LEARNING
Definition of learning

Learning is a process that depends on experience and leads to long term changes in behavior potential. Behavior potential designates the possible behavior of an individual, not actual behavior. The main assumption behind all learning psychology is that the effects of the environment, conditioning, reinforcement, etc. provide psychologists with the best information from which to understand human behavior. As opposed to short term changes in behavior potential (caused e.g. by fatigue) learning implies long term changes. As opposed to long term changes caused by aging and development, learning implies changes related directly to experience.

experimental psychology  LEARNING: Definition of learning

What actually happens when an organism learns is not an easy question. Those who are interested in a science of behavior will insist that learning is a change in behavior, but they tend to avoid explicit references to responses or acts as such. “Learning is adjustment, or adaptation to a situation.” But of what stuff are adjustments and adaptations made? Are they data, or inferences from data? “Learning is improvement” but improvement in what? And from whose point of view? “Learning is restoration of equilibrium.” But what is in equilibrium and how is it put there? “Learning is problem solving.” But what are the physical dimensions of a problem or of a solution? Definitions of this sort show an unwillingness to take what appears before the eyes in a learning experiment. An organism meets a criterion of ten successful trials; but an arbitrary criterion is at variance with our conception of the generality of the learning process.

This is where theory steps in. If it is not the time required to get out of a puzzle box that changes in learning, but rather the strength of a bond, or the conductivity of a neural pathway, or the excitatory potential of a habit, then problems seem to vanish. Getting out of a box faster and faster is not learning; it is merely performance. The learning goes on somewhere else, in a different dimensional system. And although the time required depends upon arbitrary conditions, often varies discontinuously, and is subject to reversals of magnitude, we feel sure that the learning process itself is continuous, orderly, and beyond the accidents of measurement. Nothing could better illustrate the use of theory as a refuge from the data.

But we must eventually get back to an observable datum. If learning is the process we suppose it to be, then it must appear so in the situations in which we study it. Even if the basic process belongs to some other dimensional system, our measures must have relevant and comparable properties. But productive experimental situations are hard to find, particularly if we accept certain plausible restrictions. To show an orderly change in the behavior of the average rat or ape or child is not enough, since learning is a process in the behavior of the individual. To record the beginning and end of learning or a few discrete steps will not suffice, since a series of cross-sections will not give complete coverage of a continuous process. The dimensions of the change must spring from the behavior itself; they must not be imposed by an external judgment of success or failure or an external criterion of completeness. But when we review the literature with these requirements in mind, we find little justification for the theoretical process in which we take so much comfort.

The energy level or work-output of behavior, for example, does not change in appropriate ways. In the sort of behavior adapted to the Pavlovian experiment (respondent behavior) there may be a progressive increase in the magnitude of response during learning. But we do not shout our responses louder and louder as we learn verbal material, nor does a rat press a lever harder and harder as conditioning proceeds. In operant behavior the energy or magnitude of response changes significantly only when some arbitrary value is differentially reinforced when such a change is what is learned.

The emergence of a right response in competition with wrong responses is another aspect frequently used in the study of learning. The maze and the discrimination box yield results which may be reduced to these terms. But a behavior-ratio of right vs. wrong cannot yield a continuously changing measure in a single experiment on a single organism. The point at which one response takes precedence over another cannot  give us the whole history of the change in either response. Averaging curves for groups of trials or organisms will not solve this problem.

Increasing attention has recently been given to latency, the relevance of which, like that of energy level, is suggested by the properties of conditioned and unconditioned reflexes. But in operant behavior the relation to a stimulus is different. A measure of latency involves other considerations, as inspection of any case will show. Most operant responses may be emitted in the absence of what is regarded as a relevant stimulus. In such a case the response is likely to appear before the stimulus is presented. It is no solution to escape this embarrassment by locking a lever so that an organism cannot press it until the stimulus is presented, since we can scarcely be content with temporal relations that have been forced into compliance with our expectations. Runway latencies are subject to this objection. In a typical experiment the door of a starting box is opened and the time that elapses before a rat leaves the box is measured. Opening the door is not only a stimulus; it is a change in the situation that makes the response possible for the first time. The time measured is by no means as simple as latency and requires another formulation. A great deal depends upon what the rat is doing at the moment the stimulus is presented. Some experimenters wait until the rat is facing the door, but to do so is to tamper with the measurement being taken. If, on the other hand, the door is opened without reference to what the rat is doing, the first major effect is the conditioning of favorable waiting behavior. The rat eventually stays near and facing the door. The resulting shorter starting-time is not due to a reduction in the latency of a response, but to the conditioning of favorable preliminary behavior.

