The process of learning is essential for any person. People may learn how to perform physical activities, social skills, emotional understanding of themselves and others, the inner workings of societies, science, and almost any other skill. However, approaches to learning may be varied and have their own benefits and detriments. The field of learning has been examined from a multitude of perspectives, but in the modern context, the majority of research on this topic was made through the lens of psychology. Four main types of learning have been classified at this time. They include classical conditioning, operant conditioning, observant conditioning, and cognitive learning. This paper will provide information about each of these approaches.
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Classical conditioning is one of the oldest types of conditioning, and it is based on the works of John Broadus Watson. He was inspired by the experiments performed by a Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov’s experiments in conditioning involved the testing of reflexes that are intrinsic to a dog’s behavior such as the act of salivation when presented with food. Watson extended the idea of Pavlovian conditioning to all processes of human psychology. He believed that no mind of consciousness exists and that everything people do is reliant on a stimulus and response to it. Therefore, he proposed that any information, skill, or behavior can be learned through the process of association. This process involves linking two stimuli to gain a specific response from a person or an animal (Madden et al. 1105).
Three stages of classical conditioning are usually outlined. The first takes place before conditioning. This stage involves the creation of an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus, as well as a neutral stimulus that has no effect on the person. The second stage occurs during conditioning. The neutral stimulus is associated with the unconditioned stimulus and makes it a conditioned stimulus at this stage. The last stages take place after conditioning, and they involve the association of the conditioned stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus to get a specific conditioned response.
This process was initially considered inapplicable to humans, but due to an experiment that involved the development of a phobia in an 11-year-old child, the hypothesis was proven to be at least partially correct, despite the unethical nature of the experiment. Classical conditioning is rarely used in school settings, but its possible effects need consideration since it is easy for children to develop negative associations with school. This approach is inherently scientific, but its reductionist nature and deterministic outlook on the human psyche make it much less valid than types of learning that were developed in later years (Madden et al. 1106).
Operant conditioning follows a different approach to learning. While it may appear similar at first examination, its structure is more flexible and complex. The main principle behind operant conditioning is based on the concept of reinforcement and punishment of behaviors exhibited by an organism. Stimuli that are given to the learner during the reward or punishment process serve as the controllers of the presented behavior.
The process was initially researched by Edward Thorndike based on the behavior of cats in custom-made puzzle boxes. This type of process has been seen throughout human history in the way that children learn from their parents and personal experiences. A child might touch a sharp object and get a cut which would teach them not to touch sharp objects with their bare hands (Blackman 18).
At a later period, Burrhus Frederic Skinner began to study this type of conditioning. His work with the application of operant conditioning to human and animal behavior led to a variety of successful results. Unlike Thorndike, Skinner was not interested in attempting to observe mental states due to the difficulty and a likely impossibility of this process. Instead, he focused on observable behavior and its consequences. One of the most famous implementations of operant conditioning that he produced was called the “Skinner Box.” Its principle was based on the exposure of rats and pigeons to certain stimuli.
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The subject of the experiment was required to perform repeatable responses to gain access to the stimuli. Eventually, it would lead to the subject performing the actions without the stimuli being provided. Positive and negative versions of punishment and reinforcements are considered to be desirable in the majority of operant conditioning consequences. However, a fifth type called extinction is also observed. It occurs when the previously reinforced behavior disappears (Blackman 68).
The nature of observational conditioning is tied to watching other people perform actions, remembering outcomes, and subsequently recreating the previously observed behaviors. This type of learning is unique since it occurs indirectly, unlike classical and operant ways of conditioning. It is also a relatively common type of learning that children go through during their development. The actions performed by parents are fascinating to children at a certain age, which causes them to replicate these actions. A child may learn to speak with a specific accent, gain preference toward activities practiced by their parents, and imitate many other actions. However, not only children are able to learn this way. Adults are capable of learning skills by watching them being applied by experts (Strauss et al. 39).
This type of conditioning was best researched by Albert Bandura, who performed a series of experiments to show that observant conditioning is a valid type of learning. His experiments have shown that children are capable of imitation even when they are 21 days old. At that age, infants often try to copy the facial expressions and mouth movements of people around them. His research has also shown that children may imitate violent actions if they observe adults performing them. Children tended to mirror violent actions less when the adult in the film was punished for his or her actions. Observational learning is often used in the promotion of healthy behaviors in media, and as a learning tool in studies based on watching videos of other people performing certain actions (Strauss et al. 41).
Cognitive learning is grounded in the concept of learning information based on the mental processes of the human brain. The effectiveness of cognitive processes is often tied to the quality of the learning process and the ability to store information long-term. Ineffective cognitive processes are therefore tied to poor learning abilities and issues with memories. This approach relies on two theories. The first is a social cognitive theory which is similar to observational conditioning. It states that some elements of a person’s ability to learn are based on their observation of social interactions, media, and personal experiences.
The second theory is called cognitive-behavioral therapy. This concept represents the practice of psychological intervention that is focused on improving the mental health of patients. It is concentrated on treating specific issues related to mental disorders. All the external and internal stimuli are used in the process of cognitive learning through the analysis of experiences through the thinking process. As a result, people who utilize cognitive learning are often more capable of problem-solving, and conscious thought. By understanding the environment, a person is able to change their behavior (Harinie et al. 1)
Learning is one of the most important processes for a person. People have been fascinated with this concept for multiple millennia. However, only in the modern era, this topic began to be explored from a scientific point of view. The classical type of conditioning was the first to gain traction but proved to be too reductive to be utilized uniformly. Operant conditioning was more successful, especially for the understanding of the animal learning process, and yet it was not fully reflective of the human psyche. Observational conditioning, however, has shown to be a very natural type of learning and can be extremely useful when used correctly.
Lastly, cognitive learning examined the way humans learn through mental processes, and how these processes may be improved through therapy. All of the examined ideas are at least partially valid, but perhaps when used in combination with each other they may produce the best results. When children have positive associations with learning, and their interest is rewarded in class, their cognitive abilities are likely to perform better, and they may be more observant during social interactions. While there is a certain lack of these approaches in modern education, it should not be impossible to implement them to ensure a better process of learning for the students.
Blackman, Derek E. Operant Conditioning: An Experimental Analysis of Behaviour. Routledge, 2017.
Harinie, Luluk Tri, et al. “Study of the Bandura’s Social Cognitive Learning Theory for the Entrepreneurship Learning Process.” Social Sciences, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, p. 1.
Madden, Victoria J., et al. “Pain by Association? Experimental Modulation of Human Pain Thresholds Using Classical Conditioning.” The Journal of Pain, vol. 17, no. 10, 2016, pp. 1105–15.
Strauss, Sidney, et al. “Teaching, Naturally.” Trends in Neuroscience and Education, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 38–43.