Theories That Explain How We Learn

Conditioning, Social Learning, and Information Processing


There are two theories that make up conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov in 1920. This theory involves learning a new behavior via the process of association. Initially, Pavlov was trying to find how long it took a dog to secrete digestive juices after it had been fed, but the intervals of time kept changing. Pavlov clearly knew that there are some things that dog did not need to learn. For example, dogs don't learn to salivate when they see food, it is just a reflex. The unconditioned stimulus is the food and the unconditioned response is the saliva. Pavlov then decided to play the sound of a tuning fork and record the dog's response. The dog did not salivate because the tuning fork was a neutral stimuli. Then Pavlov fed the dog. Soon he started to notice that the dog would salivate to just the sound of the tuning fork. The sound now became a continued stimulus because it could bring forth salivation by itself. The response of salivating after hearing the tone was now a conditioned response. In summary, classical conditioning involves learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus that already brings forth a particular response with a new (conditioned) stimulus, so that the new stimulus brings about the same response.

Operant conditioning refers to when "people learn to behave a certain ways as we operate on the environment" (Woolfolk, 256). B.F Skinner is responsible for developing the concept. This theory revolves around two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. For example, if your teacher gives you $5 each time you complete your homework (reward) you will be more likely to repeat this behavior in the future, thus strengthening the behavior of completing your homework. Negative reinforcement is the removal of an unpleasant reinforcer that leads to strengthen behavior. An example would be the car seatbelt buzzer. As soon as one buckles their seatbelt, the annoying buzzer stops. Negative reinforcement strengthens behavior because it stops or removes an unpleasant experience.

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Social Learning Theory

According to Albert Bandura, social learning theory is made up of enactive and vicarious (observational) learning. Enactive learning is "learning by doing and experiencing the consequences of your actions" (Woolfolk, 278). This principle should not be confused with operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is believing that consequences strengthen or weaken behavior. In enactive learning, consequences are seen as providing information. In other words, "our interpretations of the consequences create expectations, influence motivation, and shape beliefs" (Woolfolk, 279). Vicarious learning, on the other hand, is learning by observing others. Evidently, people can learn by watching others. They focus their attention, analyze, and make decisions that affect learning. To prove this, Bandura did a study on preschool children. The children saw a film of a model kicking and punching an inflatable "Bobo" doll. "One group of children saw the model rewarded for the aggression, another group saw the model punished, and a third group observed no consequence" (Woolfolk, 279). The group that watched the models be punished for their actions were the least aggressive. This study proves that incentives can affect performance. "Even though learning may have occurred, it may not be demonstrated until the situation is appropriate or there are incentives to perform" (Woolfolk, 279).

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Information Processing Theory

Information Processing Theory is the cognitive view of learning. It explains how we process information cognitively. There are three main stages for this theory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. First, stimuli from the environment enters sensory memory. Everything you see, taste, and feel goes into sensory memory. The capacity of sensory memory is very large "but this vast amount of sensory information is fragile in duration" (Woolfolk, 294). It can hold information up to 3 seconds. Perception and attention are needed for information to enter short-term memory.

The information that was captured by sensory memory then moves on to short-term memory. Short-term memory can hold information for about 5 to 9 seconds. In this stage, one has to go through maintenance rehearsal in order to encode information into long-term memory. Examples of maintenance rehearsal is the practice of chunking numbers. Have you noticed that most numbers you have memorized are chunked? You are most likely to notice that our phone numbers and social security number are chunked into groups of three. This makes it easier for people to remember information and therefore encode it in long-term memory.

Once the information has gone through maintenance rehearsal, it enters long-term memory. Long-term memory "holds the information that is well learned, such as the names of all the people you know" (Woolfolk, 304). The capacity of long-term memory is unlimited, and once the information has been securely stored, it will remain there permanently. The information moves from long-term memory to short-term memory by the process of retrieval. Take a look at the picture below.

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