Learning Theory


learning, in psychology, the process by which a relatively lasting change in potential behavior occurs as a result of practice or experience. Learning is distinguished from behavioral changes arising from such processes as maturation and illness, but does apply to motor skills, such as driving a car, to intellectual skills, such as reading, and to attitudes and values, such as prejudice. There is evidence that neurotic symptoms and patterns of mental illness are also learned behavior. Learning occurs throughout life in animals, and learned behavior accounts for a large proportion of all behavior in the higher animals, especially in humans.

Models of Learning

The scientific investigation of the learning process was begun at the end of the 19th cent. by Ivan Pavlov in Russia and Edward Thorndike in the United States. Three models are currently widely used to explain changes in learned behavior; two emphasize the establishment of relations between stimuli and responses, and the third emphasizes the establishment of cognitive structures. Albert Bandura maintained (1977) that learning occurs through observation of others, or models; it has been suggested that this type of learning occurs when children are exposed to violence in the media.

Classical Conditioning

The first model, classical conditioning, was initially identified by Pavlov in the salivation reflex of dogs. Salivation is an innate reflex, or unconditioned response, to the presentation of food, an unconditioned stimulus. Pavlov showed that dogs could be conditioned to salivate merely to the sound of a buzzer (a conditioned stimulus), after it was sounded a number of times in conjunction with the presentation of food. Learning is said to occur because salivation has been conditioned to a new stimulus that did not elicit it initially. The pairing of food with the buzzer acts to reinforce the buzzer as the prominent stimulus.

Operant Conditioning

A second type of learning, known as operant conditioning, was developed around the same time as Pavlov's theory by Thorndike, and later expanded upon by B. F. Skinner. Here, learning takes place as the individual acts upon the environment. Whereas classical conditioning involves innate reflexes, operant conditioning requires voluntary behavior. Thorndike showed that an intermittent reward is essential to reinforce learning, while discontinuing the use of reinforcement tends to extinguish the learned behavior. The famous Skinner box demonstrated operant conditioning by placing a rat in a box in which the pressing of a small bar produces food. Skinner showed that the rat eventually learns to press the bar regularly to obtain food. Besides reinforcement, punishment produces avoidance behavior, which appears to weaken learning but not curtail it. In both types of conditioning, stimulus generalization occurs; i.e., the conditioned response may be elicited by stimuli similar to the original conditioned stimulus but not used in the original training. Stimulus generalization has enormous practical importance, because it allows for the application of learned behaviors across different contexts. Behavior modification is a type of treatment resulting from these stimulus/response models of learning. It operates under the assumption that if behavior can be learned, it can also be unlearned (see behavior therapy).

Cognitive Learning

A third approach to learning is known as cognitive learning. Wolfgang Köhler showed that a protracted process of trial-and-error may be replaced by a sudden understanding that grasps the interrelationships of a problem. This process, called insight, is more akin to piecing together a puzzle than responding to a stimulus. Edward Tolman (1930) found that unrewarded rats learned the layout of a maze, yet this was not apparent until they were later rewarded with food. Tolman called this latent learning, and it has been suggested that the rats developed cognitive maps of the maze that they were able to apply immediately when a reward was offered.


See T. Tighe, Modern Learning Theory (1982); B. Schwartz, Psychology of Learning and Behavior (2d ed. 1983).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Learning Theory: Selected full-text books and articles

Learning Theories, A to Z
David C. Leonard.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Handbook of Contemporary Learning Theories
Robert R. Mowrer; Stephen B. Klein.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Learning about Learning: From Theories to Trends
Bush, Gail.
Teacher Librarian, Vol. 34, No. 2, December 2006
Selecting and Applying Learning Theory to Classroom Teaching Strategies
Coker, Donald R.; White, Jane.
Education, Vol. 114, No. 1, Fall 1993
The New Update on Adult Learning Theory: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education
Susan Imel; Sharan B. Merriam.
Jossey-Bass, 2001
Behaviorism, Neobehaviorism, and Cognitivism in Learning Theory: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
Abram Amsel.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989
Self-Determined Learning Theory: Construction, Verification, and Evaluation
Dennis E. Mithaug; Deirdre K. Mithaug; Martin Agran; James E. Martin; Michael L. Wehmeyer.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice
Jennifer A. Moon.
RoutledgeFalmer, 2004
Contemporary Learning Theories: Pavlovian Conditioning and the Status of Traditional Learning Theory
Stephen B. Klein; Robert R. Mowrer.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989
Logical Learning Theory: A Human Teleology and Its Empirical Support
Joseph F. Rychlak.
University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Using Motor-Learning Theory to Design More Effective Instruction: Pick the Best Strategies from Multiple Teaching Approaches
Rukavina, Paul B.; Foxworth, K. Randell.
JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, Vol. 80, No. 3, March 2009
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
An Evaluative Study of Social Learning Theory Based Scientific Attitudes on Academic Success, Gender and Socio-Economical Level
Demirbas, Murat; Yagbasan, Rahmi.
Kuram ve Uygulamada Egitim Bilimleri, Vol. 6, No. 2, May 2006
An Integrated Model for Practicing Reflective Learning
Castelli, Patricia Ann.
Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, Vol. 15, January 1, 2011
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Instructional Design: International Perspectives
Robert D. Tennyson; Franz Schott; Norbert M. Seel; Sanne Dijkstra.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.1, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Learning Theory Foundations for Instructional Design" and Chap. 6 "Educational Learning Theory"
School Didactics and Learning: A School Didactic Model Framing an Analysis of Pedagogical Implications of Learning Theory
Michael Uljens.
Psychology Press, 1997
Foundations for a Psychology of Education
Alan Lesgold; Robert Glaser.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Learning Theory"
Learning Theory and the Symbolic Processes
O. Hobart Mowrer.
John Wiley & Sons, 1960
Learning Theory in the Practice of Management Development: Evolution and Applications
Sidney Mailick; Stephen A. Stumpf.
Quorum Books, 1998
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