Learning Theories and Law: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism

by Ashley Ahlbrand

As I noted in a previous post, I am currently pursuing a graduate certificate in instructional design. The course I am taking this semester is heavily theory-based, and thus we have spent a good portion of the semester taking a deep dive into learning theories. People seem to naturally prefer one learning theory over another, but in reality, they all have their place in education. This post will describe three popular learning theories and ways in which they can be employed in legal education.


As its name suggests, behaviorism focuses on learning as expressed through behavior. A common example given is that a learner, when presented with an equation (stimulus), should be able to produce the proper solution (response). Instruction that employs a behaviorist theory emphasizes repetition and reinforcement as the means to achieve mastery; mastery comes when the learner is able to generalize this new knowledge and apply it to other, similar scenarios.

Behaviorism can be a good theory to employ in a pre-test scenario, to measure how much students already know on a topic, and therefore where to begin instruction. For instance, we give a pre-test at the beginning of the semester to our Advanced Legal Research students to get an idea of where the class is starting in terms of preset legal research knowledge. Other examples could include quizzes on the previous night’s readings, or even something less formal, like inserting Poll Everywhere or clicker-based questions in the middle of a lecture to gauge student understanding.


In contrast to behaviorism’s emphasis on the learner’s outward performance, cognitivism shifts the focus internal, to the learners’ processing of information, and their ability to relate new information to preexisting knowledge. Significant emphasis is placed on the learners’ organization of information. The instructor’s role is viewed more as a guide; they are tasked to not only help students adequately structure their knowledge for better recall and application, but also to understand the importance of what they are learning. “[T]he learner must believe that the knowledge is useful in a given situation before he or she will activate it” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 52).

A cognitivist approach is ideal for teaching higher levels of learning, such as critical analysis and problem-solving. Many topics in law are relational in nature – court structure, the relationship between statutes, cases, and regulations, the hierarchy of legal information, etc. – so generating efficient methods of processing this information is critical. Feedback plays a crucial role in cognitivist theory; rather than simply telling a student the right answer to a missed quiz question, provide a student with advice on how to approach the problem differently in the future. Other elements of instruction that take a more cognitivist approach would include concept mapping, handouts or other lecture materials that emphasize the organization of the information being taught, and the use of metaphor or analogy.


Constructivism focuses even more on what the individual brings to the topic being learned. Focusing on preexisting knowledge and the unique backgrounds of each individual learner, constructivists believe that learners apply new knowledge to their own realities, and that therefore they will construct their own meaning from the knowledge being acquired. In constructivist thinking, meaning is constantly evolving, and one’s knowledge of a particular concept takes on new meanings every time it is applied in a new situation or perspective; therefore “it is critical that learning occur in realistic settings and that the selected learning tasks be relevant to the students’ lived experiences” (Ertmer & Newby, p. 56).

Law is a discipline often associated with constructivist teaching, through internships and apprenticeships; by extension, you could consider clinical work constructivist. Within a more traditional classroom, collaborative learning, group work, and debate are effective constructivist teaching methodologies. The instructor in a constructivist setting takes serves as mentor, encouraging the learner to consider the application of this new knowledge in different scenarios and from different viewpoints.

And the winner is…?

The point of this post is not to claim that one learning theory is “better” than another. One prominent scholar in this area suggests that different learning theories are appropriate for different levels of knowledge acquisition; behaviorism and cognitivism are better approaches at the beginner’s level and constructivism is appropriate as the learner moves to more advanced levels (Jonassen, 1991). For instance, a first-year research course might employ behaviorist and cognitivist techniques to ensure that students digest basic legal research fundamentals; treasure hunt assignments, where repetition and recall are key, and closed research memos could be appropriate assessments at this level. An advanced research course could then challenge the upper-level student to apply these skills in new ways, based on real-world scenarios; open research memos and other research-based writing, such as advisory briefs, analytical reports, etc., could be appropriate assessments for challenging students to take their previously learned research knowledge and apply it in new and diverse ways.

Theory is not everyone’s cup of tea. The readings can be tedious, and sometimes they just seem full of hot air. Yet one great advantage I have found in exploring learning theory is that it has caused me to think critically about every instructional decision I make in teaching. What is the point of this research exercise? How is it challenging my students to apply the concept just taught? Is my instruction focused appropriately on what the students need to learn on a topic, or have I gone far afield? Even in the guest lecture context, where I am sometimes given specific instruction on what to cover in the lecture, does the handout I created efficiently and effectively organize the material being covered? If you’re at all curious about learning theory, I encourage you to explore these at greater length. You may find you learn a bit about yourself along the way.


Peggy A. Ertmer & Timothy J. Newby, Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective, 26 Perf. Improvement Q. 43-71 (2013).

David Jonassen, Evaluating Constructivistic Learning, 31 Educ. Tech. 28-33 (1991).


About ashleyahlbrand

I am the Educational Technology Librarian at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. I am deeply interested in exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education.
This entry was posted in Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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