Introduction to Learning

Defining Learning

Learning involves a change in behavior or knowledge that results from experience.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate among classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Learning involves physical changes in the nervous system, such as the strengthening of synapses, the activation of neural pathways, or the pruning of neural pathways. These changes elicit specific responses to environmental stimuli.
  • The field of behavioral psychology focuses largely on measurable behaviors that are learned, rather than trying to understand internal states such as emotions and attitudes.
  • Types of learning include classical and operant conditioning (both forms of associative learning) as well as observational learning.
  • Classical conditioning, initially described by Ivan Pavlov, occurs when a particular response to a stimulus becomes conditioned to respond to another associated stimulus.
  • Operant conditioning, initially described by B. F. Skinner, is the learning process by which a response is strengthened or extinguished through the reinforcement or punishment of a behavior.
  • Observational learning, initially described by Albert Bandura, occurs through observing the behaviors of others and imitating those behaviors, even if there is no reinforcement at the time.

Key Terms

  • Ivan Pavlov: (1849–1936) A Russian physiologist known for his theories of classical conditioning.
  • Albert Bandura: (1925–present) A psychologist and learning theorist who first proposed social learning theory and can be credited for first having noted observational learning.
  • B. F. Skinner: (1904–1990) An American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher known for his work on operant conditioning.

What Is Learning?

Learning is an adaptive function by which our nervous system changes in relation to stimuli in the environment, thus changing our behavioral responses and permitting us to function in our environment. The process occurs initially in our nervous system in response to environmental stimuli. Neural pathways can be strengthened, pruned, activated, or rerouted, all of which cause changes in our behavioral responses. 

Instincts and reflexes are innate behaviors—they occur naturally and do not involve learning. In contrast, learning is a change in behavior or knowledge that results from experience. The field of behavioral psychology focuses largely on measurable behaviors that are learned, rather than trying to understand internal states such as emotions and attitudes.

Types of Learning

There are three main types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. Both classical and operant conditioning are forms of associative learning, in which associations are made between events that occur together. Observational learning is just as it sounds: learning by observing others.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a process by which we learn to associate events, or stimuli, that frequently happen together; as a result of this, we learn to anticipate events. Ivan Pavlov conducted a famous study involving dogs in which he trained (or conditioned) the dogs to associate the sound of a bell with the presence of a piece of meat. The conditioning is achieved when the sound of the bell on its own makes the dog salivate in anticipation for the meat.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the learning process by which behaviors are reinforced or punished, thus strengthening or extinguishing a response. Edward Thorndike coined the term “law of effect,” in which behaviors that are followed by consequences that are satisfying to the organism are more likely to be repeated, and behaviors that are followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated. B. F. Skinner researched operant conditioning by conducting experiments with rats in what he called a “Skinner box.” Over time, the rats learned that stepping on the lever directly caused the release of food, demonstrating that behavior can be influenced by rewards or punishments. He differentiated between positive and negative reinforcement, and also explored the concept of extinction.

Observational Learning

Observational learning occurs through observing the behaviors of others and imitating those behaviors—even if there is no reinforcement at the time. Albert Bandura noticed that children often learn through imitating adults, and he tested his theory using his famous Bobo-doll experiment. Through this experiment, Bandura learned that children would attack the Bobo doll after viewing adults hitting the doll.