Learning is a relatively lasting change in behavior that is the result of experience. It is the acquisition of information, knowledge, and skills. When you think of learning, it’s easy to focus on formal education that takes place during childhood and early adulthood. But learning is an ongoing process that takes place throughout life and isn’t confined to the classroom.
Learning became a major focus of study in psychology during the early part of the twentieth century as behaviorism rose to become a major school of thought. Today learning remains an important concept in numerous areas of psychology, including cognitive, educational, social, and developmental psychology.
Psychologists study how learning occurs but also how social, emotional, cultural, and biological variables might influence the learning process.1
Learning Is an Active Process
Even if you learn something relatively quickly, it is still a multi-step process. To learn, you must encounter new information, pay attention to it, coordinate it with what you already know, store it in your memory, and apply it.2
For example, say you want to fix a running toilet. You might search for a how-to video, watch it to see if it addresses your need, and then use the instructions to make the repair. Or, consider a time when you came across an unfamiliar word while reading. If you stopped to look up the meaning, then you learned a new word.
The term “active learning” is often used to describe an interactive process, such as doing a hands-on experiment to learn a concept rather than reading about it. But “passive learning” (reading a text, listening to a lecture, watching a movie) is still learning, and can be effective.
Learning Leads to Lasting Change
Learning means retaining the knowledge that you gained. If you see that new vocabulary word in another context, you will understand its meaning. If the toilet starts running again in the future, you may need to watch the video again to refresh your memory on how to fix it, but you have some knowledge of what to do.
Learning Occurs As a Result of Experience
The learning process begins when you have a new experience, whether that is reading a new word, listening to someone explain a concept, or trying a new method for solving a problem. Once you’ve tried a technique for boiling eggs or a different route to work, you can determine whether it works for you and then use it in the future.
Learning Can Affect Attitudes, Knowledge, or Behavior
There’s far more to learning than “book learning.” Yes, you can learn new words, concepts, and facts. But you can also learn how to do things and how to feel about things.
It’s important to remember that learning can involve both beneficial and negative behaviors. Learning is a natural and ongoing part of life that takes place continually, both for better and for worse.
Sometimes learning means becoming more knowledgeable and leading a better life. In other instances, it means learning behaviors that are detrimental to health and well-being.
How Learning Works
The process of learning is not always the same. Learning can happen in a wide variety of ways. To explain how and when learning occurs, psychologists have proposed a number of different theories.
Learning Through Classical Conditioning
Learning through association is one of the most fundamental ways that people learn new things.3 Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered one method of learning during his experiments on the digestive systems of dogs. He noted that the dogs would naturally salivate at the sight of food, but that eventually the dogs also began to salivate whenever they spotted the experimenter’s white lab coat.
Later experiments involved pairing the sight of food with the sound of a bell tone. After multiple pairings, the dogs eventually began to salivate to the sound of the bell alone.
Classical conditioning is a type of learning that takes place through the formation of associations.
An unconditioned stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response is paired with an neutral stimulus. Eventually, an association forms and the previously neutral stimulus becomes known as a conditioned stimulus that then triggers a conditioned response.
Learning Through Operant Conditioning
The consequences of your actions can also play a role in determining how and what you learn. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner noted that while classical conditioning could be used to explain some types of learning, it could not account for everything. Instead, he suggested that reinforcements and punishments were responsible for some types of learning.
When something immediately follows a behavior, it can either increase or decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. This process is referred to as operant conditioning.4
For example, imagine that you just got a new puppy, and you would like to begin training it to behave in specific ways. Whenever the puppy does what you want it to do, you reward it with a small treat or a gentle pat. When the puppy misbehaves, you scold him and do not offer affection. Eventually, the reinforcement leads to an increase in the desired behaviors and a decrease in the unwanted behaviors.
Learning Through Observation
While classical conditioning and operant conditioning can help explain many instances of learning, you can probably immediately think of situations where you have learned something without being conditioned, reinforced, or punished.
Psychologist Albert Bandura noted that many types of learning do not involve any conditioning and, in fact, evidence that learning has occurred might not even be immediately apparent.
Observational learning occurs by observing the actions and consequences of other people’s behavior (such as with latent learning).
In a series of famous experiments, Bandura was able to demonstrate the power of this observational learning. Children watched video clips of adults interacting with a large, inflatable Bobo doll. In some instances, the adults simply ignored the doll, while in other clips the adults would hit, kick and yell at the doll.
When kids were later given the chance to play within a room with a Bobo doll present, those who had observed the adults abusing the doll were more likely to engage in similar actions.
Learning doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes, you must overcome obstacles in order to gain new knowledge. These obstacles may take several different forms.
Access to learning opportunities and aspects of the learning environment play a role in how people learn. These can be big or small challenges. If you can’t find instructions or locate someone to ask about your running toilet, you don’t have the opportunity to learn how to fix it. In the classroom and the workplace, you may face physical, cultural, or economic barriers that inhibit your ability to learn.5
Cognitive factors affect the learning process, For example, the ability to memorize or attend to information can either facilitate or hinder learning. Specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, affect the way knowledge is processed and retained.
Motivation, including both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. can affect how much people learn. People with a strong intrinsic motivation to learn feel compelled to learn for learning’s sake. They do not need rewards, such as grades or prizes, to feel motivated to learn.
Of course, this may only apply to certain skills or subjects. Someone may need extrinsic motivators to complete math homework, for example, but be intrinsically motivated to research their family history. Challenges with motivation can stem from ADHD, depression, and other mental health conditions.
How to Improve Learning
Whether you are involved in formal education or not, you are always learning throughout your life. And there are strategies you can use to improve how you learn and how well you retain and apply what you have learned.
First, keep learning. Learning is a skill that can be practiced. One study of older adults found that learning a new skill improved working memory, episodic memory, and reasoning. And the harder the new skill (participants learned quilting, digital photography, or both), the more it strengthened their brains.6
Learn in multiple ways. If you want to learn a new language, you might use an app that offers lessons in various aspects: Reading, listening, and speaking. But you might also listen to a podcast in the new language while you are taking a walk, or practice writing new vocabulary words by hand. Similarly, it helps to review information frequently and to use memorization techniques.
Another smart way to promote learning: Teach. When you show how a friend how to play tennis, for example, you’re reinforcing what you know by sharing it. You must revisit the basics that were once new to you and present them to your student.
A Word From Verywell
Learning is not a one-dimensional process. It takes place in many different ways and there are a wide variety of factors that can influence how and what people learn.1 While people often focus on the observable and measurable ways that learning takes place, it is also important to remember that we cannot always immediately detect what has been learned. People are capable of learning concepts and skills that are not immediately observable.