Habituation and Sensitization

When a ringing bell is presented to a cat, it may evoke a turning of the head toward the sound source. If that same stimulus is repeated over and over again, the probability and magnitude of this orienting response decrease. This phenomenon is called habituation. If a mouse now runs in front of the cat and then the bell is rung again, the cat may reorient to the bell. This phenomenon is called dishabituation. By recording electrical activity in the first central synapse in the auditory system or using another stimulus that elicits an orienting response of the same size, it can be shown that habituation cannot be explained by either sensory adaptation or muscle fatigue (Thompson and Spencer, 1966). Habituation has been the subject of a great deal of empirical investigation because practically every organism displays habituation, even those with very primitive nervous systems (Harris, 1943). In reviewing this literature, Thompson and Spencer (1966, pp. 18-19) enumerated nine parametric features of habituation and dishabituation that can be seen in a variety of organisms:

1. Given that a particular stimulus elicits a response, repeated applications of the stimulus result in decreased response (habituation). The decrease is usually a negative exponential function of the number of stimulus presentations .

2. If the stimulus is withheld, the response tends to recover over time (spontaneous recovery).

3. If repeated series of habituation training and spontaneous recovery are given, habituation becomes successively more rapid (this might be called potentiation of habituation).

4. Other things being equal, the more rapid the frequency of stimulation, the more rapid and/or more pronounced is habituation.

5. The weaker the stimulus, the more rapid and/or more pronounced is habituation. Strong stimuli may yield no significant habituation.

6. The effects of habituation training may proceed beyond the zero or asymptotic response level (i.e., additional habituation training given after the response has disappeared or reached asymptote will result in slower recovery).

7. Habituation of response to a given stimulus exhibits stimulus generalization to other stimuli.

8. Presentation of another (usually strong) stimulus results in recovery of the habituated response (dishabituation).

9. Upon repeated applicatio…..

Why Learning Occurs

We may define learning as a change in probability of response but we must also specify the conditions under which it comes about. An effective class-room demonstration of the Law of Effect may be arranged in the following way.

A pigeon, reduced to 80 per cent of its ad lib weight, is habituated to a small, semi-circular amphitheatre and is fed there for several days from a food hopper, which the experimenter presents by closing a hand switch. The demonstration consists of establishing a selected response by suitable reinforcement with food. For example, by sighting across the amphitheatre at a scale on the opposite wall, it is possible to present the hopper whenever the top of the pigeon’s head rises above a given mark. Higher and higher marks are chosen until, within a few minutes, the pigeon is walking about the cage with its head held as high as possible. In another demonstration the bird is conditioned to strike a marble placed on the floor of the amphitheatre. This may be done in a few minutes by reinforcing successive steps. Food is presented first when the bird is merely moving near the marble, later when it looks down in the direction of the marble, later still when it moves its head toward the marble, and finally when it pecks it. Anyone who has seen such a demonstration knows that the Law of Effect is no theory. It simply specifies a procedure for altering the probability of a chosen response.

But when we try to say why reinforcement has this effect, theories arise. Learning is said to take place because the reinforcement is pleasant, satisfying, tension reducing, and so on. The converse process of extinction is explained with comparable theories. If the rate of responding is first raised to a high point by reinforcement and reinforcement then withheld, the response is observed to occur less and less frequently thereafter. One common theory explains this by asserting that a state is built up which suppresses the behavior. This “experimental inhibition” or “reaction inhibition” must be assigned to a different dimensional system, since nothing at the level of behavior corresponds to oppose processes of excitation and inhibition. Rate of responding is simply increased by one operation and decreased by another. Certain effects commonly interpreted as showing release from a suppressing force may be interpreted in other ways. Disinhibition, for example, is not necessarily the uncovering of suppressed strength; it may be a sign of supplementary strength from an extraneous variable. The process of spontaneous recovery, often cited to support the notion of suppression, has an alternative explanation, to be noted in a moment.

Let us evaluate the question of why learning takes place by turning again to some data. Since conditioning is usually too rapid to be easily followed, the process of extinction will provide us with a more useful case. A number of different types of curves have been consistently obtained from rats and pigeons using various schedules of prior reinforcement. By considering some of the relevant conditions we may see what room is left for theoretical processes.

