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What is the psychology of learning?

Posted on: July 8, 2022

The psychology of learning helps us to understand how the human brain processes knowledge and retains it. Psychological learning theories are grouped into several different schools of thought. 

There is the behaviourist approach which considers inputs of information and their reinforcement through repetition or habit. Other theories are based on cognitive processes, focusing on the brain’s structure and how it organises information. Constructivism considers the individual’s learning to be a result of experience that takes into account interaction with the environment and with others during the learning process. 

Conversely, approaches based on motivation, such as the growth mindset, look primarily at what drives the individual. Inquiry-based learning emphasises metacognitive processes – the mental processes that learners develop during the learning process itself. 

Who is Edward Thorndike?

Edward Thorndike was a psychologist and a pioneer in understanding the learning process, thereby laying the scientific foundations of educational psychology. He identified three main areas of intellectual development:

  • Abstract intelligence – the ability to process and understand various concepts.
  • Mechanical intelligence –the ability to handle physical objects.
  • Social intelligence – the ability to handle human interaction.

Thorndike also upheld the principle known as the Law of Effect, which says that “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.” This had a huge impact on reinforcement theory and behaviour analysis, both of which were prominent in the educational psychology of the first half of the twentieth century.

Who is John B. Watson?

John B. Watson is generally credited as the founder of the behavioural school of thought. He was one of a group of psychologists and education theorists who believed that behavioural changes occur as a result of learning. His 1913 address at Columbia University entitled “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” helped to cement the scientific theory of behaviourism.

His “Little Albert” experiment demonstrated that phobias can be learnt through classical conditioning. In the experiment, a boy known as Little Albert was presented with a white rat, which he did not fear. Watson and his partner in the experiment, Rosalie Rayner, then would create a loud bang when presenting the rat to Little Albert, which startled him and made him cry. When carried out repeatedly, the combination of hearing the bang and seeing the white rat led Little Albert to fear the rat on sight. This fear then extended through association to items such as a fur coat, cotton wool, and a Father Christmas mask.

What are the three types of behavioural learning?

There are three types of learning according to behaviourism:

  • Classical conditioning

In classical conditioning, learning happens due to a stimulus-response association. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist known for his work measuring the rate of salivation in dogs, which became known as conditioned reflex. Pavlov had noticed that the dogs began to salivate in the presence of the person who normally fed them, not necessarily only in the presence of food. He went on to use a bell to signal the arrival of food and confirmed that an association between natural stimulus (food) and neutral stimulus (the sound of the bell), caused the dogs to salivate.

Pavlov’s experiments became known in the West, via the writings of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. The concept of “conditioning” as an automatic form of learning was a key idea in the nascent specialism of comparative psychology.

  • Operant conditioning

Edward Thorndike, and later B.F. Skinner, were proponents of operant conditioning. This theory is based on the belief that the consequences of actions shape the behaviour. The intensity of a behavioural reaction is either increased or decreased as a response to punishment or reinforcement. Skinner believed that the human brain was ultimately a black box, that thoughts couldn’t be seen or tracked, so instead, behaviour – which was observable – was the only thing that mattered.

The idea that positive reinforcement strengthens behaviour and that punishment curbs unwanted behaviour is still used in teaching and learning today. It’s even evident in how we often motivate ourselves by rewarding ourselves for doing something we didn’t want to do. Skinner noted that long-term behavioural change strongly depends on the schedule of reinforcement with a focus on timing and rate of reinforcement. Again, as an example, we may utilise a “little and often” approach to reinforce a good habit such as meditation.

  • Observational learning

The process of observational learning was demonstrated by Albert Bandura in his social learning theory (SLT), which focuses on learning by observing other people’s behaviour and through imitation. Social learning theory follows on from classical conditioning and operant conditioning but includes two additional ideas:

  • Mediating processes occur between stimuli and responses.
  • Behaviour is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning.

SLT is sometimes referred to as the bridge between behaviourist approaches and cognitive approaches to learning. For observational learning to take place effectively, four important elements are essential: motivation, attention, memory, and motor skills.

Albert Bandura is also known for his bobo doll experiments. A bobo doll is sometimes referred to as a round-bottomed doll or a roly-poly toy. It is shaped a bit like a skittle with a weighted bottom meaning that when it is pushed over, it returns to an upright position. The bobo doll experiments tested how children acted towards the doll after observing an adult behave in an aggressive manner towards the doll.

What is self-determination theory?

Behavioural psychology still plays a part in the psychology of learning but theorists are further understanding how people learn through motivation rather than due to fear of punishment which now feels outdated. Education is not simply about learning facts by rote but about an element of self-knowledge. Understanding how and why we learn can also help us to reach our goals and that’s where cognitive psychology comes in.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a social-cognitive theory of human motivation and personality devised by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan. It is concerned with people’s innate growth tendencies and psychological needs. SDT evolved from studies comparing intrinsic and extrinsic motives, and from the growing understanding of the dominant role that intrinsic motivation plays in individual behaviour. Learning, performance, experience, and psychological health can be predicted by SDT.

According to self-determination theory, in order to achieve psychological growth, people need to feel the following:

  • Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their behaviours and goals. The sense that direct action will result in real change plays a vital role in helping people to be self-determined.
  • Competence: Gaining mastery in tasks and learning different skills both help people feel that they are capable of success, so are more likely to take action that will lead to achieving goals.
  • Connection or relatedness: Belonging and attachment to other people are crucial factors in people going on to realise their ambitions.

Understand more about the psychology of human learning with an MBA

Authentic leadership requires a depth of knowledge in how and why people behave in the way that they do. It’s now accepted that learning outcomes are affected by many factors including human behaviour, an individual’s cognitive development, and the interactions that social psychology takes into account. The unique psychology of each person also plays a part.

The field of psychology can offer deeper insight into problem solving in the work environment and how different methodologies of learning can support your team members in their self-development. Find out today how an online MBA Psychology from the University of Wolverhampton can help you lead mindfully by combining the soft skills and hard skills of business management.

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