Learning Theories: Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning

Learning Theories: Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning

Learning Theories: Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning

The concept of learning is quite comprehensive as it covers a broad range of activities. In many books, the theories of learning are also regarded as kinds of learning. The theories of learning are an organized set of principles that explain how individuals attain, retain or recall the learnt knowledge. Learning theories establish the conceptual framework for explaining how information absorption, processing and retention take place during learning. Human learning is influenced by a gamut of factors like Emotional, Cognitive, Past Experiences and Environmental factors. Learning theories prescribe the right format or methodologies of learning for making the learning effective and more impactful.

During early 20th century, many psychologists became increasingly interested in understanding the relevance of learning from a scientific perspective. For a scientific orientation, the study of psychology gave importance to only those variables which were quantifiable and measurable. Environmental influences like, reinforcements, associations, observations and punishments influence the learning process. The key learning theories are Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and Social Learning. Let’s have a closer look at all these three major theories of learning.

Classical Conditioning Theory and Learning

The key premises of Classical Conditioning theory was established by Russian Physiologist named Ivan Pavlov, who first discovered the crucial principles of classical learning theory with the help of an experiment done on dogs to study their digestive processes. The Nobel Prize laureate of 1904, while studying the digestive processes in dogs came across a very interesting observation during his experimentation. He noticed that his subject would begin to salivate by seeing the lab assistant with white lab coats entering into the room before being fed. Though Pavlov’s discovery is originally an accidental discovery, but later with the help of his experiments the classical conditioning theory came into existence. His Classical conditioning theory played a crucial role in explaining the important psychological concepts like learning and equally established the foundation for the behavioural school of thought. Behaviourism is based on two major assumptions:

  1. Learning takes place as a result of the interactions with the environmental forces.
  2. The environmental forces play a key role in shaping the behaviour.

According to Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory, learning takes place because of association which is established between a previously neutral stimulus and a natural stimulus. It should be noted, that Classical Conditioning places a neutral stimulus before the naturally occurring reflexes. In his experiment, he tried to pair the natural stimulus that is food with a bell sound. The dogs would salivate with the natural occurrence of food, but after repeated associations, the dogs salivated just by hearing the sound of the bell alone. The focus of Classical Conditioning theory is on automatic and naturally occurring behaviours.

Key Principles of Classical Conditioning Theory

Acquisition: This is the starting stage of learning during which a response is established firstly and then gradually strengthened. During the acquisition phase, a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus which can automatically or naturally trigger or generate a response without any learning. Once this association is established between the neutral stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, the subject will exhibit a behavioural response which is now known as conditioned stimulus. Once a behavioural response is established, the same can be gradually strengthened or reinforced to make sure that the behaviour is learnt.

  1. Extinction: Extinction is expected to take place when the intensity of a conditioned response decreases or disappears completely. In classical conditioning, this occurs when a conditioned stimulus is no longer associated or paired with the unconditioned stimulus.
  2. Spontaneous Recovery: When a learnt or a conditioned response suddenly reappears after a brief resting period or suddenly re-emerges after a short period of extinction, the process is considered as a spontaneous recovery.
  3. Stimulus Generalization: It is the tendency of the conditioned stimulus to evoke the similar kind of responses once the responses have been conditioned, which occurs as a result of stimulus generalization.
  4. Stimulus Discrimination: Discrimination is the ability of the subject to discriminate between stimuli with other similar stimuli. It means, not responding to those stimuli which is not similar, but responding only to certain specific stimuli.

The theory of Classical Conditioning has several applications in the real-world. It is helpful for various pet trainers for helping them train their pets. Classical conditioning techniques can also be beneficial in helping people deal with their phobias or anxiety issues. The trainers or teachers can also put to practise the Classical Conditioning theory by building a positive or a highly motivated classroom environment for helping the students to overcome their phobias and deliver their best performance.

