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Learning

Can you remember a time when you didn’t know how to tie your shoe, ride a bike, or solve a math equation? Surely, you were not born knowing how to perform all of these tasks. You, like everyone else, had to learn them. What seems like a simple explanation is one of the greatest psychological phenomena. There are several theories, explanations, and factors that surround how learning takes place. In this explanation, we will delve into the main learning concepts, types, and theories that have revealed themselves through years of well-established psychological studies and observations.

  • What is learning?
  • What are the different types of learning?
  • What is habituation?
  • What is the social learning theory?

Concept of Learning

Before discussing all of the complexities and various learning constructs, we must define the actual concept of learning.

Learning is a behavioral shift or ability as a result of experience(s) (Revlin 2013).

The learning process varies from person to person and between individual experiences. However, through years of studies, observation, and trials, there are types of learning that have some degree of universality among all humans and even animals! In fact, many famous studies that have become the structural foundation of many learning theories have used animals as subjects in the study. We will expand on this idea later as we discuss the types of learning.

It is important to keep in mind that many varying factors can impact the speed, effectiveness, and learning methods of individuals. These could be biological, environmental, or psychological factors that play a role in learning. This being said, each method and theory of learning can be more or less effective for each person.

Learning + Concepts of Learning + StudysmarterLearning, pixabay.com

Learning in Psychology

When you think of learning, you probably have a pretty good idea about how it works and your preferred methods from years of experience. When it comes to learning in psychology, all of these methods and types of learning are defined and measured in various studies and applications. Understanding the psychological structures involved in the learning process will help identify why these methods are so effective and how to implement them into your own studies.

A simple and operational concept of the learning process starts with two basic forms of learning. The first is that the measure of particular behavior either increases or decreases. The second is that a new behavior is developed and routinely implemented.

An operational definition is used in psychology to define something in a way that is measurable or observable; this is very important in clinical research and studies.

Types of Learning

Now that we have established a general overview and definition of learning, let’s go over the main theories and methods surrounding the learning process and how they are applied in everyday examples in life.

Habituation

In psychological terms, habituation refers to the decreased response rate following the application of a certain stimulus over time (Revlin 2013). Just as the name would suggest, to habituate is to “get used to” something after constantly being exposed to it. This is one of the most basic forms of learning, and examples of this exist in most experiences throughout our lives.

Think of a time in your life when you have been nervous. How about public speaking? At first, you may be extremely nervous, and maybe your voice would shake, or your hands might even sweat. However, if you were constantly asked to give speeches, this nervous response would eventually decrease. This is what is known as habituation.

Sensitization

In contrast to habituation, sensitization refers to the increased response rate following a repeated stimulus. This can be identified in situations when a learner becomes aware of a stimulus and develops a stronger response as time goes on. One important hallmark of sensitization is that the increased response can occur to any given stimulus with surprising or unexpected quality.

Someone who has been sensitized to the sight of needles. A person who has had a shot or vaccine with a needle and experienced shocking pain, as a result, may develop a stronger response to seeing a needle. Because they have associated needles with pain, they will have an increased response to the stimulus, which, in this case, is a needle.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, is a type of learning through the association made between two types of stimulus that develops a learned response. This groundbreaking discovery was made by a Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in 1902 when he conducted his extremely famous experiment known commonly as Pavlov’s dog.

This method first occurs when an unconditioned stimulus produces an initial (unconditioned) response and then is paired with another neutral stimulus and repeated. The learner then makes an association between the two stimuli creating a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response.

This diagram of Pavlov’s dog demonstrates classical conditioning:

Learning, Concepts of Learning, StudysmarterClassical conditioning, Salehi.s-wikimedia.org

In this example, the dog has learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food and develops a conditioned response (salivating) at the introduction of the conditioned stimulus (bell ringing), demonstrating classical conditioning.

Operant Conditioning

This specific method of learning is another significant discovery in the history of psychology and was made famous by an American psychologist B.F. Skinner, in his 1948 studies on operant conditioning. This type of learning displays unique characteristics that differ from the previously mentioned forms. In operant conditioning, the outcome is completely determined by the response. More specifically, the response to a behavior determines the likelihood for the behavior to be repeated (Mcleod 2018).

