Human Learning

Casey Holiday

A look into how conditioning, social learning theory, and information processing theory explain human learning

Classical Conditioning

After watching the above video, you may have a better understanding of how classical conditioning works.


Pavlov summed up Classical Conditioning as follows:


  • There is a neutral stimulus that will not produce a response by itself
  • There is a non-neutral or unconditioned stimulus
  • The unconditioned stimulus produces an unconditioned response
  • Presenting the neutral and unconditioned stimuli together over time will create an association
  • Eventually the neutral stimulus will produce the same response by itself as the unconditioned does
  • The resulting response to the neutral stimulus is called a conditioned response


This type of conditioning involves learning involuntary physiological or emotional responses called respondents. These respondents are triggered by stimuli. Humans and animals can be trained to react to stimuli involuntarily through the repeated actions of this type of conditioning.



By helping the dogs form associations, Pavlov was able to provoke respondents to stimuli unrelated to the natural response. Though a dog would naturally salivate at the sight and smell of food, he would not naturally salivate from hearing a bell. Pavlov's combination of the sight and smell of food with the sound of the bell taught the dogs to associate these two things. Through this association, the bell became a stimulus for salivation in the dogs from the experiment.


Because this is a conditioned response, dogs that were not involved in Pavlov's experiment would not salivate at the sound of the bell until they went through the same conditioning process.

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Operant Conditioning

We have learned that classical conditioning involves learning behaviors through stimuli and responses, but this is not the only form of conditioning.


Operant conditioning involves changes in behaviors resulting from experiences that occur after a response. In operant conditioning, individuals learn how to behave through reinforcement (both positive and negative) and punishment.


A reinforcer is any consequence that strengthens the behavior it follows. Reinforced behaviors increase in frequency or duration as a result.


Positive reinforcement encourages a behavior by producing a positive response.

Examples of positive reinforcement:

  • A parent laughing when a child exhibits bad behavior i.e. swearing
  • A teacher congratulating a student by putting a sticker on their A+ paper
  • Friends complimenting your new shoes


These behaviors are all different-some good and some bad- but can all be positively reinforced by the reactions given by others. Positive reinforcement does not only occur in accordance with positive behavior--this is why it is so important for educators to refrain from encouraging bad behavior, this may lead to students thinking they should continue to perform these behaviors.

Positive reinforcements may also include rewards. Receiving a prize or reward for good behavior may encourage students to continue their good behavior.


Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unpleasant stimulus in order to encourage a certain response in the future. Negative reinforcement is not to be confused with punishment, which we will soon cover.

Example of negative reinforcement:

  • A car seatbelt buzzer that produces an agitating noise until the seatbelt is fastened
  • When the behavior is performed (fastening), the negative stimulus (buzzing) is removed
  • People are likely to repeat this fastening in the future to avoid the buzzing


Punishment involves decreasing or suppressing a behavior.

Presentation punishment(Type I) involves adding a stimulus following a behavior that one wishes to decrease. An example of Type I punishment would be extra homework, detention, or reprimanding in response to bad classroom behavior.

Removal punishment(Type II) involves removing a stimulus following a bad behavior that one wishes to decrease. An example of Type II punishment would be removal of privileges such as TV time, time with friends, or phone privileges after an occurrence of bad behavior.


Punishment and reinforcements are not to be confused. Reinforcement, both positive and negative, aims to strengthen behaviors, while punishment aims to suppress behaviors.

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Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura's social learning theory concludes that people learn from each other through observation, imitation, and modeling. Bandura suggests that learning occurs in two forms: enactive and vicarious (observational).


Enactive learning involves performing a behavior and learning from the consequences of your actions. Rather than strengthening or weakening behaviors as in operant conditioning, in enactive learning the role of consequences is to provide information. Rather than teaching a response, these reinforcements create expectations of outcomes and understandings of the results of a certain behavior. Information and understanding associating a certain behavior with a postiive outcome gives an individual the information to know what will happen when they do a certain thing. This knowledge allows them to create their own motivations for their behaviors.

An example: new college freshmen may want to go out every night and stay up late. When they go out too much and don't spend enough time on school, this may result in them earning bad grades. No one actively rewarded or punished these students, but they gathered information through the consequences of their actions. They may now realize that spending more time drinking than studying might result in bad grades. With this new information they can form decisions about how to budget their time and have expectations of what will continue to happen if they repeat this behavior.


Vicarious learning or observational learning involves learning through the observation of others. Individuals can learn simply by watching another person or animal learn.

An example: children in a classroom may learn not to lean back in their chair when they see classmates fall over and get hurt because they were leaning back in their chair.

Information Processing Theory

The information processing theory addresses the mental process of learning, processing, storing, and using information. The information processing system is comprised of sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory.


The model of this theory suggests that the process starts as stimuli from the environment flow into the sensory registers. The sensory registers include hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching (in accordance with the five senses). Sensory memory transforms incoming stimuli to information. This type of memory has a large, but short-lived capacity; it can hold vast amounts of information, but only for about 3 seconds.

When information is encoded in sensory memory, perception and attention determine what will be held in working memory for later use.


In working memory, certain processes mitigate the flow of information and integrate new information with existing knowledge from long-term memory. The capacity of working memory is very limited.

You have likely experienced the limited capacity of short term memory in class as a professor races through his presentation slides before you have a chance to absorb and write down all of the information.

Working memory is composed of four elements:


  • the central executive controls attention and other mental resources
  • the phonological loop holds verbal and acoustical information
  • the visuospatial sketchpad works with visual and spatial information
  • the episodic buffer integrates information from the other three segments to form a final representation


While working memory holds currently activated information, like the psychology term your teacher just mentioned in class, long-term memory holds well learned information, like basic psychology terms you learned at the beginning of the semester and continue to apply in class.

While working memory is fleeting, information stored in long-term memory can remain there permanently. The capacity of long-term memory is seemingly unlimited, but it requires more time and effort to progress information to this area.

Long-term memory can be separated into two categories:


  1. Explicit memory: knowledge from long-term memory that can be recalled and consciously considered
  2. Implicit memory: knowledge that we are not conscious of recalling, but that influences behavior or thought without our awareness



Explicit memories can be either semantic or episodic.

Semantic memory is memory for meaning, including words, facts, theories, and concepts


  • The declarative knowledge under this category is not tied to a particular learning experience, but we are aware that we know this information

Episodic memory contains information tied to a particular place and time, perhaps information about events that happened in your own life



  • The type of information under this category is very familiar to us, and usually we are able to recall when an event happened and we acquired this information
  • Contains flashbulb memories of highly important or emotional events in your life that may have triggered your rain to record a vivid and complete memory of the momeny



Implicit memories fall into three kinds: classical conditioning, procedural memory, and priming effects.

Classical conditioning, as explained earlier, some unconscious memories and learned associations can have involuntary effects on your memory.

Procedural memory contains skills, habits, and how to perform tasks. It holds the memory for procedural knowledge.

Priming involves activating existing long-term information through an out-of-awareness process. Priming acts as the retrieval process interacting with associations being activated and spread through the memory system.

Works Cited

  1. Roundy, Lisa. "Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning: Differences and Examples." Study.com. Study.com, n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.
  2. Boyd, Natalie. "Ivan Pavlov and Classical Conditioning: Theory, Experiments & Contributions to Psychology - Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com." Study.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.
  3. Woolfolk, Anita. Educational Psychology. 13th ed. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2010. Print.
  4. Images courtesy of Google Image search