How Do We Learn?

by Emma Wesel

What is learning, and where does it come from?

Learning takes place every day, whether we are aware of it or not. It begins from a young age and never really stops, just continues while we filter through new information that is presented to us. While most of us don't stop to think about the different processes that take place when we learn, they play a large role in shaping our behaviors and understanding. Conditioning, social learning theory, and information processing theory all contribute to our learning and memory on a daily basis. Theorists agree on the definition that learning "occurs when experience causes a change in a person's knowledge or behavior" (Woolfolk 282).


One of the earliest definitions of learning comes from the ancient philosopher, Aristotle. He said that there are three cases in which we remember things: when they contrast, when they are similar, and when they are contagious. (Woolfolk 254). In order for something to be considered learning, experience must be the root cause of the change in behavior. Classical conditioning occurs when someone associates a response with a certain stimuli. Watching others and observing and mimicking their behavior is an example of social learning theory. And the last theory, information processing, involves sensory, working, and long-term memory working together to store and organize information.

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Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning was first discovered by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s. He found that when dogs heard a noise that they associated with being fed, they began to salivate. This is the foundation of classical conditioning. The subject becomes conditioned to have a response to a certain stimulus. For example, the book mentions feeling tense whenever you hear a dentist's drill as one instance in our daily lives that we don't even think about. (Woolfolk 254). Classical conditioning at its core involves hearing, seeing, or smelling a stimulus and having an automatic response to it. This learning takes place to help humans learn about their environment and develop cues. A large part of classical conditioning occurs when humans and animals begin to associate and react to a stimulus that they never were influenced by before.


There are two parts that influence conditioning. They are the conditioned stimulus, and the conditioned response. In the case of the dentist example, the conditioned stimulus is the sound of the dentist's drill. Your muscles tensing when hearing the dentist's drill out of your fear for the dentist is the conditioned response. (Woolfolk 254). In the "Attack of the Quack" video attached below, a younger brother is conditioned to associate the noise of "Quack" with being shot with a Nerf gun. In this case, the "Quack" noise is a conditioned stimulus and being shot with the Nerf gun is the conditioned response.

Classical Conditioning within Psychology - "Attack of the Quack"

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory stems from the idea that we learn by watching our peers. Albert Bandura came up with this theory during the 1970s based on his belief that the behavioral view of learning that had been widely accepted came with a lot of limitations. Social learning theory says that the cognitive process of learning comes from social interaction. In order to prove that this is true, Bandura did an experiment involving children and violence. Bandura exposed children to a video of adults acting aggressively towards a Bobo doll, and then observed the children's behavior with the same doll after they had seen this video. He found that people learn largely by imitating behavior that they observe others exhibit, as well as based on punishments and rewards that they see. (Woolfolk 278).


Bandura's research didn't stop there, he made a point to differentiate between enactive and observational learning. Enactive learning is learning that you experience personally by doing and seeing the consequences of your actions. Consequences in enactive learning are not viewed as strengthening or weakening the behavior, rather as key to giving information to help someone understand what come as a result of their behavior. Observational learning is learning that occurs when watching another person or animal learn. (Woolfolk 279). For example, if a child sees another child hit someone and get punished for it, they will be more likely to realize that it is wrong to hit and there are consequences for doing so. Another example would be if a student gets caught cheating and receives a zero on an exam. When other students find out that their peer suffered this consequence, they may think twice before cheating.

Bandura - bobo doll experiment

Information Processing Theory

The information processing theory is made up of your sensory memory, working memory, and long term memory. These three aspects combine to make up the physical aspects that describe how we as humans learn and retain information (Woolfolk 292). Our minds deal with information in various ways, and this theory explains how our memories combine and organize the information that we process on a daily basis. This theory expresses the cognitive view of learning rather than the behavioral view, as expressed in conditioning and the social learning theory. Information processing goes through the steps that our minds take to save information, store it, and retrieve it when we need it.


Sensory Memory

The first part of the information processing system is sensory memory. It is the processing of stimuli that we are bombarded with into information for us to make sense of. Since there is so much information coming into our sensory memory at one time, the duration of our sensory memory is less than 3 seconds (Woolfolk 294). Perception occurs when stimuli are changed into information with meaning through various stages. An example of sensory memory is seeing a dog right as it is turning a corner. Once the dog has turned the corner, you can no longer see it but for a few brief seconds, your brain has stored information relating to that dog.


Working Memory

The next theory in information processing is working memory. The textbook describes working memory as the "workbench of the memory system" (Woolfolk 297). Your working memory is the place where new information is paired with information from your long term memory in order to make sense of something. Our working memories use four different elements created by Alan Baddely: they are the central executive, the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad, and the episodic buffer. The central executive part of working memory focuses on the attention and knowledge needed to solve problems. It makes plans and allocates resources. (Woolfolk, 294). The phonological loop serves the speech and sound systems focusing on words and sounds in short term memory. Digits are easier to remember in the phonological loop than words, as it has been suggested that we can store as much information as we can say in 1.5-2 seconds. (Woolfolk 298). The visuospatial sketchpad is the area of our brain that helps us to manipulate images. (Wookfolk 299). Lastly, the episodic buffer brings together all of the information from the different areas of working memory to create memories that then will be stored. (Woolfolk 299).


Long Term Memory

Long term memory is the last part to the information processing theory. It holds information that someone knows every well. Some examples of things in long term memory are your phone number, the name of your best friend, and your address. Long term memory is not stored instantly, but there is no known capacity to it. (Woolfolk 304). The two categories that make up long term memory are explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is conscious. You are aware of searching for the information in your brain, such as the book that you read last year and want to recommend to a friend. Implicit memory is made up of knowledge that we don't have to search for to find, but influences our actions without us knowing. (Woolfolk 305).

Works Cited

Bobo Doll Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHHdovKHDNU

Attack of the Quack Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfTTm-rgFFI

Brain Gears Photo: https://gradeslam.org/blog/the-best-study-techniques-to-improve-memory-retention

Social Learning Theory Photo: http://www.explorediscover.net/why-we-are-unique/social-learning.php

Textbook: Woolfolk, Anita. Educational Psychology. 13th ed. N.p.: Pearson, n.d. Print.