Learning Theories: Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and Learning by Observation

The concept of learning is quite comprehensive as it covers a broad range of activities. In many books, the theories of learning are also regarded as kinds of learning. The theories of learning are an organized set of principles that explain how individuals attain, retain or recall the learnt knowledge. Learning theories establish the conceptual framework for explaining how information absorption, processing and retention take place during learning. Human learning is influenced by a gamut of factors like Emotional, Cognitive, Past Experiences and Environmental factors. Learning theories prescribe the right format or methodologies of learning for making the learning effective and more impactful.

During early 20th century, many psychologists became increasingly interested in understanding the relevance of learning from a scientific perspective. For a scientific orientation, the study of psychology gave importance to only those variables which were quantifiable and measurable. Environmental influences like, reinforcements, associations, observations and punishments influence the learning process. The key learning theories are Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and Social Learning. Let’s have a closer look at all these three major theories of learning.

Classical Conditioning Theory and Learning

The key premises of Classical Conditioning theory was established by Russian Physiologist named Ivan Pavlov, who first discovered the crucial principles of classical learning theory with the help of an experiment done on dogs to study their digestive processes. The Nobel Prize laureate of 1904, while studying the digestive processes in dogs came across a very interesting observation during his experimentation. He noticed that his subject would begin to salivate by seeing the lab assistant with white lab coats entering into the room before being fed. Though Pavlov’s discovery is originally an accidental discovery, but later with the help of his experiments the classical conditioning theory came into existence. His Classical conditioning theory played a crucial role in explaining the important psychological concepts like learning and equally established the foundation for the behavioural school of thought. Behaviourism is based on two major assumptions:

  1. Learning takes place as a result of the interactions with the environmental forces.
  2. The environmental forces play a key role in shaping the behaviour.

According to Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory, learning takes place because of association which is established between a previously neutral stimulus and a natural stimulus. It should be noted, that Classical Conditioning places a neutral stimulus before the naturally occurring reflexes. In his experiment, he tried to pair the natural stimulus that is food with a bell sound. The dogs would salivate with the natural occurrence of food, but after repeated associations, the dogs salivated just by hearing the sound of the bell alone. The focus of Classical Conditioning theory is on automatic and naturally occurring behaviours.

Key Principles of Classical Conditioning Theory

  1. Acquisition: This is the starting stage of learning during which a response is established firstly and then gradually strengthened. During the acquisition phase, a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus which can automatically or naturally trigger or generate a response without any learning. Once this association is established between the neutral stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, the subject will exhibit a behavioural response which is now known as conditioned stimulus. Once a behavioural response is established, the same can be gradually strengthened or reinforced to make sure that the behaviour is learnt.
  2. Extinction: Extinction is expected to take place when the intensity of a conditioned response decreases or disappears completely. In classical conditioning, this occurs when a conditioned stimulus is no longer associated or paired with the unconditioned stimulus.
  3. Spontaneous Recovery: When a learnt or a conditioned response suddenly reappears after a brief resting period or suddenly re-emerges after a short period of extinction, the process is considered as a spontaneous recovery.
  4. Stimulus Generalization: It is the tendency of the conditioned stimulus to evoke the similar kind of responses once the responses have been conditioned, which occurs as a result of stimulus generalization.
  5. Stimulus Discrimination: Discrimination is the ability of the subject to discriminate between stimuli with other similar stimuli. It means, not responding to those stimuli which is not similar, but responding only to certain specific stimuli.

The theory of Classical Conditioning has several applications in the real-world. It is helpful for various pet trainers for helping them train their pets. Classical conditioning techniques can also be beneficial in helping people deal with their phobias or anxiety issues. The trainers or teachers can also put to practise the Classical Conditioning theory by building a positive or a highly motivated classroom environment for helping the students to overcome their phobias and deliver their best performance.

Operant Conditioning Theory and Learning

Renowned Behavioural Psychologist B.F. Skinner was the main proponent of Operant conditioning theory. It is for this reason that the Operant Conditioning is also known as Skinnerian Conditioning and Instrumental Conditioning. Just like Classical Conditioning, Instrumental/Operant Conditioning lays emphasis on forming associations, but these associations are established between behaviour and behavioural consequences. The theory stressed on the role of punishment or reinforcements for increasing or decreasing the probability of the same behaviour to be repeated in the future. But the condition is that the consequences must immediately follow a behavioural pattern. The focus of operant conditioning is on voluntary behavioural patterns.

Key Components of Operant Conditioning

  • Reinforcement: Reinforcements strengthen or increase the intensity of behaviour. This can be Positive and Negative.

    Positive Reinforcement: When a favourable event or an outcome is associated with behaviour in the form of a reward or praise, it is called as positive reinforcement. For example, a boss may associate bonus with outstanding achievements at work.

    Negative Reinforcement: This involves removal of an unfavourable or an unpleasant event after a behavioural outcome. In this case, the intensity of a response is strengthened by removing the unpleasant experiences.

  • Punishment: The objective of punishment is to decrease the intensity of a behavioural outcome, which may be negative or positive.

    Positive Punishment: This involves application of punishment by presenting an unfavourable event or outcome in response to a behaviour. Spanking for an unacceptable behaviour is an example of positive punishment.

    Negative Punishment: It is associated with the removal of a favourable event or an outcome in response to a behaviour which needs to be weakened. Holding the promotion of an employee for not being able to perform up to the expectations of the management can be an example of a negative punishment.

  • Reinforcement Schedules: According to Skinner, the schedule of reinforcement with focus on timing as well as the frequency of reinforcement, determined how quickly new behaviour can be learned and old behaviours can be altered.

Learning by Observation

According to Albert Bandura, learning cannot simply be based merely on associations or reinforcements which he has mentioned in his writings in his book Social Learning Theory which was published in 1977. Instead, his focus was on learning based on observation, which he has proven through his well known Bobo Doll experiment. He reckoned that children keenly observe their surroundings and the behaviour of people around them particularly their caregivers, teachers and siblings and try to imitate those behaviours in their day to day life. He also tried proving through his experiment that children can easily imitate the negative behaviours or actions.

Another important principle of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory was that learning something by way of observation, need not necessarily mean that it would lead to a change in the behaviour. This behavioural change is entirely influenced by the felt need or motivation of a person to endorse and adopt a behavioural change.

Key Steps involved in Observational Learning

  • Attention: Attention is very important for learning to take place effectively by following observational techniques. A novel concept or a unique idea is expected to attract the attention far more strongly than those which are routine or mundane in nature.
  • Retention: It is the ability to store the learnt information and recall it later, which is equally affected by a number of factors.
  • Reproduction: It involves practising or emulating the learnt behaviour, which will further lead to the advancement of the skill.
  • Motivation: Motivation to imitate the learnt behaviour of a model depends a lot on the reinforcement and punishment. For example, an office-goer may be motivated to report to office on time by seeing his colleague being rewarded for his punctuality and timeliness.

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