Human learning explained

Conditioning, social learning, and information processing

What is learning?

Put simply, learning is the acquisition of knowledge. Learning occurs when a person interacts with his or her environment, causing a change in his or her knowledge, behavior, or tendency for or against certain behaviors. Learning can happen consciously - taking classes and doing schoolwork are a few examples - and unconsciously, such as learning to disapprove of a type of fashion that society in general disparages. There are behavioral and cognitive views of learning; in the cognitive theory, knowledge and strategies are learned and make changes in behavior possible, while the behavioral theory states that the new behaviors themselves are learned. We will more closely examine a few theories within the behavioral and cognitive views of learning.


Classical conditioning is an automatic and unintentional learning process that concerns reflex-like responses. The discovery of classical conditioning is credited to Ivan Pavlov, who observed in the 1920s the salivation of dogs in relation to the presence of food. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate earlier and earlier as the experiment went on, at first salivating when eating, then as soon as they saw the food. Intrigued, Pavlov changed tack and added another component to the experiment: a tuning fork, which he sounded before feeding the dogs. At first, the dogs did not salivate in response to the sound, as it was not connected to food. However, as food was presented and the process repeated multiple times, the dogs formed an association between the tuning fork's sound and food, learning through this conditioning that the sound, now a conditioned stimulus, directly preceded food. Thus, the dogs salivated when they heard the tuning fork, which is a conditioned response to the repeated process of sound, then food.

Operant conditioning involves more active participation as individuals learn to behave in certain ways as they effect change on the environment. B. F. Skinner developed the concept of operant conditioning, proposing that classical conditioning is responsible for only a small amount of learned behaviors, since humans operate on more than respond to their environment. An individual behaves in a certain way, and that behavior is then reinforced through positive or negative reinforcement, or it is deterred with punishment.

Social learning theory

In 1977, Albert Bandura noticed the weaknesses of current learning theories and decided to explain and lessen those limitations. He developed social learning theory, which posits that individuals learn through the observation of others, such as a child learning how to talk or simply open a door by listening to and watching others. In his theory, Bandura distinguishes between enactive and vicarious learning, as well as between learning and performance. He defines learning as the acquisition of knowledge, and performance, or behavior, as the observable actions based on that knowledge.

Enactive learning, similarly to operant conditioning, involves learning by taking (or not taking) certain actions and experiencing the consequences of that behavior. These consequences provide the individual with information about the action rather than simply encouraging or discouraging that particular behavior, as in operant conditioning. Our interpretations of the consequences influence our expectations, motivations, and beliefs for similar processes as well as the world in general. Observational, or vicarious, learning occurs by merely observing other people learn or complete something, which suggests that the watchers must be focusing their attention, analyzing, remembering, and making decisions that affect learning. These cognitive factors involved in the learning process challenge the behavioral idea that such things play no role in learning. Both of these types of learning lead to certain performances based on our newly acquired knowledge; these behaviors then have consequences that provide information to us, and the process continues to repeat.

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Information processing theory

Information processing theory concerns learning and memory - how newly introduced information is retained. Sensory, working, and long-term memory all work together to gather, process, retain, and recall knowledge. The diagram below, from the Woolfolk text, demonstrates the interactions among these elements of the system.

Sensory memory takes all the environmental stimuli that we constantly receive and translates it into information that we can process. Sensory memory concerns sights, sounds, smells, and the many other sensations that are part of everyday life. Even though sensory memory has a vast capacity, all this data is too much to process at once; it remains intact for only a second, while the brain selects and organizes certain information for further processing.

Working memory temporarily holds new information, combining it with prior knowledge recalled from long-term memory for use in a current situation. Essentially, working memory concerns what we are thinking about at the moment. Working memory has a very limited capacity, but it can both temporarily store knowledge and actively process both new information from sensory memory and old information from long-term memory. This new data is transferred from working memory to long-term memory through time and effort, and the process is catalyzed by integrating new information with knowledge from long-term memory.

Long-term memory can retain knowledge permanently and seems to have an unlimited capacity, but, just as it takes time and effort to transfer data to long-term memory, time and effort are required to retrieve information in long-term memory.

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Hoy, Anita Woolfolk. Educational Psychology. 13th ed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2016. Print.

Hobbiss. Behaviorism and Social Learning Theory. Digital image. Psych Tutor. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.

Naik, Abhijit. Difference Between Operant and Classical Conditioning. Digital image. Buzzle. N.p., 1 Dec. 2014. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.

Social Learning Theory. Digital image. Memecrunch. N.p., 18 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.

Natalie Miller

February 10, 2016