Operant Conditioning Theory and Learning

Renowned Behavioural Psychologist B.F. Skinner was the main proponent of Operant conditioning theory. It is for this reason that the Operant Conditioning is also known as Skinnerian Conditioning and Instrumental Conditioning. Just like Classical Conditioning, Instrumental/Operant Conditioning lays emphasis on forming associations, but these associations are established between behaviour and behavioural consequences. The theory stressed on the role of punishment or reinforcements for increasing or decreasing the probability of the same behaviour to be repeated in the future. But the condition is that the consequences must immediately follow a behavioural pattern. The focus of operant conditioning is on voluntary behavioural patterns.

Key Components of Operant Conditioning

  • Reinforcement: Reinforcements strengthen or increase the intensity of behaviour. This can be Positive and Negative.

Positive Reinforcement: When a favourable event or an outcome is associated with behaviour in the form of a reward or praise, it is called as positive reinforcement. For example, a boss may associate bonus with outstanding achievements at work.

Negative Reinforcement: This involves removal of an unfavourable or an unpleasant event after a behavioural outcome. In this case, the intensity of a response is strengthened by removing the unpleasant experiences.

  • Punishment: The objective of punishment is to decrease the intensity of a behavioural outcome, which may be negative or positive.

Positive Punishment: This involves application of punishment by presenting an unfavourable event or outcome in response to a behaviour. Spanking for an unacceptable behaviour is an example of positive punishment.

Negative Punishment: It is associated with the removal of a favourable event or an outcome in response to a behaviour which needs to be weakened. Holding the promotion of an employee for not being able to perform up to the expectations of the management can be an example of a negative punishment.

  • Reinforcement Schedules: According to Skinner, the schedule of reinforcement with focus on timing as well as the frequency of reinforcement, determined how quickly new behaviour can be learned and old behaviours can be altered.

Learning by Observation

According to Albert Bandura, learning cannot simply be based merely on associations or reinforcements which he has mentioned in his writings in his book Social Learning Theory which was published in 1977. Instead, his focus was on learning based on observation, which he has proven through his well known Bobo Doll experiment. He reckoned that children keenly observe their surroundings and the behaviour of people around them particularly their caregivers, teachers and siblings and try to imitate those behaviours in their day to day life. He also tried proving through his experiment that children can easily imitate the negative behaviours or actions.

Another important principle of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory was that learning something by way of observation, need not necessarily mean that it would lead to a change in the behaviour. This behavioural change is entirely influenced by the felt need or motivation of a person to endorse and adopt a behavioural change.

Key Steps involved in Observational Learning

  • Attention: Attention is very important for learning to take place effectively by following observational techniques. A novel concept or a unique idea is expected to attract the attention far more strongly than those which are routine or mundane in nature.
  • Retention: It is the ability to store the learnt information and recall it later, which is equally affected by a number of factors.
  • Reproduction: It involves practising or emulating the learnt behaviour, which will further lead to the advancement of the skill.
  • Motivation: Motivation to imitate the learnt behaviour of a model depends a lot on the reinforcement and punishment. For example, an office-goer may be motivated to report to office on time by seeing his colleague being rewarded for his punctuality and timeliness.

What Is Learning?

What Is Learning?

What Is Learning?

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.

Environmental Challenges

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 Challenges

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.

Motivational Challenges

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.

Definition, Characteristics and Types of Learning in Psychology

Definition, Characteristics and Types of Learning in Psychology

Definition, Characteristics and Types of Learning in Psychology

www.starrealtyma.com The process of learning is continuous which starts right from the time of birth of an individual and continues till the death. We all are engaged in the learning endeavours in order to develop our adaptive capabilities as per the requirements of the changing environment.

For a learning to occur, two things are important:

  1. The presence of a stimulus in the environment and
  2. The innate dispositions like emotional and instinctual dispositions.

A person keeps on learning across all the stages of life, by constructing or reconstructing experiences under the influence of emotional and instinctual dispositions.

