Theories on Human Learning

Kristin Hodges

Let's Define Learning

When we hear the word "learning", many of us think of school, books, pencil and paper. We learn many other places besides the classroom though, and we have to. In the overarching sense of the word, learning "occurs when experience...causes a relatively permanent change in an individuals's knowledge, behavior, or potential behavior."


Think back to your first day of first grade. The school day is about to end, and a bell rings. All of a sudden the teacher is ushering you and your classmates out to the line of cars and busses. Before long, you know that the sound of the bell means school is dismissed, and by the time you're a senior in high school, you can't wait for the bell to ring. This is Classical Conditioning at its finest.

Classical Conditioning involves learning an involuntary emotional or physical response to a previously neutral stimulus. In our society, we immediately think of school as a place of learning because over the years, those words have become associated in our heads. Classical Conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s, who was not actually researching anything to do with psychology at the time. His initial study was to see how much time it took a dog to start producing digestive juices after being fed. Conditioning begins with a neutral stimulus, when a certain stimulus does not bring forth any reaction. For Pavlov's dog, no sound or command would make the dog salivate until the food, or unconditioned stimulus, was present. Once Pavlov started sounding a tuning fork and immediately feeding his dog, the tuning fork began to become a conditioned stimulus, and the salivation with no food present was a conditioned response.

Operant Conditioning, developed by B.F. Skinner, works much the same, only instead of eliciting a response, an operation becomes involuntary, much like turning on a light switch. When you are small, you do not know how the lights turn on, but soon enough, you learn that to do this, you must flip a switch to the on position.

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Social Learning Theory

In the late 1970s, Albert Bandura challenged the "traditional behavioral view of learning", and added important distinctions of his own: the differences between enactive and observational learning. These ideas of learning through observation and action are known as the social learning theory.

Enactive Learning is the idea that people learn through doing and experiencing direct consequences of their actions. Unlike operant conditioning, the consequences provide information for further learning instead of strengthening or weakening behavior.

Observational learning is the idea that people learn by observing others. When children are growing up, they are constantly observing their parents and adults around them to learn how to communicate needs, wants, and ideas. Especially in the early stages of childhood, children learn very quickly how to treat other people by observing their parents' interactions with each other and others.

Finally, Bandura makes a distinction between learning and performing. He says that we all learn behaviors through observation, but then make choices on whether or not to act on those behaviors based on the predicted outcome of the behavior.

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Information Processing Theory

Information processing views memory like a computer input system. Like a computer, the human brain takes in information, transforms the content and form into a medium it can store so that when needed, the information can be easily retrieved, and an appropriate response can be generated. Three stages of transformation and storage occur before the information is fully stored in the brain.

First, is sensory memory. It is the initial stage of processing that uses the senses to make sense of the incoming stimuli. Information remains in the sensory memory for an extremely short amount of time, less than a second. At this point, perception and attention determine what to move into the working memory, and what to throw out. If information is deemed worthy to pass from the sensory memory, it is moved into the working memory. Working memory, also known as short term memory, is the holding and further-processing zone where complex cognitive tasks take place, like language comprehension, learning and reasoning. Information is stored here for about 10 to 15 seconds before, again, it is moved along in the storage process, or is discarded. Finally, after time and effort, memories can be stored in the long-term memory. Unlike the limited space in working memory, it appears that long-term memory space is unlimited. During its time in the long term memory, information turns into one of three types of knowledge:

  • Declarative knowledge - knowing "that" something is true, like specific facts. (Ex: the force of gravity on earth is 9.807 m/s^2)
  • Procedural knowledge - know "how" to do something. (Ex: translating a sentence from English to German)
  • Self-regulatory knowledge - knowing how and when to switch between the previous two types of knowledge.
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Psychologists and educators have different theories for how learning is achieved. Some believe that responses and behaviors are conditioned, while others believe that people learn solely by observing others and their actions. Still others believe that memory and learning is explained through information processing and using the senses to store memory. However, like myself, a vast majority of people believe that it is a combination of all three of these theories that truly explain how the human mind learns, and with this understanding, we can better serve the students in our classroom and in the environment around us.

Works Cited

Hoy, Anita Woolfolk. "Behavioral Views of Learning" and "Cognitive Views of Learning." Educational Psychology. 13th ed. N.p.: Pearson, 2016. N. pag. Print.

"Introduction to Psychology, v. 1.0." Flat World Knowledge. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2016.

"Ivan Pavlov's Dogsclassical Conditioning." Ivan Pavlov Classical Conditioning Dogs Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

"Social Learning Theory by Heather Clarey." Social Learning Theory. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2016.