Learning theoryWhat is learning? Is it a change in behavior or understanding? Is it a process? Here we surveysome common models.

I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING -the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his ‘cruiser’. I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!” Carl Rogers 1983: 18-19 For all the talk of learning amongst educational policymakers and practitioners, there is a surprising lack of attention to what it entails. In Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, theories of learning do not figure strongly in professional education programmes for teachers and those within different arenas of informal education. It is almost as if it is something is

experimental psychology  LEARNING: Definition of learning

unproblematic and that can be taken for granted. Get the instructional regime right, the message seems to be, and learning (as measured by tests and assessment regimes) will follow. This lack of attention to the nature of learning inevitably leads to an impoverishment of education. It isn’t simply that the process is less effective as a result, but what passes for education can actually diminish well-being. Here we begin by examining learning as a product and as a process. The latter takes us into the arena of competing learning theories -ideas about how learning may happen. We also look at Alan Roger’s (2003) helpful discussion of task-conscious or acquisition learning, and learning-conscious or formalized learning.

Learning as a product

Pick up a standard psychology textbook -especially from the 1960s and 1970s and you will probably find learning defined as a change in behavior. In other words, learning is approached as an outcome  the end product of some process. It can be recognized or seen. This approach has the virtue of highlighting a crucial aspect of learning -change. It’s apparent clarity may also make some sense when conducting experiments. However, it is rather a blunt instrument.

For example:

  • Does a person need to perform in order for learning to have happened?
  • Are there other factors that may cause behavior to change?

• Can the change involved include the potential for change? (Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 124) Questions such as these have led to qualification. Some have looked to identifying relatively permanent changes in behavior (or potential for change) as a result of experiences (see behaviorism below). However, not all changes in behavior resulting from experience involve learning. It would seem fair to expect that if we are to say that learning has taken place, experience should have been used in some way. Conditioning may result in a change in behavior, but the change may not involved drawing upon experience to generate new knowledge. Not surprisingly, many theorists have, thus, been less concerned with overt behavior but with changes in the ways in which people ‘understand, or experience, or conceptualize the world around them’ (Ramsden 1992: 4) (see cognitivism below). The focus for them, is gaining knowledge or ability through the use of experience. The depth or nature of the changes involved is likely to be different. Some years ago Säljö (1979) carried out a simple, but very useful piece of research. He asked a number of adult students what they understood by learning. Their responses fell into five main categories:

1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’.

2. Learning as memorizing. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.

3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.

4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.

5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves

comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge. (quoted in Ramsden 1992: 26) As Paul Ramsden comments, we can see immediately that conceptions 4 and 5 in are qualitatively different from the first three. Conceptions 1 to 3 imply a less complex view of learning. Learning is something external to the learner. It may even be something that just happens or is done to you by teachers (as in conception 1). In a way learning becomes a bit like shopping. People go out and buy knowledge -it becomes their possession. The last two conceptions look to the ‘internal’ or personal aspect of learning. Learning is seen as something that you do in order to understand the real world.

‘Knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’

A man knowing little or nothing of medical science could not be a good surgeon, but excellence at

surgery is not the same thing as knowledge of medical science; not is it a simple product of it. The

surgeon must indeed have learned from instruction, or by his own inductions and observations, a great

number of truths; but he must also have learned by practice a great number of aptitudes. (Ryle 1949: 48 49)

Learning how or improving ability is not like learning that or acquiring information. Truths can be

imparted, procedures can only be inculcated, and while inculcation is a gradual process, imparting is

relatively sudden. It makes sense to ask at what moment someone became apprised of a truth, but not to

ask at what moment someone acquired a skill. (Ryle 1949: 58)  In some ways the difference here involves what Gilbert Ryle (1949) has termed ‘knowing that‘ and ‘knowing how’. The first two categories mostly involve ‘knowing that’. As we move through the third we see that alongside ‘knowing that’ there is growing emphasis on ‘knowing how’. This system of categories is hierarchical -each higher conception implies all the rest beneath it. ‘In other words, students who conceive of learning as understanding reality are also able to see it as increasing their knowledge’ (Ramsden 1992: 27).

