How do we know when learning has occurred? Learn about the four ways that learning occurs and learn how each can effect our behavior.
We define learning as a process where a living being experiences certain relationships between events and is able to recognize an association between events, and
as a consequence the subject's behavior changes because of that experience. Or, more simply, learning is the process of recognizing how a living being's actions change its
environment, other beings' actions, etc. All living things can learn, even goldfish!
There are two basic stages of learning: acquisition and maintenance. When an individual is first learning something, this is called the acquisition stage. This stage of learning is not all or none; rather, it is usually gradual. You may have heard someone use the phrase "˜trial and error.' Once armed with new information, an individual will act on the new information when it is appropriate. This is known as the maintenance stage. Learning begins to plateau during the maintenance stage.
Learning is done in four ways: Instrumental learning (which is more commonly known as operant conditioning), classical conditioning, non-associative learning, and social learning.
Operant conditioning is a form that may be very familiar to you if you have ever trained a dog. The majority of learning is some form of operant conditioning. The simplest way to explain this type of learning is that behavior produces events. An event can be a rewarding experience or a negative experience. As a result of such events the behavior changes. A dog learns that his behavior has consequences and that he can control what happens to him by behaving in certain ways, or refraining from behaving in those ways. If your dog raids the garbage, he is rewarded by this experience (by getting tidbits of food), and is more likely to repeat the behavior. Human beings are also products of this learning. We learn from a young age that if we touch a hot stove, we'll get burned. If we put on a raincoat, we'll stay dry. This form of learning is characterized by Thorndike's Law of Effect. The law states that if the consequence is pleasant the
preceding behavior becomes more frequent, whereas if the consequence is unpleasant, the behavior will diminish and in some cases become extinct.
Classical conditioning is another form of learning that is increasing in popularity. This type of learning results from learning that certain things go together. This learning
was demonstrated by the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. In an investigative experiment, Pavlov was able to demonstrate in dogs that salivation could be started by
non-food stimuli such as bells, buzzers, and tones. In his experiments, he was able to show that dogs will salivate when they anticipate food. Thus he created an unrelated
stimulus, such as a bell, moments before giving the dog food. Soon the dogs learned that when the bell rings, food is on its way, and thus they began salivating. Humans also
learn through classical conditioning. For example, we know that if it is cloudy, that rain is a possibility. Or when something is burning on the stove, the fire alarm may go off. This type of learning is called classical conditioning because it was the first form of learning demonstrated experimentally. It is also sometimes called respondent conditioning, because the first steps in changing a behavior due to this type of learning, require involuntary or reflexive behaviors.
Non-associative learning is one of the most basic forms of learning. It is also called single event learning. This type of learning involves learning that some events are unrelated and irrelevant. For example if a dog hears a noise, he may respond by perking up his ears. This response is called an orienting response. If the noise is something which has no relevance to the dog, the dog will not respond when it hears this noise; however, the dog must first learn which noises are or are not relevant. This is known as habituation. One example of this might happen when you move to a house that is on a busy street. The first night you may have trouble sleeping due to your increased awareness of the sounds. Over the next few days you will become habituated to these noises, and soon you won't even notice they are there. Non-associative learning is learning that there are not always significant associations between events.
Social learning is a form of learning that occurs as a result of being in social groups. In most animals, this type of learning is only responsible for a small amount
of behavior change. This type of learning is most prevalent in animal forms similar to humans. Chimpanzees do a great deal of social learning amongst their social group. Chimps will learn how to use tools by watching older members of the group manipulating those same tools. Humans are also extremely adept at social learning. We learn from others how things are done. Social learning occurs most frequently in a situation where there is some sort of social hierarchy or dynamic.
For the most part, operant conditioning and classical conditioning are the most effective ways to change a behavior. Non-associative learning and social learning are the least effective ways to change a behavior. How do we know learning has taken place? Well you can open up someone's brain to find out if neural connections have been made; however when an individual's behavior changes you have to infer that learning of some sort has taken place. Learning can be occurring even if you don't see a change in behavior but until you do you will not know for sure if learning has occurred. You may have learned a task but lack the motivation to do it. You know that when the telephone rings and you pick it up someone will speak to you. Even if we learned this task we may or may not have the
motivation to do so--not picking up the phone does not mean we haven't learned how! For example you may be hungry at the same time the phone is ringing, so the motivation
for food may be greater than picking up the phone. Motivation and learning work hand in hand. Learning is knowing how to drive a car, but motivation is the gas that will get you there!