Psychologists have come up with many different theories to explain what actually happens when someone learns something. Behavioral learning theory, cognitive learning theory, constructivist learning theory, and inquiry-based learning theory are four ways of analyzing the learning process that have impacted teaching strategies, clinical treatment and parenting advice. Many learning theories are not mutually exclusive.

Behavioral Learning Theory

In behavioral learning theory, learning is based on outside stimuli. The learner is seen as an empty vessel who will learn based on the teacher's use of positive and negative incentives, responses, punishments and rewards. A teacher using a system of grade point deductions for undone homework or rewarding prepared students with praise or extra free time, or making a contract with a student to modify her performance is using behavioral learning principals. In this paradigm, learning has taken place if behavior changes.

Cognitive Learning Theory

In cognitive learning theory, the most important factor in learning is the inner working of a student's brain. Cognitive theorists analyze the development of human intellectual ability, attempting to understand what actually happens in someone's head when he remembers, thinks, or solves problems. In cognitive learning theory, the mind is conceptualized as an information processor rather than a blank slate to be filled. A teacher using songs or rhymes to help students to memorize facts is using a cognitive approach. Learning is measured by a change in a student's schema, or conceptualization of the subject matter.

Constructivist Learning Theory

Constructivist theory goes beyond the conception of the learner as neutral information processor to consider what actual data he himself contributes as an active participant. Learning takes place when the learner, combining prior knowledge and experience with the information being offered, takes full ownership by newly constructing the learning in his own brain. The learner is seen as a very active participant, and his experience and background will influence the way new knowledge takes hold. A teacher leading an exploratory discussion of a poem or story is applying constructivist theory.

Inquiry-Based Learning Theory

In inquiry-based learning theory, the goal is a holistic and nuanced understanding of subject matter reached by solving problems, carrying out projects and experiments. Cognitive and constructive principles -- a student's processing methods and her prior knowledge and experience -- are both considered important. Inquiry-based learning theory emphasizes metacognitive processes, the mental methods a student develops as she learns the art of learning itself. A teacher using an interdisciplinary approach to a subject that pulls together related art, readings in history and scientific experimentation around a related theme is applying inquiry-based learning.