What Is Learning?

A Psychological Definition

Learning with teacher
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Learning is often defined as a relatively lasting change in behavior that is the result of experience. Learning became a major focus of study in psychology during the early part of the twentieth century as behaviorism rose to become a major school of thought. Today, learning remains an important concept in numerous areas of psychology, including cognitive, educational, social and developmental psychology.

How Does Learning Occur?

Learning can happen in a wide variety of ways. To explain how and when learning occurs, a number of different psychological theories have been proposed.

Learning Through Classical Conditioning

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered one method of learning during his experiments on the digestive systems of dogs. He noted that the dogs would naturally salivate at the sight of food, but that eventually the dogs also began to salivate whenever they spotted the experimenter’s white lab coat. Later experiments involve pairing the sight of food with the sound of a bell tone. After multiple pairings, the dogs eventually began to salivate to the sound of the bell alone.

This type of learning is known as classical conditioning. It takes place through the formation of associations. A neutral stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response is paired with a neutral stimulus.

Eventually, an association forms and the previously neutral stimulus becomes known as a conditioned stimulus that then triggers a conditioned response.

Learning Through Operant Conditioning

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner noted that while classical conditioning could be used to explain some types of learning, it could not account for everything.

Instead, he suggested that reinforcements and punishments were responsible for some types of learning. When something immediately follows a behavior, it can either increase or decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. This process is referred to as operant conditioning.

For example, imagine that you just got a new puppy, and you would like to begin training it to behave in specific ways. Whenever the puppy does what you want it to do, you reward it with a small treat or a gentle pat. When the puppy misbehaves, you scold him and do not offer affection. Eventually, the reinforcement leads to an increase in the desired behaviors and a decrease in the unwanted behaviors.

Learning Through Observation

While classical conditioning and operant conditioning can help explain many instances of learning, you can probably immediately think of situations where you have learned something without being conditioned, reinforced or punished. Psychologist Albert Bandura noted that many types of learning do not involve any conditioning and in fact, evidence that learning has occurred might not even be immediately apparent.

Observational learning occurs by observing the actions and consequences of other people’s behavior.

In a series of famous experiments, Bandura was able to demonstrate the power of this observational learning. Children watched video clips of adults interacting with a large, inflatable Bobo doll. In some instances, the adults simply ignored the doll, while in other clips the adults would hit, kick and yell at the doll.

When kids were later given the chance to play with in a room with a Bobo doll present, those who had observed the adults abusing the doll were more likely to engage in similar actions.

As you can see, learning is a complex process that involves multiple factors. Psychologists today not only study how learning occurs but also how social, emotional, cultural and biological variables might influence the learning process.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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