Two aspects pertaining to this method of learning are reinforcement and punishment.

  1. Positive/negative reinforcement

    • A pleasant stimulus is rewarded after good behavior, so the behavior increases.

    • An unpleasant stimulus is removed to increase good behavior.

  2. Positive/negative Punishment

    • Punishment is administered following bad behavior to decrease it.

    • Punishment is removed to increase good behavior.

An important note in operant conditioning is that we tend to repeat the behaviors that produce a rewarding or encouraging response. At the same time, behaviors that result in punishment or a negative response are less likely to be repeated (Thorndike 1927). This is known as Thorndike’s law of effect within operant conditioning.

A child is throwing a tantrum in a toy store, so the parent punishes this behavior by leaving the store and giving the child a time-out. The child then learns to stop misbehaving in stores to avoid this punishment. In another scenario, a child helps a classmate with a task and is rewarded with a lollipop for their good behavior. This results in an increase in that behavior due to the encouraging response granted.

Social Learning Theory

By combining ideas from both operant and classical conditioning, then including sentiments of observation and cognition, psychologist Albert Bandura coined the concept of social learning theory (1977). This theory derives from the idea that learning takes place using imitation and observation of others’ behavior while emphasizing the ideas of positive and negative reinforcement.

Bandura’s notorious Bobo Doll Experiment in 1961 is a perfect example of the social learning theory.

Learning, Concepts of Learning, StudysmarterImages of Bandura's Bobo doll experiment, Wikimedia.org

In this experiment, children were shown behaviors of a model interacting with an inflatable doll in either an aggressive or non-aggressive manner. Then, they got a chance to play with the doll while researchers observed their behavior. The results of the study showed that most children who witnessed the aggressive interaction model engaged in more aggressive behavior in their interactions. Children who saw the non-aggressive model showed less physical aggression toward the doll (Mcleod, 2014).

This is an exemplary demonstration of the social cognitive theory as the learners imitate behaviors they observed from a model in a similar social setting. This type of imitative behavior can be seen every day within communities of youth and adolescents. For example, think of a time when you may have learned to behave a certain way after watching a friend's actions. This is a prominent and almost innate method of learning that contributes to our society as we know it.

Learning - Key takeaways

  • The basic definition of learning is a behavioral shift or change as a result of an experience.
    • Two main concepts of learning are that behavior either increases or decreases as a result or a new behavior is acquired.
  • Habituation is a type of learning that results in a decreased behavior through repeated exposure to the stimulus.
  • Sensitization refers to an increased rate of response following a repeated stimulus.
  • Classical conditioning is a type of learning that involves the association between two unconditioned stimuli that result in a conditioned stimulus and a conditioned response.
  • Operant conditioning emphasizes learning through the response to behavior.
  • The social learning theory suggests learning takes place through imitation of observed behavior

References

  1. Revlin, R. (2013). Cognition: Theory and practice. Worth Publishers.
  2. Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212-222.

Frequently Asked Questions about Learning

The two main forms of the learning process are: 

1. A behavior either increases or decreases. 

2. A new behavior is developed.

Learning is a behavioral shift or ability resulting from experience.

Five common types of learning are habituation, sensitization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning.

Final Learning Quiz

Question

What are two types of conditioning?

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Classical and operant

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What is classical conditioning?

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Classical conditioning is when one stimulus is paired with an outside stimulus to create a response that is a result of the outside stimulus.

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What is operant conditioning?


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Operant conditioning is when a particular behavior is reinforced by either positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or punishment.

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What is conditioning?


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Conditioning is training someone or something to give a certain result by introducing a stimulus or reinforcer. 

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Ivan Pavlov carried out experiments for which type of conditioning?


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Classical conditioning

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During Ivan Pavlov’s initial experiment, he was using what animal as his study subject?


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Dogs

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Who is noted for the discovery of classical conditioning?


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Ivan Pavlov

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What does the Law of Effect state?


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The Law of Effect states that when a person gets a good or positive response for a behavior, they are more likely to perform that behavior again.

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Who modeled operant conditioning after the Law of Effect?


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B.F. Skinner

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B.F. Skinner brought a new term into the law of effect. What was that term?


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Reinforcement

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What is a neutral operant?


