How Do We Learn?
We learn from the things that happen to us - our experiences. For example, we learned that lightning is followed by thunder, we learned not to tell lies because it can cause us to lose our credibility and to lose our friends, or that we learned how to dance by watching others demonstrate dance steps to us. We can say that we have learned these things because we have acquired appropriate responses for them - we cover our ears when lightning strikes, we try to avoid telling lies, and we dance. Learning is acquiring relatively permanent change in behavior through experience. We experience things and learn to modify our behaviors based on what we know.
Learning applies not just to humans, but also to animals. For us humans, learning extends beyond the scope of proper education. Prior schooling, we learned how to tie our shoes, how to write, and maybe, even how to read. For animals, learning could mean knowing how to hunt for food, how to climb trees, and when to avoid predators. Learning about the environment is important for adaptation and survival.
Psychological research in learning typically employs laboratory experiments, and consequently uses animals as participants. This is to allow extensive control over the environmental conditions that govern learning. After decades of research in learning, it is widely accepted today that many of the principles of learning demonstrated with animals also apply to humans.
Types of Learning
There are two different types of learning - observational and associative learning.
- Observational Learning is learning by watching others engage in different behaviors. From the examples above, you probably have learned to dance by watching your teacher demonstrate some dance steps to you. You also probably have learned how to write by watching your mother demonstrate hand strokes for various letters and numbers.
- Associative Learning is learning by establishing connections between events. Conditioning is the method for teaching associations, and there are two types of conditioning - classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is the method teaching associations between two different stimuli. From the example above, we learned the connection between lightning and thunder because they almost always occur together. Because of this, whenever we see lightning, we cover our ears in anticipation of thunder. On the other hand, operant conditioning is the method of teaching associations between behaviors and consequences. Operant conditioning uses rewards and punishments to strengthen or weaken behaviors. From the example above, you might have learned the connection between telling lies and losing credibility and friends.
Factors that Affect Learning
Despite the popularity of the use of experiments in uncovering the principles of learning, most of the time, learning occurs in not-so ideal situations. Have you ever witnessed, for example, a dog speaking fluent English, even if it seemingly demonstrates basic understanding of the language? Have you ever had problem remembering names when you went through zero sleep last night? And lastly, do you know how to tell if a plant is poisonous or not? Probably no. This is because there are biological, cognitive and cultural factors in learning.