Learning (Psychology)

The ability to learn is one of the main functions that make us human. Imagine what would happen if we couldn’t learn from our mistakes, or even from others’ mistakes. This unique ability has puzzled cognitive psychologists for decades. Now, we have a pretty good idea of how learning works, but there are still a few holes we have left to figure out.

What is Learning?

The definition used by most psychologists is that learning is the ability to use memory from experiences to change behavior in a permanent manner that benefits the learner.

In behavioral psychology, there are 3 main methods of learning:

  • Classical Conditioning
  • Operant Conditioning
  • Observational Learning

Throughout this article, I’ll attempt to give the best-summarized version of each, including a few more lesser-known methods of each. If you want an in-depth guide of the main three, just click on the header links.

Classical Conditioning

By far, one of the most famous experiments in cognitive psychology on learning is Pavlov’s Dog Experiment. In short, Ivan Pavlov trained (or rather, conditioned) his dogs to salivate before when they heard a bell rang, expecting food was next.

In short, we take an “unconditioned response” like salivating to food, and pair it to a “conditioned response” like a bell. Using a “conditioned stimulus” like a bell, we can pair the connections of these responses in the dogs to produce classical conditioning.

little albert experiment

John B. Watson was another psychologist interested in classical conditioning, but instead used children as his participants. In his infamous Little Albert Study, Watson conditioned a young boy to be afraid of a white rat. To do so, Watson directed his assistants to bang a piece of metal with a hammer next to Albert’s head. It didn’t take long before Albert was scared of the white rat – he would whine and cry when he saw one. The problem though, is that he also seemed to be afraid of other white things, and small rodents.

Classical conditioning pairs two responses together using two unrelated stimuli.

Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner is the psychologist famous for conducting a set of experiments that helped theorize his “operant conditioning”. In operant conditioning, we can create increase or decrease certain behaviors by adding or removing stimuli.

  • Positive reinforcement is adding a stimulus to increase behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement is adding a stimulus to decrease behavior.
  • Positive punishment is removing a stimulus to increase behavior.
  • Negative punishment is removing a stimulus to decrease behavior.

You can learn more about Skinner’s box and reinforcement schedules on the main page, but for now let’s skip to the third main method of learning…

Observational Learning

Albert Bandura did the early ground work on observational learning. According to him, observational learning is a form of social learning that happens when we watch other people. The best real-world example of this is his Bobo Doll Experiment.

bobo doll experiment

In 1961, he placed children in a room with some adults and a large bobo doll clown. The children were split into two groups: one group saw the adults act mean towards the doll, the other’s didn’t pay much attention to the doll.

After the children watched the adults “play” for 10 minutes, they were moved into another room with more exciting toys. The intent was to then take the toys away and frustrate the children. Albert Bandura then did exactly that and moved them into a third room with a Bobo doll.

The goal was to see how the children reacted to the Bobo doll when they were frustrated. The group that saw the adults acting in a violent manner like hitting, kicking, and yelling the doll… acted the same way!

This proves we can learn behaviors and re-enact them by watching how others act.

Latent Learning

Latent learning isn’t classified as a main learning method since there isn’t enough research behind it yet. The idea goes like this: we can learn without any obvious reinforcement, punishment, or association of a certain behavior.

Tolman was one of the first people to theorize that there were other ways to learn than the strict behaviorist views. In the famous Tolman and Honzik Maze experiment, Tolman set up a maze for rats to run through.

In short, for 10 days, some rats would be fed when they reached the end of the maze, and others would just be taken out. After 10 days, Tolman started to feed the rats that reached the end of the maze to see if they could “remember” how to get to the end of the maze.

The results are that the mice who went through the maze for the first 10 days and weren’t fed at the end, but then were fed after the 10 days, seemed to learn to complete the maze the fastest after they started getting fed. This experiment suggests that we may learn things that aren’t apparent until the circumstances require us to show our knowledge.

Perceptual Learning

If you can differentiate two different musical tones, or can read in braille, you have mastered a form of perceptual learning.

Perceptual learning is learning how to better perceive the world through improving your skills with feedback. Learning to read faster, seeing relations of chess pieces, and understanding if there’s something wrong in an X-ray are all examples.

A form of implicit learning, the learner usually grows their skills without awareness. This means that the experts performing these tasks (such as sorting newborn chicks by sex), they can’t specifically point out to what stimuli they are using for classification, but they can complete the task with a high accuracy.

Experiential Learning

My favorite way to learn is through experiential learning, or the process of learning through experience or “doing”. Some call this a “hands-on approach”, while others say it’s a form of operant conditioning.

Imagine you’re trying to learn how to drive a car with manual transmission. You can read all the books you want, and you can watch thousands of hours of videos on Youtube, but until you sit in the car and drive it, you’ll never truly learn anything. You have to feel the pressure of the clutch, the grinding of the gears, and the force felt by the car as you accelerate to learn when and how to shift.

Some say this is a form of operant conditioning because you’re getting micro-feedback through how well you drive. Didn’t shift very well? Maybe let the clutch out a bit slower next time. Killed the car? Maybe you forgot to shift back to first gear at a stop sign.

How to Learn Better

Here are some simple ways to help you learn better, faster, and store more information in your memory:

1) The Spacing Effect

The Spacing effect is a phenomenon that occurs when learning happens more efficiently when breaks are taken. One theory this works is because our short-term memories are limited, and a break allows our brain to decide what to store and what to ignore.

Another theory says that the spacing effect works because you can review the information many times, increasing the repetition of you covering it and the chance of you recalling the information.

a woman stressed out over cramming

2) Serial Position Effect

To support you taking breaks, the Serial Position Effect also comes in handy. According to the Serial Position Effect, you are more likely to remember the things at the beginning (the primacy effect) and the end (the recency effect) of a list. When you break up your study session into multiple sessions, there will be more beginning and endings for you to remember.

3) Von Restorff Effect

Also called the isolation effect, the Von Restorff effect makes us notice things that stand out. If you’re wanting to learn quicker so you can go to a party and ace your test, try making the hardest cirriculum stand out. For example, you could draw in a sketchbook doodles that have to do with what you’re studying. Wanting to remember Piaget’s cognitive developmental ages in order? Draw 4 kids, each with exaggerated features:

Sensorimotor kid: This kid is a baby with huge hands.

Preoperational kid: This kid is a toddler that has a globe swirling around him. He thinks the world revolves around him

Concrete Operational kid: This kid is a teenager with acne who is stubborn, yet can argue well. Every argument they participate in, a new pimple pops up.

Formal operational kid: This kid has a suit and tie on, and is contemplating physics.

In each of these images, you are making something stand out, and by doing so, you’re more able to remember these ridiculous images.

4) Sleep

We all know that sleep is very important in storing information in your long-term memory. It also plays an important role in the process of learning. But what exactly does it mean to get good sleep?

  • Falling asleep within 30 minutes you did last night
  • Waking up within 30 minutes you did yesterday morning
  • Quiet
  • Cold
  • Dark
  • No alcohol or caffeine within 6 hours
  • Having an empty stomach

5) Use the information (teach)

One of the best ways to actually learn something for good is to apply the Feynman Technique to it. This technique has 4 steps:

1) Choose a concept

2) Teach your concept to a middle-schooler

3) Identify gaps of your own knowledge where you can’t explain something

4) Review the gaps and simplify the teaching process

In short, this process makes you teach something to someone. The very process of doing so forces you to break it down into simple concepts that you yourself must first understand. By doing so, you are making it easier for you to remember. Time after time, the Feynman technique has been one of the best ways to understand something and remember it for a long time.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.