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Theories of Learning

Psychology (Year 12) - Cognitive Psychology

Jessica Pratt

Learning refers to the process of acquiring new and lasting information or behaviours. It is classified based on a lasting change and the mental process associated with learning. There are two broad, distinct types of learning - simple learning (including habituation and the mere-exposure effect) and complex learning.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian and Soviet experimental neurologist, theorised a form of complex learning referred to as classical conditioning (1897). It occurs when two neutral stimuli are linked and acquire the power to elicit an innate reflex. A neutral stimulus is paired with the unconditioned stimulus during acquisition. Gradually, the neutral stimulus with elicit the same response. The person will expect this following repetition.

There are several components of classical conditioning:

  • neutral stimulus: any stimulus that produces an unconditioned response before learning begins.

  • unconditioned stimulus: a stimulus that automatically provokes a reflexive response.

  • unconditioned response: a response resulting from an unconditioned stimulus before learning.

  • conditioned stimulus: a formerly neutral stimulus that gains the power to cause a response.

  • conditioned response: a response elicited by a previously neutral stimulus, associated with the US.

In Pavlov’s example, a dog salivates (UR) after food presentation (US). The food originally triggers the dog salivating, whereas the bell (NS) has no effect. After, the dog salivates (CR) after the bell (CS). Real-life examples of classical conditioning may include associating school with fear due to being bullied, and the Little Albert experiment. In the Little Albert Experiment, an infant was tested on had his reactions towards a loud noise. He would be shown a rat and then a steel bar would be struck. He later was afraid when shown the rat.

Operant Conditioning

When the consequence of a behaviour changes the chance of a behaviour reoccurring. Thorndike and Skinner believed that responses are strengthened by reinforcement and weakened by punishment. Thorndike (1898) proposed the law of effect - desired responses are repeated and punished responses are reduced.

  • reinforcements are positive conditions that strengthen a response; positive reinforcements are stimuli presented (e.g. receiving money when you get good grades) and negative reinforcements are the removal of unpleasant stimuli (e.g. putting your seatbelt on to remove the awful beeping noise).

  • punishments are disliked responses that reduce the chance of reoccurrence; positive punishments are the addition of a bad event (e.g. receiving detention) and the removal of a desired event are negative punishments (e.g. getting a time-out or getting your phone taken off you).

In operant conditioning, reinforcement schedules may be used.

The different reinforcement schedules include:

  • continuous reinforcement occurs when all correct responses are reinforced without restriction.

  • intermittent reinforcement is when some correct responses are reinforced, but not all.

  • fixed interval reinf.: rewards only the first correct response after a defined period of time.

  • variable interval reinf.: rewards a response after an unpredictable period of time.

  • fixed ratio reinf.: rewards a response after a defined number of correct responses.

  • variable ratio reinf.: rewards an unpredictable number of correct responses.

Observational Learning

Albert Bandura (1925-2021) proposed that new responses are acquired after observing the consequences a person’s behaviour received. Bandura recognised this through his bobo doll study where children observed adults hitting an inflated doll. The child then interacted with the doll, often showing similar behaviour than what they observed. The experimental group observed anti-social behaviour, whereas the control group observed pro-social behaviour. It indicated that people learn through imitating behaviour to receive its consequences.

Observational learning requires four components:

  • attention - the observer cannot learn unless they pay attention and observe the behaviour.

  • retention - learner must be able to recognise and remember the behaviour at a later time.

  • reproduction - must be physically and intellectually capable of producing the behaviour.

  • motivation - recognising the importance of motivational processes to learning.

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