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What you need to know about the psychology of learning

Posted on: November 23, 2021

The psychology of learning encompasses a range of topics focused on how people learn and how they interact with the environments in which they learn. 

It is generally defined as a relatively permanent change in behaviour as a result of experience. Both educators and theorists are interested in cognitive development in learning as a way of understanding ways of learning, neurodivergence, and academic achievement. Educational neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field which has grown out of the space where cognitive neuroscience, developmental cognitive neuroscience, educational theory, and educational psychology converge.

Why is behaviourism important?

The psychology of learning is rooted in behaviourism (or behavioural psychology) which dominated psychology in the first half of the twentieth century. 

However, behaviourism only measured observable behaviours because it considered the field of psychology to be an experimental and objective science. Behaviourism did not take into account internal cognitive and mental processes, as it believed them to be too subjective. Although still important today, the emergence of humanistic psychology, biological psychology, and cognitive psychology in the second half of the twentieth century helped to develop our understanding of learning beyond behaviourism.  

Who are the most influential behavioural psychologists?

The psychologist John B. Watson (1878–1958) was one of the first in his field to study how human learning influences human behaviour. Other behaviourists considered to be pioneering include B.F. Skinner (1904–1990) and Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), renowned for his work in classical conditioning with dogs. In a study published in the Review of General Psychology in 2002, B.F. Skinner actually made it to the number one spot as the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. So, behaviourism played a huge part in the understanding of human behaviour and in the progress of psychological science.

John B. Watson suggested that all behaviours stem from the learning process. This theory is what came to define behaviourism. The three major types of learning process in behaviourism are:

  • Classical conditioning

This is a neutral stimulus associated with a natural response. Most famously, it was demonstrated in Pavlov’s experiment with dogs which paired the smell of food (natural occurring stimulus) with the sound of a bell (previously neutral stimulus). Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who was originally studying digestive processes in dogs. He noted that salivation was reflexive and not an automatic, physiological process. He tested this by conditioning the dogs to associate the ringing of the bell with the arrival of food and so the dogs would salivate whether food arrived or not.

  • Operant conditioning

This is a response which can be increased or decreased by reinforcement or punishment. Edward Thorndike first studied and identified this kind of learning and later, B.F. Skinner. Essentially, this method of learning uses rewards and punishments for behaviour, which then creates an association between a behaviour and the consequence, positive or negative.

  • Observational learning

This is learning through observing and imitating others. Social learning theory was proposed by Albert Bandura (1925–2021), another titan of psychological research who was Professor of Psychology at Stanford. He is known for the bobo doll experiment in which children imitated the actions of others without direct reinforcement. What this ultimately demonstrated was that children imitated violent behaviours which had been exhibited by an adult. It also showed that children in the experiment imitated non-violent behaviour when they observed it in an adult. Although it is considered an important experiment and pivotal in our understanding of behavioural psychology, it is not without its criticisms. These include whether the learning outcomes would be evident in a real-world scenario as opposed to under the conditions of an experiment.

What are the theories of learning in psychology?

Behaviourism is just one of many influential theories of learning including:

  • Cognitive psychology
  • Constructivism
  • Social learning theory
  • Socio-constructivism
  • Experiential learning
  • Multiple intelligences
  • Situated learning theory and community of practice
  • 21st century learning or skills

The psychology of how people learn is complex. The various leading psychological theories range from taking a behaviourist approach that focuses on inputs and reinforcements, to theories related to neuroscience and social cognition. 

Neuroscience and social cognition prioritise an understanding of the brain’s architecture and its organisation during problem solving. Meanwhile, social constructivism looks at our interaction with our environment and with others. This includes Lev Vygotsky’s social development theory which looks at the critical roles of social interaction and culture in cognitive development. Other theories include those related to motivation, which focus more on the individual.

Another piece in the understanding of how we learn is attribution theory (part of social psychology). This is how we perceive the causes of everyday experiences and whether we consider them as being internal or external. More specifically, external experiences are considered out of our control (other people or events), while internal experiences are considered our own doing. 

These have an effect on our motivations and competence. If we blame ourselves for failing a test because we believe that we just aren’t intelligent enough (rather than not studying enough), this will impact our motivation and potentially, ability to progress through learning. Conversely, we could blame a teacher for not explaining something sufficiently before the exam. How we perceive events is primarily due to cognitive biases. Attribution theory can be seen as reductionist, but it can help us better understand motivation, goal orientation, and productivity.

What is vicarious learning?

Vicarious learning is similar to observational learning, but it’s important to note that it includes two other steps beyond merely observing. The individual who is learning needs to understand the reason why the person they are observing has achieved their objective or failed to reach it. They also need to be able to visualise themselves completing the same task successfully. In vicarious learning, we learn through the experience of others by hearing and seeing, rather than taking direct, hands-on instructions. Learning this way is more memorable and involves the development of empathy.

In his research in social learning theory, Albert Bandura identified that it’s easier for students to observe a task being completed, understand why it was successful, and visualise themselves doing the same, if the person they’re observing looks like them. Factors like age, sex, appearance, and accent are all important in vicarious learning making an impact.

The reason that vicarious learning has come to the fore is because it is very relevant in eLearning and when teaching digitally. Demonstration videos are a good example of vicarious learning. However, not everyone benefits from vicarious learning, especially those who struggle with using their imaginations or with self-confidence, as it is difficult for them to visualise themselves successfully completing the task. Bandura refers to this as self-efficacy – the individual’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviours necessary to produce specific performance attainments. This is also related to motivation.

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Find out more about the exciting areas you will learn about, including the psychology of learning.

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