Principles and Theories of Learning
Learning may be defined as a relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as the result of practice. Not all changes in behaviour can be explained as learning and perhaps a more simple definition is that learning is profiting from experience, were it not that some learning does not profit the learner; useless and often harmless habits are learned just as useful ones are.
If we understand how people learn then we can optimise the learning process. However because learning is basic to an analysis of behaviour it has generated a large volume of research, and a number of controversies within theoretical psychology revolve around it. Experimental results provide many contradictory findings and even more contradictory conclusions. That is why there is no theory of learning and we have to explore the theories of learning and evaluate them.
This dichotomy of views and the associated dilemma was commented upon by Hilgard and Bower(1996):
The student of learning, conscientiously trying to understand learning phenomena and the laws regulating them, is likely to despair of finding a secure position if opposing points of view are presented as equally plausible, so that the choice between them is made arbitrary.
There are three fundamental ways of classifying learning theories:
Behaviour refers to those activities of an organism that can be observed and scientists that use this objective way of exploring what people (or animals) do are described as behaviourists. It is regarded as objective because the subjects reaction to an external stimuli is observable, Within the concept of behaviourist theory and its approach to learning (associative or habit forming), three sources of data about behaviour and the principles governing it can be distinguished: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational.
Classical conditioning represents an extremely simple form of learning and is why it is a good starting point for the investigation of the learning process. The model for Classical conditioning is the Pavlovian dog experiment. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who undertook experiments on conditioned reflexes. While studying the reflexes associated with digestion, Pavlov noticed that the flow of saliva in the mouth of a dog was influenced not only by the presence of food in the dogs mouth but also by the sight of food. He interpreted the flow of saliva when food was placed in the mouth as an unlearned or unconditioned response and posited that the response to the mere sight of food had to be learned and therefore was a conditioned response.
Pavlov carried out various experiments to discover how the conditioned response was formed, he taught the dog to salivate in response to various signals such as a bell or buzzer and even the turning on of a light. The experiment took the form of Pavlov making the conditioned stimulus, sounding the buzzer, and then after a few seconds offering the dog food (unconditioned stimulus) which when eaten was accompanied by copious salivation. The reinforcement process was repeated several times, the conditioned stimulus followed by the unconditioned stimulus and response. After several reinforcements the dog salivated just when the light was turned on even though food did not necessarily follow, the conditioned response had been established.
This type of conditioning represented by Pavlovs experiment is referred to as Classical because later psychologists have put forward other models of conditioning, The order of events in Classical conditioning is as follows: An unconditional stimulus such as food, that is known to elicit an unconditional response such as salivation, is paired with a neutral stimulus, such as a bell or light,. which becomes a conditional stimulus. As the unconditioned response is presented with the conditioned stimulus, an increase will occur for the new conditioned stimulus to elicit a similar conditioned response.
John Watson was a behaviourist like Pavlov and described the frequency principle and recency principle, two principles upon which conditioning may be dependant. The frequency principle would mean that the more often a conditional response was experienced in the presence of a stimulus the more likely the response is to occur when presented with the stimulus in future. The recency principle implies that someone is likely to respond to a stimulus the same way they responded to it the last time they were presented with the stimulus.
The explanation for classical conditioning is that some sort of connection occurs in the brain or nervous system, linking the stimulus and a response, because of this the approach is often called connectionist.
Operant conditioning supplements classical conditioning but emphasises the relationship between the response and the stimulus. Operant conditioning refers to increasing the frequency or probability of a response by following the occurrence of a response with reinforcement. The Skinner box illustrates operant conditioning. An animal is placed in a box with a bar that can be depressed to receive a reward (food) or avoid punishment (electric shock). The rats presses the bar by chance at some point, producing the food, the rat eats the food and soon presses the bar again, the food reinforces the bar pressing. In classical conditioning the animal is passive, it has to wait until food appears, in operant conditioning the rats behaviour operates on the environment, it presses the bar to gain access to the food and the reinforcement. The difference between the two models in terms of reinforcement is that reinforcement in classical conditioning elicits a response, in operant conditioning it follows the correct response. In general terms reinforcement can be seen as anything that increases a desired behaviour.
