Monday, September 2, 2013

Introduction to Learning

          In modern psychology, learning is an important topic. To understand learning, one must also understand the role of behavior in relation to learning. In psychology, classical conditioning, and instrumental conditioning are two types of learning that explain changes in behavior. The relationship between learning and cognition is necessary and their relationship helps to understand learning. With a definition of learning along with an understanding of behavior, the types of learning, and cognition, one can understand what learning is.
Definition of Learning
          The breadth of learning unfortunately results in no agreed upon definition of learning. There is no definition of learning in which theorists agree that includes the phenomena they want to call learning that excludes other phenomena. The following definition is a fairly good definition: Learning is a relatively permanent change in behavioral potentiality resulting from the occurrence of reinforced practice (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). Further examination of this definition can provide more details about what learning is. This definition begins with a relatively permanent change that refers to learning as a relatively stable change in behavior occurring within an organism; in opposition to more transient states like moods (Mikulas, 1977). This behavioral change is neither transitory nor fixed, and this change may occur immediately or may not; therefore it occurs at a later time.
          When the definition of learning is a change in behavior potential, this pinpoints the distinction between learning and performance. Learning is always translated into measurable behavior. As for performance, this refers to the translation of this potentiality into behavior or what an organism does. The last part of the definition refers to reinforced practice. A change in behavior or behavior potentiality is the result of either an experience or practice (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). The reinforcement of an experience or practice must occur to learn a behavior; therefore if reinforcement does not occur learning will not occur.
The Role of Behavior in Relation to Learning
          Olson and Hergenhahn (2013), “a science requires an observable, measurable subject matter, and in the science of psychology, that subject matter is behavior” (p. 2). Expression of what is of study in psychology occurs through covert or overt behavior; although not all behavior of study is learning (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). Studying behavior occurs so to make inferences in regard to the process thought to be the observable behavioral changes. This process is learning. Many learning theorists are in agreement as for the study of the learning process that may not occur directly; instead only inferences may occur as for its nature from changes in behavior (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). Taking exception to this contention was B. F. Skinner, who thought behavioral changes are indeed learning, therefore no need to infer a further process, although other theorists thought behavioral changes are indeed a result of learning.
Except for Skinner and the followers of Skinner, the majority of learning theorists think that learning is a process that mediates behavior, therefore learning occurs as the result of particular experiences and comes before changes in behavior.
Types of Learning
          Learning, of course, is a term used to describe the changes in behavior potentiality, which result from experience; however, conditioning is a more defined term used to describe procedures which modify behavior (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). Therefore, there are two types of conditioning, which are instrumental and classical conditioning, several theorists determined that at a minimum there are two types of learning. These two types of learning are understood in the same terms of instrumental and classical conditioning. In instrumental conditioning there is the relationship between behavior and reinforcement, therefore a behavior is present or occurs before reinforcement (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). In this type of conditioning, an organism’s behavior is “instrumental” when getting what that organism wants, which is the reinforcer (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). An example of instrumental conditioning is to reward an individual for good behavior; therefore an individual receives a reward if the behavior is instrumental for said reward.
          In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus that does not initiate a response is pairs with a stimulus that initiates a response therefore the pairing allows the neutral stimulus to initiate the response. Basically, a conditioned stimulus (CS) is previously a neutral stimulus that after pairing with an unconditioned stimulus (UC), eventually initiates a conditioned response (CR). Ivan Pavlov’s research with dogs is an example of classical conditioning. First, Pavlov presented a dog with food, which caused salivation. Then Pavlov would ring a bell and present the dog with food, therefore the dog would start to salivate when the bell was rung. Both instrumental and classical conditioning result in learning but the processes for learning differ. The difference is that the focus of instrumental conditioning is on using either punishment or reinforcement as a means to increase or decrease behavior, whereas classical conditioning makes an association between a stimulus and an involuntary response.
The Relationship between Learning and Cognition
          As stated previously learning is a relatively permanent change in behavioral potentiality resulting from the occurrence of reinforced practice (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). Cognition is mental processes, which includes memory, attention, memory, reasoning, decision making, language, and learning. Learning and cognition share a relationship because learning involves cognition and cognition involves learning. Basically learning and cognition are integral parts of each other. Learning occurs after cognitive processes. The bases of learning theories are cognitive associations between stimuli and responses. Theories of learning incorporate cognitive associations into the basic stimulus and response associations. Approaches developed by cognitive theorists focus on cognitive processes instead of external stimuli, reinforcements, and responses. Cognitive theorists believe that first, there should be an understanding of cognitive processes, therefore this provides a comprehensive understanding of learning.
          Learning is a process of importance in psychology. It is a relatively permanent change in behavioral potentiality, which occurs as a result of reinforced practice (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2013). The role of behavior in relation to learning is that behavior provides a measurable and observable means to study learning. Two types of learning are instrumental and classical conditioning. Instrumental and classical conditioning result in learning but the processes for learning differ because instrumental conditioning makes an association between voluntary behaviors and consequences, whereas classical conditioning involves making associations between involuntary responses and stimuli. The relationship between learning and cognition is that learning involves cognition and cognition is an integral part of learning.
Olson, M. H. & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2013). An introduction to theories of learning (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Mikulas, W.L. (1977). Psychology of Learning. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.

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