Learning as a process

In the five categories that Säljö identified we can see learning appearing as a process -there is a concern with what happens when the learning takes place. In this way, learning could be thought of as ‘a process by which behaviour changes as a result of experience’ (Maples and Webster 1980 quoted in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 124). One of the significant questions that arises is the extent to which people are conscious of what is going on. Are they aware that they are engaged in learning -and what significance does it have if they are? Such questions have appeared in various guises over the years – and have surfaced, for example, in debates around the rather confusing notion of ‘informal learning’. One particularly helpful way of approaching the area has been formulated by Alan Rogers (2003). Drawing especially on the work of those who study the learning of language (for example, Krashen 1982), Rogers sets out two contrasting approaches: task-conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning.

Task-conscious or acquisition learning:

Acquisition learning is seen as going on all the time. It is ‘concrete, immediate and confined to a specific activity; it is not concerned with general principles’ (Rogers 2003: 18). Examples include much of the learning involved in parenting or with running a home. Some have referred to this kind of learning as unconscious or implicit. Rogers (2003: 21), however, suggests that it might be better to speak of it as having a consciousness of the task. In other words, whilst the learner may not be conscious of learning, they are usually aware of the specific task in hand.

Learning-conscious or formalized learning:

Formalized learning arises from the process of facilitating learning. It is ‘educative learning’ rather than the accumulation of experience. To this extent there is a consciousness of learning -people are aware that the task they are engaged in entails learning. ‘Learning itself is the task. What formalized learning does is to make learning more conscious in order to enhance it’ (Rogers 2003: 27). It involves guided episodes of learning. When approached in this way it becomes clear that these contrasting ways of learning can appear in the same context. Both are present in schools. Both are present in families. It is possible to think of the mix of acquisition and formalized learning as forming a continuum.

At one extreme lie those unintentional and usually accidental learning events which occur continuously as we walk through life. Next comes incidental learning -unconscious learning through acquisition methods which occurs in the course of some other activity… Then there are various activities in which we are somewhat more conscious of learning, experiential activities arising from immediate life-related concerns, though even here the focus is still on the task… Then come more purposeful activities occasions where we set out to learn something in a more systematic way, using whatever comes to hand for that purpose, but often deliberately disregarding engagement with teachers and formal institutions of learning. Further along the continuum lie the self-directed learning projects on which there is so much literature… More formalized and generalized (and consequently less contextualized) forms of learning are the distance and open education programmes, where some elements of acquisition learning are often built into the designed learning programme. Towards the further extreme lie more formalized learning programmes of highly decontextualized learning, using material common to all the learners without paying any regard to their individual preferences, agendas or needs. There are of course no clear boundaries between each of these categories. (Rogers 2003: 41-2)

The focus on process obviously takes us into the realm of learning theories, ideas about how or why change occurs. Here we focus on four different orientations the behaviorist orientation to learning

  • The cognitive orientation to learning
  • The humanistic orientation to learning
  • The social/situational orientation to learning

As with any categorization of this sort the divisions are a bit arbitrary: there could be further additions and sub-divisions to the scheme, and there a various ways in which the orientations overlap and draw upon each other.

The four orientations can be summed up in the following figure:

Four orientations to learning (after Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 138)

Aspect Behaviourist Cognitivist Humanist Social and situational
Thorndike, Koffka, Kohler,
Learning theorists Pavlov, Watson, Guthrie, Hull, Lewin, Piaget, Ausubel, Bruner, Maslow, Rogers Bandura, Lave and Wenger, Salomon
Tolman, Skinner Gagne
Internal mental Interaction /observation in
View of the learning process Change in behaviour process (including insight, information processing, memory, A personal act to fulfil potential. social contexts. Movement from the periphery to the centre of a community of
perception practice
Locus of learning Stimuli in external environment Internal cognitive structuring Affective and cognitive needs Learning is in relationship between people and environment.
Purpose in education Produce behavioural change in desired direction Develop capacity and skills to learn better Become self-actualized, autonomous Full participation in communities of practice and utilization of resources
Arranges Facilitates Works to establish
Educator’s role environment to elicit desired Structures content of learning activity development of the whole communities of practice in which conversation and
response person participation can occur.
Cognitive
Manifestations in adult learning Behavioural objectives Competency -based education Skill development development Intelligence, learning and memory as function of age Andragogy Self-directed learning Socialization Social participation Associationalism Conversation
and training Learning how to
learn

As can seen from the above schematic presentation and the discussion on the linked pages, these approaches involve contrasting ideas as to the purpose and process of learning and education -and the role that educators may take. It is also important to recognize that the theories may apply to different sectors of the acquision-formalized learning continuum outlined above. For example, the work of Lave and Wenger is broadly a form of acquisition learning that can involve some more formal interludes.

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