There are two kinds of reinforcers:
Positive – something is added to environment, food or perhaps even a smile to a child
Negative – taking away of something unpleasant There are also different reinforcement variables that have an effect on learning:
Delay of reinforcement:
It is most effective to offer a reinforcement immediately after a correct or desired response.
Amount of reinforcement:
The greater the amount of reinforcement the more rapid the rate of learning, This relationship was illustrated by experiments undertaken by Clayton (1964) where groups of rats on repeatedly successfully negotiating a T-maze were given differing amounts of food (reinforcement), the group with the largest amount of reinforcement (more food) learned at the fastest rate.
Schedule of reinforcement:
Different schedules of reinforcement result in different and characteristic patterns of behaviour, Learning occurs most rapidly when each correct response is rewarded, however learning is more lasting when reinforcement is partial. Many different schedules have been studied but four basic schedules have been identified with their different pattern of responding:
Fixed ratio – reinforcement occurs after a fixed number of non-reinforced responses, the response rate tend to be extremely rapid.
Fixed interval – reinforcement is given for the first response emitted after a fixed time period measured from the last reinforcement. Subjects seem to keep a track of time, responses drop after reinforcement and then increase at an accelerating rate as the end of the interval approaches.
Variable ratio – reinforcement occurs after a specified number of nonreinforced responses but the number of responses intervening between reinforcements varies from one reinforcement to the next, the response rate tends to be rapid and steady,
Variable interval – reinforcement occurs after a specified period of time that varies between one reinforcement and the next, subjects respond at a fairly steady rate.
The practical significance of this partial reinforcement in terms of learning is
great, it means desirable behaviour does not need to be rewarded every time,
the influences of reinforcements are such they persist against many
nonreinforcements, It also means that the various schedules can be used to
encourage students to participate according to what type of learning process
is currently being presented to them,
Social learning theorists such as Bandura accept that reinforcement is an important part of learning but they also emphasise the importance of observing and modelling the behaviours, attitudes and emotional reactions of others, Bandura (1977) states: “learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling; from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”. This type of observational learning or social learning occurs when an observers behaviour changes after viewing the behaviour of a model. This approach is underpinned by several principles:
The observer will imitate the models behaviour if the model possesses characteristics that the observer finds attractive or desirable.
The observer will react to the way the model is treated and mimic the models behaviour. When the models behaviour is rewarded, the observer is more likely to reproduce the rewarded behaviour.
??? A distinction exists between an observers “acquiring” a behaviour and “performing” a behaviour. Through observation, the observer can acquire the behaviour without performing it The observer may then later, in situations where there is an incentive to do so, display the behaviour.
Learning by observation involves four separate processes: attention, retention, production and motivation. Attention and retention account for acquisition or learning of a models behaviour; production and motivation control the performance.
This theory of observational learning encourages the use of collaborative learning so that the social context can influence the learning process. A supportive environment must also be provided so that learners have the opportunity to perform a learned behaviour.
Summary Of Behaviourist Theory
Behaviourist theory concentrates on stimulus-response connections and observable behaviour; it implies the dominance of the teacher and does not leave scope for independent thinking. It focuses on the schedule of reinforcement as being central to effective learning, but working it out is a very skilled procedure; simply reinforcing every instance of desired behaviour is just bribery, not the promotion of learning.
The strengths of the theory is in its recognition that learners like rewards and that appropriate praise at appropriate intervals will encourage correct responses. It is useful for quickly teaching skills where there can only be one method or answer.
The kinds of learning that are considered by the behaviourist stress organisation of behaviour into habits or learned stimulus-response sequences. If we want to consider more complex forms of learning then due consideration must be given to the cognitive processes involved. If we do not acknowledge these processes we may not consider how a student organizes and understands what they are learning and we may concentrate too much on habit forming methods of teaching.
