Associative Learning


Associationistic Learning Theory


Associations between identifiable environmental stimuli and observable measurable behaviors

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … repertoire of behaviors
  • Knowing is … behaving (triggered by stimuli)
  • Learner is … a connection-maker (organism-in-context)
  • Learning is … changes in behavior (linking stimuli to responses)
  • Teaching is … training; engineering behavior (through deliberate conditioning)




Associative Learning refers to processes involving linking a stimulus and a response. Most prominently, it includes Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. (Associative Learning should not be confused with Associationism (see Association-Making Metaphor), which refers to a much broader principle that is invoked across a wide array of discourses.) Important constructs include:
  • Associative Shifting – when a response made to a specific stimulus starts to be elicited by another stimulus. Associative Shifting can be deliberately triggered by gradually altering the stimulus over a series of trials.
  • Associative Strength – a comparative notion, referring to the strength of association between a stimulus and the response that it triggers
  • Associative Structure – the principal that, for bits of learning that are associated in memory (for whatever reason), when one is recalled, the others are likely to be recalled as well
As illustrated by the entries in this cluster, most instances of Associative Learning are Reinforcement Theories:
  • Reinforcement Theory – any theory that is centrally based on the principle that reinforcement – i.e., some type of reward or feedback – is necessary for learning
Outliers include:
  • Error Factory Theory (Harry Harlow, 1960s) – the hypothesis that learning is as much (or more) about suppressing and eliminating associations (i.e., those responses seen as “errors”) as it is about generating and strengthening associations (i.e., those responses seen as appropriate)
  • Disequilibrium Hypothesis (William Timberlake, 1980s) – the postulate that preventing access to a specific response renders that response more and more reinforcing


See Behaviorisms.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

See Behaviorisms.

Status as a Theory of Learning

See Behaviorisms.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

See Behaviorisms.

Status as a Scientific Theory

See Behaviorisms.


  • Associative Shifting
  • Associative Strength
  • Associative Structure
  • Disequilibrium Hypothesis
  • Error Factory
  • Reinforcement Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Associative Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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