Human Learning: What's the Process?

Conditioning & Learning/Retention Theories

Classical Conditioning

The theory of Classical Conditioning is that of a subject being trained to respond in a specific manner to a specific trigger, through the means of contiguity. This explains how we are innately wired to learn as humans; the popular example of Pavlov's dog is a great explanation. Doctor Pavlov was doing a study on the salivation of dogs when they ate, when after a while, he would enter the room without food and the dogs would begin to salivate, as if there was a meal on the way. This is what is referred to as a "Pavlovian response", or an inherent reaction that has been programmed into a being over time. This is a very popular theory used to train students to respond positively to testing situations or in-class participation scenarios, and negatively to disruptive or inappropriate behavior. Obviously a student is not a test subject, but the general principle of the situation does apply quite smoothly to the task of creating the ideal classroom environment. With the extensive diversity of most classrooms today, it can often times be difficult to connect with each student on a personal enough level for effective teaching, which is where this idea of conditioning comes in, allowing for a teacher to evoke united responses from his/her students and in turn lower the time and energy spent in the transitional process. The numbers show this to be very true; for instance, Canada projects that by 2031 one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority, with South Asians representing the largest group. More recently, in the 2011-2012 school year about 60% of students with disabilities spent most of their time in general education classrooms. Also, in America, more than 16 million children (roughly 22% of all children) live in poverty, as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2013; this means these families were earning around $23,550 for a family of four (Woolfolk, 4).

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Social Learning Theory

The Social Learning Theory is the process of learning to behave in different ways due to our environment. It is a compliment to Classic Conditioning, and according to B.F. Skinner, classical conditioning counts only for a small portion of our learned behavior (Woolfolk, 256). A great example of operant conditioning would be learning to drive and stopping at a crosswalk. After enough times, you'd eventually get the idea that people are crossing the street at the crosswalk, so you should stop to avoid running them down. On the other hand, you may have been taught by your impatient parents to dismiss the crosswalk altogether and simply keep driving, robbing the pedestrians of their right of way. Either scenario is possible, but depends on the environment in which we are learning from. This is different from classical conditioning since the process is much more cognitive than reflexive, yet it is very complimentary to the idea of classical conditioning, and they do go together quite nicely. This is a very natural way for us to learn as well, and is innate to our observational tendencies in society and immediate situational circumstances. You cannot have one without the other; they must come as a pair. Teachers can teach class behavioral norms to their students simply by creating situations that highlight positive or encouraging work ethic and concentration, such as complimenting students on their note-taking during lectures, or their participation during group projects, etc.
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Information Processing Theory

The Information Processing Theory is the process in which the brain takes in information, digests it, stores it, and recalls it again for later use. The computer is used as a model for this principle; stimuli from the environment is taken into the sensory registers, and from there portions of the information are personalized and move to working memory. The information in working memory is then compared to the information in long-term memory, and after a while, some of the working memory becomes long-term memory.

The sensory part of the model represents the human senses (i.e. sight, sound, smell, touch, etc.). These human senses help us to digest the information that is thrown our way. The working memory, also known as short-term memory, is the retention of information that is new and has just been absorbed. This stage is where the information is still being broken down and compared to what we already know, in hopes of finding some connection that will allow us to hold onto the knowledge for future reference. Long-term memory is the information that has been stored for long-term recall; this information is compared to the new information that we pick up from our environment, and through this process we hope to relate the bits of knowledge to one another in order to remember what we have learned (Woolfolk, 292-293). For example, a child learns the alphabet song for the first time. He/she then processes what they have learned, how it felt, what the tune sounded like; they then try to relate that information to something that they already know, maybe another song they were taught at home or that they heard on television. Then the information is stored for long-term recall, and when they want to recite the alphabet song, they have trigger that allows them to remember what they have learned.

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