Kohler – Insight Learning
Kohler (1925) wanted to explore the kinds of learning that did not rely too heavily on stimulus-response associations and performed some experiments on chimpanzees. Kohler developed a theory of insight learning following his extensive research into the way the chimpanzees tackled a series of tasks. The chimps appeared to solve the tasks by applying some reflective thought to the solution after initial failures. This sudden resolution of a problem indicated to Kohler that learning involved an insightful process whereby sensory input was reorganised.
A moderate degree of insight is common to human learning but occasionally this insight appears dramatically, the solution of a problem suddenly becomes clear. Insight learning is difficult to explain and understand but several general conclusions can be made:
??? Insight depends upon the arrangement of the problem situation
??? Once a solution occurs with insight, it can be repeated promptly.
??? A solution achieved with insight can be applied in new situations
Piaget – Stages Of Intellectual Development
Piaget was a psychologist who researched how knowledge developed and constructed a theory that defined four distinct stages to the mental growth of children. The time span he suggested was birth to 15 years old although it is now posited that the final stage does not end but either trails off and in some cases is not even reached.
The stages are as described below:
0-2 Sensorimotor the child gains motor control over objects
2-7 Preoperational – verbal skills become important and the child develops some intuitive reasoning
7 -12 Concrete Operational – at this stage a child understand problems and can apply logical reasoning
12-15 Formal Operational – the child begins to reason logically and systematically
This theory has had implications for later work in understanding how children develop and has been applied in teaching practices as it provides specific recommendations for the type of environment to provide children at the different stages. Learning materials and activities should involve the appropriate level of motor or mental operations for a child of a given age and teaching methods that actively involve students and present challenges should be used.
Bruner (1960) – Constructivist Theory
Bruners theory provides a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition. Much of the theory is linked to child development research (Piaget – as outlined above) and recognises that there must be readiness in the learner to learn, that material should be structured and presented to the learner in such a way that it is easy to grasp and in sequences that build upon each other. Later exponents of constructivist theories introduce a concept called scaffolding whereby students are guided to perform tasks that would be normally beyond their ability.
The guiding principles of constructivist theory in the context of learning are that learners are presented with multiple perspectives, tasks are relevant to real-world environments and learners are encouraged to explore independently and determine their own goals and objectives.
Summary of Cognitive Theory
Cognitive theory is interested in how to people understand material and process information, teachers have to facilitate this ???active??™ learning and foster an environment where students feel comfortable at exploring and setting their own objectives. Students can be empowered with the knowledge of ???how to learn??™, a skill in itself that is transferable to other situations. This type of learning gives students an ???understanding??™ of material rather than just learning it by rote; this will be a good basis for remembering.
This approach appears to have many benefits but as it enables students to explore for themselves the process could become lengthy and ultimately productive.
Exponents of humanistic theory focus on individuals, their values and motivating factors, Maslow (1943) established the theory of “hierarchy of needs”, positing that the satisfying of these needs is the motivating force behind our actions. The hierarchy has five levels:
1. Physiological (hunger, thirst, shelter)
2. Safety (establishing stability and consistency)
3. Love/Social (affection, belonging, friendship)
4. Esteem (intemal – self-respect, autonomy, extemal – status, recognition)
5. Self-actualization (doing things, the highest drive, )
The hierarchy is dynamic with the dominant need always shifting. If one assumes that the bottom two needs are being met for students, then educators have to be aware of the other three needs and foster ways of meeting them. Social or belonging needs can be satisfied by group work and a conscious effort by the educator to include all students and value their input.
Educators should ensure that all students experience either praise or success (informal or formal) so that their esteem needs are being met. Carl Rogers who is principally known for his contribution to client-centred therapy and the development of counselling has also developed a model for teaching. The model was facilitative teaching, the teacher is seen as a facilitator providing the right environment for students in terms of empathy, positive regard and congruence. Teachers who are highly facilitative respond to students feeling, praise students, tailor contents to the students individual frame of reference and create dialogues with students.
Summary of Humanistic Theory
Humanistic teaching provides a foundation for personal growth and development so that learning will continue through life in a self-directed manner. This type of self-directed learning is now widely used and underpins the focus on competence based education/training and individualised learning programmes. This approach seems particularly suited towards adult learners who it is assumed are self-motivated and can benefit from reflection and selfevaluation but children can also benefit from an environment that fosters creativity and where they can sometimes be given choices.
