Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

What Is Learning? on the Nature and Merits of a Functional Definition of Learning

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

What Is Learning? on the Nature and Merits of a Functional Definition of Learning

Article excerpt

Published online: 29 January 2013

(Q> Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Learning has been defined functionally as changes in behavior that result from experience or mecha- nistically as changes in the organism that result from expe- rience. Both types of definitions are problematic. We define learning as ontogenetic adaptation-that is, as changes in the behavior of an organism that result from regularities in the environment of the organism. This functional definition not only solves the problems of other definitions, but also has important advantages for cognitive learning research.

Keywords Learning · Conditioning · Definition

Learning has been a central topic in psychological research virtually since the inception of psychology as an indepen- dent science (e.g., Ebbinghaus, 1885/1962; Thorndike, 1911). During the largest part of the previous century, it was even the most intensely studied topic in psychology. Also, today, questions about learning are addressed in vir- tually all areas of psychology. It is therefore surprising to see that researchers are rarely explicit about what they mean by the term learning. Even influential textbooks on learning do not always contain a definition of its subject matter (e.g., Bouton, 2007; Schwartz, Wasserman, & Robbins, 2002). Perhaps this state of affairs results from the fact that there is no general agreement about the definition of learning. To some extent, the lack of consensus about the definition of learning should not come as a surprise. It is notoriously difficult to define concepts in a satisfactory manner, espe- cially concepts that are as broad and abstract as the concept of learning. However, it may be unwise to conclude that definitional issues should thus be ignored. It is likely that all learning researchers carry with them some idea of what learning is. Without at least an implicit sense of what learn- ing is, there would be no reason to devote one's time and energy to studying it. Addressing definitional issues in an explicit manner can thus help avoid misunderstandings and facilitate communication among learning researchers.

In this article, we hope to contribute to the debate about the definition of learning by putting forward a detailed functional definition of learning. Our definition is inspired by the work of Skinner (1938, 1984; see Chiesa, 1992, 1994, for excellent analyses of Skinner's ideas), but as far as we know, it has not yet been proposed in the current form. We examine in detail how our definition solves some of the problems of alternative definitions of learning. Furthermore, we argue that because of its functional nature, our definition actually promotes, rather than hinders, cognitive research on the mental mechanisms that mediate learning. Before we address these issues, we provide a brief overview of the merits and shortcomings of other definitions of learning that are available in the literature. This allows us to clarify the unique elements of our functional definition and the prob- lems that it solves.

Learning as a change in behavior versus a determinant of changes in behavior

As was noted by Lachman (1997), most textbook definitions of learning refer to learning as a change in behavior that is due to experience. This is essentially a very basic functional definition of learning in that learning is seen as a function that maps experience onto behavior. In other words, learning is defined as an effect of experience on behavior.

Many researchers have claimed that such a simple func- tional definition of learning is unsatisfactory (e.g., Domjan, 2010; Lachman, 1997; Ormrod, 1999, 2008). Most impor- tant, it has been argued that a simple functional definition has difficulties dealing with the fact that changes in behavior are neither necessary nor sufficient for learning to occur. First, latent learning effects suggest that changes in behavior are not necessary for learning to occur. Ever since Tolman and Honzik (1930), we know that experiences at time 1 (e. …

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