Associative learning is a type of learning principle based on the assumption that ideas and experiences reinforce one another and can be linked. Abramson (1994) defines the concept as a form of behavior modification involving the association of two or more events, such as between two stimuli, or between a stimulus and a response.
This type of learning falls not only under the scope of psychology but is of interest for neurologists as well. Associative learning is classified as the most basic form of learning with a more complex type being cognitive learning, which requires language and memory. For example, associative learning has been identified in the behavior of honey bees. Research has shown that the bee extends its proboscis, which is an elongated appendage from its head, as a reflex to antennal stimulation.
Psychologists have divided associative learning into two types: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is the formation of an association between a conditioned stimulus and a response. It was first defined by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849 to 1936), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his influential work. His research focused on conditioning and involuntary reflex.
Pavlov carried out experiments on digestion and the work of the digestive glands. In the 1920s, Pavlov carried out an experiment involving a dog, which was given food when a bell was ringing. After repeating the pattern several times, the dog started salivating when the bell was ringing, even without getting food. Pavlov referred to this phenomenon as the conditioned response, which means that the dog associated the bell with food.
Unlike classical conditioning, operant conditioning concerns the modification of voluntary behavior. While classical conditioning is determined by antecedent conditions, the environment and the consequences shape operant conditioning. This method was the subject of an experiment by the eminent American behavioral expert B.F. Skinner (1904 to 1990), who trained rats and pigeons to press a lever to receive food as a reward. Skinner designed the so-called Skinner Box, which is an operant conditioning chamber, to carry out his experiment. In the experiment, a desired output, that is pressing the lever, is paired with a stimulus, which is the food reward.
Abramson cites two studies, which suggest that some types of worms may be capable of modifying their responses to obtain a reinforcement. He argues that that evidence indicates roundworm, known as C.elegans, are capable of undergoing at least one form of associative learning, classical conditioning. Abramson believes that the biggest question is how to determine if an animal is doing something new – the hallmark of associative learning.
The key instruments of reinforcement, punishment and extinction are important in operant conditioning. Reinforcement encourages the increased frequency of certain behavior; punishment reduces the frequency of its occurrence, whereas extinction describes the case where the behavior pattern does not provoke any response and therefore, it may disappear. Research shows that previously reinforced behavior can vanish when it no longer gives rise to any reinforcement.
Associative learning can be used to study and modify animal behavior. However, it is a widespread method in human psychology, pedagogy and medicine. It is believed to improve human visual working memory performance. Some researchers seek to extend the role of the associative learning process in dealing with nicotine addiction. Associative learning has been widely applied in clinical settings as well.
This method of learning can be very effective in the classroom. Educational theorists have studied the role of association formation and response to stimuli in the learning process. In particular, operant conditioning can be widely used in educational practices. With regard to this method, stimuli in the classroom include praise and disapproval. Students are thought to learn and demonstrate new behavior in response to the consequences of these behaviors evoke. Appropriate behavior is often acquired because of the desirable outcome. Inappropriate and undesirable behaviors can be acquired for a similar reason.
Punishment in the classroom can include placing the misbehaving student in an environment with no reinforcers, withdrawal of a previously earned reinforcer as well as reprimands. In order to be effective, the punishment has to be described in clear and concrete terms. Teachers are advised to detail in advance the desired behavior. Furthermore, there should be an agreement between students and the teacher regarding the expectations for the student's behavior.