How Do Humans Learn?

Three ways that enable us to know what we know

Let's first define learning.

Learning can be narrowed down to a change in ones knowledge or behavior.

1. Conditioning

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Classical Conditioning

Conditioning is broken up into two types: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that provokes an emotional or psychological response. When paired enough times, the once neutral stimulus will then produce that same emotional or psychological response. For example, take the unconditioned stimulus of a bell ringing. The bell is then paired with the smell of bacon. The smell of bacon makes a person salivate. When paired enough times, the bell alone will eventually make the person salivate on its own! The cartoon above is mimicking the effects of classical conditioning.
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Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is characterized by reinforcement and punishment. People learn from the effects of their actions. If the effect or consequence is strengthened, it is considered reinforcement. The above cartoon of the mouse is an example of a reinforcement. The mouse learns that whenever it presses a lever, it gets food. The behavior of pushing down on the lever is reinforced because the mouse will continually press it for food. This is how the mouse learns the association between pressing the lever and getting food. If the effect of an action decreases then that is considered punishment. For example, if the mouse pressed the lever and was consequently shocked, the mouse would probably stop pressing the lever. The mouse would have learned the lever equals pain from the shock, thus decreasing this behavior.

2. Social Learning Theory

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Social learning theory says that people and animals have the capacity to learn from others. They can learn by observing others, called observational learning. The cartoon above is an example of observational learning- we learn a lot of our behaviors from our parents and from those older than us.

Another important aspect of social learning theory is that we are able to observe consequences of others' actions and thus learn from them. For example, if I observe my older sibling getting punished for talking back to my parents, I learn what will happen to me if I do the same. This discourages me from talking back to my parents because I do not want to get punished.

Social learning theory also works to encourage certain behaviors. For example, if I see my classmate getting rewarded for answering a question, then I learn the importance of paying attention and answering questions and am more likely to repeat such behavior.

Social learning theory often comes very naturally to us- so much so that we don't realize when it is happening! We pick up many bad and good habits from our parents, for example. Do you ever catch yourself saying "oh my goodness, I just sounded exactly like my mother." This is an example of social learning theory.

3. Information Processing Theory

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Information processing theory works similarly to the functioning of a computer. This theory says that there are many working parts that contribute to learning. These parts include sensory, working and long term memory. Similarly, a computer also has different parts that work together. These parts enable the processing and then the subsequent learning of information.

The first stage is sensory memory, which is where your brain picks up sensory stimuli through your five senses- sight, taste, touch, hearing and smell. Your brain then tries to make sense of this information. It keeps what it thinks is important and discards what it deems useless.

The second stage is working memory. In this stage of learning, information is held temporarily in the brain. This stage is also the time where short term memory is combined with long term memory in an effort to make more sense of things. It combines both old and new information. Short term memory is typically limited to 5-9 items at a time. There is a finite limit to working memory.

The third and final stage of information processing theory is long term memory. As implied in the name, this stage holds all of the information we have previously learned. For example, it contains previous memories, facts and even names of people we know! Long term memory is different from working memory in that as far as we know, it is infinite!

By: Clementine Marcus


Woolfolk, Anita. Educational Psychology. 13th ed. Columbus: Pearson, 2016. 250-326. Print.