Learning is often defined as a relatively lasting change in behavior that is the result of experience. When you think of learning, it might be easy to fall into the trap of only considering formal education that takes place during childhood and early adulthood, but learning is actually an ongoing process that takes place throughout all of life.
How do we go from not knowing something to acquiring information, knowledge, and skills?
One important thing to remember is that learning can involve both beneficial and negative behaviors. Learning is a natural and ongoing part of life that takes place continually, both for better and for worse. Sometimes people learn things that help them become more knowledgeable and lead better lives. In other instances, people can learn things that are detrimental to their overall health and well-being.
How Does Learning Occur?
The process of learning new things is not always the same. Learning can happen in a wide variety of ways. To explain how and when learning occurs, a number of different psychological theories have been proposed.
Learning Through Classical Conditioning
Learning through association is one of the most fundamental ways that people learn new things. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered one method of learning during his experiments on the digestive systems of dogs. He noted that the dogs would naturally salivate at the sight of food, but that eventually the dogs also began to salivate whenever they spotted the experimenter’s white lab coat. Later experiments involve pairing the sight of food with the sound of a bell tone. After multiple pairings, the dogs eventually began to salivate to the sound of the bell alone.
This type of learning is known as classical conditioning. It takes place through the formation of associations. A neutral stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response is paired with a neutral stimulus. Eventually, an association forms and the previously neutral stimulus becomes known as a conditioned stimulus that then triggers a conditioned response.
Learning Through Operant Conditioning
The consequences of your actions can also play a role in determining how and what you learn. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner noted that while classical conditioning could be used to explain some types of learning, it could not account for everything. Instead, he suggested that reinforcements and punishments were responsible for some types of learning. When something immediately follows a behavior, it can either increase or decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. This process is referred to as operant conditioning.
For example, imagine that you just got a new puppy, and you would like to begin training it to behave in specific ways. Whenever the puppy does what you want it to do, you reward it with a small treat or a gentle pat. When the puppy misbehaves, you scold him and do not offer affection. Eventually, the reinforcement leads to an increase in the desired behaviors and a decrease in the unwanted behaviors.
Learning Through Observation
While classical conditioning and operant conditioning can help explain many instances of learning, you can probably immediately think of situations where you have learned something without being conditioned, reinforced or punished. Psychologist Albert Bandura noted that many types of learning do not involve any conditioning and in fact, evidence that learning has occurred might not even be immediately apparent. Observational learning occurs by observing the actions and consequences of other people’s behavior.
In a series of famous experiments, Bandura was able to demonstrate the power of this observational learning. Children watched video clips of adults interacting with a large, inflatable Bobo doll. In some instances, the adults simply ignored the doll, while in other clips the adults would hit, kick and yell at the doll.
As you can see, learning is a complex process that involves multiple factors. Psychologists today not only study how learning occurs but also how social, emotional, cultural, and biological variables might influence the learning process.