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A neutral operant is a neutral response that does not increase or decrease the chances of a behavior happening again.

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What is a reinforcer?


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A reinforcer can be either positive or negative and makes it more likely that the desired behavior will be repeated.

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What is positive reinforcement?


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Positive reinforcement is when a reward is given for a good or desired behavior.

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What is negative reinforcement?


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Negative reinforcement is when a negative consequence is given for an action.

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What is punishment?


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Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement because it is aimed at stopping or preventing a behavior. 

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What is operant conditioning?

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Operant conditioning is a way of learning that uses consequences as the main motivator for learning

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Who was B.F. Skinner?

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B.F. Skinner researched the cause of certain actions and behaviors and what rewards or consequences were associated with those actions and behaviors. Skinner is noted for discovering operant conditioning.

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What are the four main components of operant conditioning?


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Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and omission training

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What is positive reinforcement?


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Positive reinforcement is a consequence that is when a learner performs a voluntary behavior after receiving a good or positive consequence, this being more likely to continue repeating the behavior again.

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What is a primary reinforcer?


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A primary reinforcer is something that is important to someone biologically, and because of this, it is something that is rewarding to them also.

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What is a secondary reinforcer?


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A secondary reinforcer is a reward that is associated with a primary reinforcer and given to an active learner for completing a specific behavior.

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What is avoidance?

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A type of negative reinforcement that removes the negative stimulus or consequence before it even happens (avoiding it so it doesn't happen)

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What is the Premack Principle?


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A behavior that someone is more likely to do can be used as a positive reinforcement for an action they’re less likely to do 

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What is negative reinforcement?


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The removal of an aversive consequence that follows a voluntary behavior which increases the probability the behavior will be repeated

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What is punishment?


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A negative consequence that follows someone's behavior to stop them from doing that behavior again

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What is omission training?


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Taking something good away after someone does a behavior that does not want to be repeated 

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What is shaping?

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A way of positively reinforcing someone by reinforcing after each attempt that got them close to the end goal

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What is chaining?


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A way of positively reinforcing someone by reinforcing each behavior that can then become strung together to make a chain of behaviors

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What is extinction?

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Extinction is when you begin to weaken a response and take away the reinforcement for a specific behavior, which gets rid of the learned behavior

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What is escape?

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A type of negative reinforcement that removes the negative stimulus after it begins

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________ is how we perceive, interpret, and understand new information or obtain new knowledge

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Learning

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_______ methods are the various ways we obtain knowledge through different forms of material or stimuli.

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Learning

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The three methodologies of learning

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classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.

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Unconscious way of learning material through two forms of stimuli reacting to each other, often a stimulus and a response.

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Classical Conditioning

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When someone is conditioned through rewards and punishment

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Operant conditioning

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How we learn by watching other people, often by mimicking their behaviors.

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Observational learning

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The four types of learning styles are?

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visual learning, auditory learning, kinesthetic learning, and reading/writing learning.

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_____  learners often stay organized by using color-coded notes or visually pleasing charts


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Visual

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_______ learners likely find joy through conversation and listening to others.


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Auditory

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 __________ learners often prefer hands-on tasks and do not do well with visual and auditory informational learning.

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Kinesthetic

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Kolb's 4 stage experiential learning theory.

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concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation

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The four learning styles through Kolb's theory are

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diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating.

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What type of learning method relies upon unconditioned reflex responses?

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Classical conditioning relies upon unconditioned reflex responses. Example: If we have an itch (stimulus), we scratch it (response).

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An example of creativity when learning can include...

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creating acronyms

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___________ learners are more successful in remembering information when it is presented the first time. 


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Reading and writing

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___________ is a learning approach that uses rewards to encourage positive behavior or punishment to change negative behaviors.

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Operant conditioning

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The teacher acknowledges everyone who raises their hand and praises their effort to answer to increase class participation. This is an example of ______.

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Positive reinforcement

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Mike got an A+ on his test. His mother lessened the number of chores he had to do. This is an example of ______.


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Negative reinforcement

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Anna was rushing to work and went beyond the speed limit. She got a ticket for speeding. This is an example of _______.


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Positive punishment

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Jason bullies his classmates. Because of this, his parents took away his phone and video games for a month. This is an example of _________.


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Negative punishment

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