Verbal learning is the process of acquiring, retaining and recalling of verbal material. At its most elementary level, it can be defined as a process of building associations between a stimulus and a response, with both of them being verbal. At a broader level, verbal learning includes the processes of organizing the stimulus material by the learner and the related changes in the learner's behavior.
At different stages of the development of the verbal learning studies, a variety of aspects of this phenomenon were highlighted. For example, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) in his book On Memory (1885), focused on the processes of association building and recall, which shaped his experiments with verbal material. Ebbinghaus's work, albeit not dealing explicitly with verbal learning, is considered as the first seminal work in the field, due to the material and the methods used.
Verbal learning can be based on different processes and can be classified in several types. The first process is serial verbal learning. People engage in it when they learn a list of verbal items (for example, words or syllables) while maintaining the order of the items. Psychologists test this type of learning by asking subjects to read a list of verbal stimuli and then reproduce this list while keeping the original order of the items. Such experiments have been widely used in tests of short- and long-term memory.
A useful strategy that can be used while remembering such lists of words is to build associations between them. Thus, the first word "anticipates" the second, and, analogically, every word points to the one after it. Ebbinghaus called this learning strategy the serial anticipation method. Studies of this type of learning have also discovered the serial position effect, which says that different parts of the list are learned with different difficulty. Usually, the first few items are the easiest to learn, then come those at the end of the list. The hardest to learn are the items just after the middle.
Another type of verbal learning is referred to paired associate learning. It happens when people read pairs of words, or other verbal stimuli, then get to see just one item of a pair and have to say what the other is. This type of learning is largely used in education, especially in learning foreign languages. Pupils learn vocabularies as pairs of known English words and words from another language, building associations between the items of a pair. Then, when presented with a foreign word (stimulus), the pupil has to name the corresponding English word (response).
Free verbal learning is a type of learning, which people use when they learn lists of items regardless of their order. A task used to test this type of learning is free recall. The subject is asked to recall as many items from a list as possible, regardless of their sequence. Such tests are often used to establish organizational patterns of learning and memory. For example, the subject may use a clustering strategy - grouping items according to their similarity or the number of letters in them.
Another kind of verbal learning is verbal discrimination (or recognition) learning. It is studied by a task which requires of the subject, after reading a list of items, to read another one and to say which items of the second list were present in the first. Verbal learning theorists use different materials in their tests. Ebbinghaus used nonsense syllables - syllables of the type consonant-vowel-consonant, such as GOC, TER, and BIV. He argued that these stimuli were easily controlled and thus had an advantage for being used in the studies of memory compared to meaningful words.
In 1932, British psychologist Frederic Bartlett (1886-1969) challenged Ebbinghaus's view that nonsense syllables were easily controlled and that they eliminated meaning as a factor in learning. Another influential perspective and perhaps the most important contribution to this field was The Psychology of Human Learning: An Introduction (1942) by John McGeoch (1897-1942), a book which summarized many of the trends in verbal learning.
In the 1950s, the verbal learning studies focused on verbal behavior - the characteristics of language and its use. In the 1960s through to the 1980s, psycholinguists developed models of word acquisition, verbal information processing and lexicon building. Examples of such models are the logogen model of John Morton (1969), which was considered to be an important theory, along with the PDP (parallel distributed processing) model of Mark Seidenberg and James Lloyd McClelland (1989).