning’ book. This edition covers the increase in the multimedia research base, adds three additonal principles for using multimedia and a greater focus on understanding the cognitive and motivational processes during learning that support meaningful learning. Multimedia

If you found this post useful, please consider sharing on Twitter:

If you have any comment or question, then feel free to tweet or to direct message me:


Clark, D. (2020). 100 learning theorists. Retrieved 02 October 2020, from

Culatta, R., & Kearsley, G. (n.d.). Learning Theories. InstructionalDesign.Org. Retrieved 25 July 2020, from

Harasim, L. (2017). Learning Theory and Online Technologies (2nd edition). Routledge Ltd.

Hendrick, C., & Kirschner, P. A. (2020) . How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice. Taylor and Francis.

Learning Theories and Models. (n.d.). Learning Theories. Retrieved 27 May 2020, from

Lefrançois, G. R. (2019). Theories of human learning: Mrs Gribbin’s cat (Seventh / Guy R. Lefrançois.). Cambridge University Press.

Mcleod, S. (n.d.). Theories of Psychology. Simply Psychology. Retrieved 25 July 2020, from

Schunk, D. H. (2020). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective, 8th Edition. Pearson Education.

Posted by Thomas H

Learning technologist at the University of London. Interested in Instructional Design, Learning Design, Multimedia Learning, Educational Research, and Open Education. Follow @myBRAIN_isOPEN

  1. Wow! I teach a course dealing with ICT in Education and relate to learning theories when thinking of design. This is so helpful. thank you Thomas!

    Can this page be embedded?


    1. Thanks for your kind words Merav, much appreciated. Glad this was helpful, would prefer a link rather than an embed if possible.


  2. Great overview!
    Keller seems a bit misplaced. We learned about ARCS in the 90s.


    1. Thanks for your positive feedback Jeroen. I had a similar comment on Twitter re ARCs. I need to go back to my notes to check but think that Keller updated ARCs at one or more points, so I need to decide which date to use in the timeline.


  3. […] (16/10/2020) “Learning theories timeline: key ideas from educational psychology“, […]


  4. […] Eine schöne Idee und Umsetzung: 50 Modelle oder Veröffentlichungen, die der Autor dem Stichwort „educational psychology“ zugeordnet hat, angeordnet auf einem Zeitstrahl, der von 1885 (Ebbinghaus!) bis in die Gegenwart reicht, und farblich nach neun Lerntheorien kodiert ist. Natürlich hat die Sammlung viele Lücken, und man sucht viele Namen vergeblich; aber die findet man vermutlich bei Donald Clark („100 learning theorists“).Jonathon Thomas, myBRAINisOPEN, 16. Oktober 2020 […]


  5. […] website. I would have enjoyed hearing if they had come across this, if they found it useful or was the timeline a bit too overwhelming for […]


  6. Wow, Great and fabulous work, can I translated to Arabic language and I will mention your original work as reference? Thank you so much 🌹


    1. Thanks for your kind words Raef, much appreciated. Glad that you found this useful. Yes, of course feel free to translate to Arabic. Yes, would appreciate a credit and link. I would be interested to see the final translation, so please do update me. Thanks again. Thomas


  7. Katerina Schenke 21 Oct 2020 at 9:06 pm

    I don’t have twitter so I can’t directly message you. I would love to suggest a few edits to this. For example, SDT came earlier than than 2008. Also, I would only attribute Expectancy Value Theory to Jacque Eccles. Wigfield was involved later in this work.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Katerina. I am by no means an expert on all (or even any!) of these theories, so I would really value any feedback that you have.

      I received quite a bit of feedback on Twitter also about various inconsistencies (and even on the whole idea of learning theories). So, I will be updating any inaccuracies and reflecting on other approaches that could be included.

      Please do suggest edits, you can contact me directly through my contact form which goes straight to my email:


  8. […] wanted to share this one because the resource that it references – – is quite useful.  Several of the folks that commented on the Twitter thread quibbled […]


  9. Where is Micki Chi?


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