Summary Of Theoretical Approaches To Learning
The three approaches to learning as detailed above each have their own merits and failings. How do educators determine which approach to use If we classify learning by clarifying the educational objectives it may become clearer which approach is best to use: Affective objectives – these objectives are ones where students are expected to display attitudes or appreciation, they can be very difficult to achieve but methods to employ would include role-playing, mediated feedback and class discussions. This would relate to a humanistic approach where learners can interpret and respond to materials.
Cognitive objectives – if such objectives are to be achieved it is necessary to get students actively involved so they can fully comprehend the subject, initial teaching can be backed up with assignments, simulations and case-studies. This will meet the requirements of cognitive learning; providing activities that engage students and require adaptation.
Psychomotor objectives – the way to achieve such skill based objectives effectively is to get students to perform and practise the activity that you want them to learn, this can be achieved by mass practical work following on from conventional taught lessons. The objectives are observable and involve little or no input from learners thus following a behaviourist approach where the teacher is the controller of all aspects of the instruction process.
Curriculum or course objectives do not always fit neatly into one of the areas above and it is usually necessary to use a variety of teaching/learning methods.
However other factors impact on what learning method(s) to use:
??? How the student will react to the method chosen – if students have not been exposed to a particular method previously they be initially uncomfortable with it and not respond as you expect.
??? How you will feel using the chosen method(s)
??? Whether the method is practicable ??“ time, resources and accommodation may limit the actual methods available.
Learning Methods in Own Subject Area
The leaming objectives for my own subject area (IT – desktop applications)would be classified as mainly psychomotor or skill based which would suggest that a behaviourist approach should be taken. In fact this is the heart of the teaching method that I employ, sessions usually are of the following format; a short overview of a topic, a demonstration followed by the student practising the skill. Exercises are undertaken at various intervals and consolidation exercises help students review topics and achieve success. It would seem a suitable approach given the objectives of the session, learners do not need to develop attitudes or values about the subject so one would assume that a humanistic approach would have no relevance and the process of why they are doing something is not considered as important as what the student is producing.
But of course things can never be so straightforward and even though the objectives are skill based, suggesting this strict behaviourist approach, all learning methods have a part to play in effective learning.
Some students need, or like, to know why they are doing something and I try to explain wherever feasible. Desktop applications are supposed to be intuitive and given time students can adopt a cognitive approach and explore the software for themselves, unfortunately due to time constraints this is not currently possible in my sessions although it is something I would like to address. Hopefully what students do take away from the sessions will give them the confidence to experiment on their own.
Although the students do not need to develop values and attitudes and other traditional affective concerns it is important to recognise that motivating them may be important, I try to emphasis the value in what they are learning. One of the main difficulties I experience is that students are all at different levels and have different requirements because they work in different areas, they are problem-centred as they want to know how to apply their skills back at work. It would be beneficial if I could utilise a precept of humanistic learning, self-directed learning, whereby students set their own goals and decide their own learning activities. Adults may find this approach initially daunting, probably only having had experience of more traditional class teaching, so they may need some guidance before they accept the benefits. In conclusion, the three types of learning objectives identified can exist in one course, which implies that the different approaches to learning must all be employed to some degree, this also means that students with different learning styles would be catered for.
traditional affective concerns it is important to recognise that motivating them
Bandura, A. (1986) Social Foundations Of Thought And Action, Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall.
Bruner, J. (1966) Process of Education, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University
Clayton, K.N. (1964) T-maze choice-Ieaming, Journal of Comparative and
Hilgard, E.R. and Bower, G. H, (1996) Theories of Learning, 3rd Ed., New
Maslow, A.H. (1954) Motivation and Personality. New York, Harper and Row.
Rogers, C. (1969) Freedom to Learn 1 st Ed., New York, Macmillan/Merrill.
Skinner, B,F, (1966) Behaviour of Organisms, New York, Appleton.
Watson, J.B. (1913) Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It, Psychological