Learning: Definition, Characteristics and Types of Learning in Psychology

The process of learning is continuous which starts right from the time of birth of an individual and continues till the death. We all are engaged in the learning endeavours in order to develop our adaptive capabilities as per the requirements of the changing environment. For a learning to occur, two things are important: 1. The presence of a stimulus in the environment and 2. The innate dispositions like emotional and instinctual dispositions. A person keeps on learning across all the stages of life, by constructing or reconstructing experiences under the influence of emotional and instinctual dispositions.

Psychologists in general define Learning as relatively permanent behavioural modifications which take place as a result of experience. This definition of learning stresses on three important elements of learning:

  • Learning involves a behavioural change which can be better or worse.
  • This behavioural change should take place as a result of practice and experience. Changes resulting from maturity or growth cannot be considered as learning
  • This behavioural change must be relatively permanent and last for a relatively long time enough.

John B Watson is one amongst the first thinkers who has proven that behavioural changes occur as a result of learning. Watson is believed to be the founder of Behavioural school of thought, which gained its prominence or acceptability around the first half of the 20th century. Gales defined Learning as the behavioural modification which occurs as a result of experience as well as training. Crow and Crow defined learning as the process of acquisition of knowledge, habits and attitudes. According to E.A, Peel, Learning can be described as a change in the individual which takes place as a result of the environmental change. H.J. Klausmeir described Learning as a process which leads to some behavioural change as a result of some experience, training, observation, activity, etc.

The key characteristics of the learning process are:

  1. When described in the simplest possible manner, learning is described as an experience acquisition process.
  2. In the complex form, learning can be described as process of acquisition, retention and modification of experience.
  3. It re-establishes the relationship between a stimulus and response.
  4. It is a method of problem solving and is concerned about making adjustments with the environment.
  5. It involves all those gamut of activities which may have a relatively permanent effect on the individual.
  6. The process of learning is concerned about experience acquisition, retention of experiences, and experience development in a step by step manner, synthesis of both old and new experiences for creating a new pattern.
  7. Learning is concerned about cognitive, conative and affective aspects. Knowledge acquisition process is cognitive, any change in the emotions is affective and conative is acquisition of new habits or skills.

Types of Learning

Motor Learning: Our day to day activities like walking, running, driving, etc, must be learnt for ensuring a good life. These activities to a great extent involve muscular coordination.

Verbal Learning: It is related with the language which we use to communicate and various other forms of verbal communication such as symbols, words, languages, sounds, figures and signs.

Concept Learning: This form of learning is associated with higher order cognitive processes like intelligence, thinking, reasoning, etc, which we learn right from our childhood. Concept learning involves the processes of abstraction and generalization, which is very useful for identifying or recognizing things.

Discrimination Learning: Learning which distinguishes between various stimuli with its appropriate and different responses is regarded as discrimination stimuli.

Learning of Principles: Learning which is based on principles helps in managing the work most effectively. Principles based learning explains the relationship between various concepts.

Attitude Learning: Attitude shapes our behaviour to a very great extent, as our positive or negative behaviour is based on our attitudinal predisposition.

Three Types of Behavioural Learning

The Behavioural School of Thought which was founded by John B Watson which was highlighted in his seminal work, “Psychology as the Behaviorist View It”, stressed on the fact that Psychology is an objective science, hence mere emphasis on the mental processes should not be considered as such processes cannot be objectively measured or observed.

Watson tried to prove his theory with the help of his famous Little Albert Experiment, by way of which he conditioned a small kid to be scared of a white rat. The behavioural psychology described three types of learning: Classical Conditioning, Observational Learning and Operant Conditioning.

Classical Conditioning: In case of Classical Conditioning, the process of learning is described as a Stimulus-Response connection or association. Classical Conditioning theory has been explained with the help of Pavlov’s Classic Experiment, in which the food was used as the natural stimulus which was paired with the previously neutral stimuli that’s a bell in this case. By establishing an association between the natural stimulus (food) and the neutral stimuli (sound of the bell), the desired response can be elicited. This theory will be discussed in detail in the next few articles.

Operant Conditioning: Propounded by scholars like Edward Thorndike firstly and later by B.F. Skinner, this theory stresses on the fact that the consequences of actions shape the behaviour. The theory explains that the intensity of a response is either increased or decreased as a result of punishment or reinforcement. Skinner explained how with the help of reinforcement one can strengthen behaviour and with punishment reduce or curb behaviour. It was also analyzed that the behavioural change strongly depends on the schedules of reinforcement with focus on timing and rate of reinforcement.

Observational Learning: The Observational Learning process was propounded by Albert Bandura in his Social Learning Theory, which focused on learning by imitation or observing people’s behaviour. For observational learning to take place effectively, four important elements will be essential: Motivation, Attention, Memory and Motor Skills.


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