Psychologists in general define Learning as relatively permanent behavioural modifications which take place as a result of experience. This definition of learning stresses on three important elements of learning:

  • Learning involves a behavioural change which can be better or worse.
  • This behavioural change should take place as a result of practice and experience. Changes resulting from maturity or growth cannot be considered as learning
  • This behavioural change must be relatively permanent and last for a relatively long time enough.

John B Watson is one amongst the first thinkers who has proven that behavioural changes occur as a result of learning. Watson is believed to be the founder of Behavioural school of thought, which gained its prominence or acceptability around the first half of the 20th century.

Gales defined Learning as the behavioural modification which occurs as a result of experience as well as training.

Crow and Crow defined learning as the process of acquisition of knowledge, habits and attitudes.

According to E.A, Peel, Learning can be described as a change in the individual which takes place as a result of the environmental change.

H.J. Klausmeir described Learning as a process which leads to some behavioural change as a result of some experience, training, observation, activity, etc.

The key characteristics of the learning process are:

  1. When described in the simplest possible manner, learning is described as an experience acquisition process.
  2. In the complex form, learning can be described as process of acquisition, retention and modification of experience.
  3. It re-establishes the relationship between a stimulus and response.
  4. It is a method of problem solving and is concerned about making adjustments with the environment.
  5. It involves all those gamut of activities which may have a relatively permanent effect on the individual.
  6. The process of learning is concerned about experience acquisition, retention of experiences, and experience development in a step by step manner, synthesis of both old and new experiences for creating a new pattern.
  7. Learning is concerned about cognitive, conative and affective aspects. Knowledge acquisition process is cognitive, any change in the emotions is affective and conative is acquisition of new habits or skills.

Types of Learning

  1. Motor Learning: Our day to day activities like walking, running, driving, etc, must be learnt for ensuring a good life. These activities to a great extent involve muscular coordination.
  2. Verbal Learning: It is related with the language which we use to communicate and various other forms of verbal communication such as symbols, words, languages, sounds, figures and signs.
  3. Concept Learning: This form of learning is associated with higher order cognitive processes like intelligence, thinking, reasoning, etc, which we learn right from our childhood. Concept learning involves the processes of abstraction and generalization, which is very useful for identifying or recognizing things.
  4. Discrimination Learning: Learning which distinguishes between various stimuli with its appropriate and different responses is regarded as discrimination stimuli.
  5. Learning of Principles: Learning which is based on principles helps in managing the work most effectively. Principles based learning explains the relationship between various concepts.
  6. Attitude Learning: Attitude shapes our behaviour to a very great extent, as our positive or negative behaviour is based on our attitudinal predisposition.

3 Types of Behavioural Learning

The Behavioural School of Thought which was founded by John B Watson which was highlighted in his seminal work, “Psychology as the Behaviorist View It”, stressed on the fact that Psychology is an objective science, hence mere emphasis on the mental processes should not be considered as such processes cannot be objectively measured or observed.

Watson tried to prove his theory with the help of his famous Little Albert Experiment, by way of which he conditioned a small kid to be scared of a white rat. The behavioural psychology described three types of learning: Classical Conditioning, Observational Learning and Operant Conditioning.

1. Classical Conditioning: In case of Classical Conditioning, the process of learning is described as a Stimulus-Response connection or association.

Classical Conditioning theory has been explained with the help of Pavlov’s Classic Experiment, in which the food was used as the natural stimulus which was paired with the previously neutral stimuli that’s a bell in this case. By establishing an association between the natural stimulus (food) and the neutral stimuli (sound of the bell), the desired response can be elicited. This theory will be discussed in detail in the next few articles.

2. Operant Conditioning: Propounded by scholars like Edward Thorndike firstly and later by B.F. Skinner, this theory stresses on the fact that the consequences of actions shape the behaviour.

The theory explains that the intensity of a response is either increased or decreased as a result of punishment or reinforcement. Skinner explained how with the help of reinforcement one can strengthen behaviour and with punishment reduce or curb behaviour. It was also analyzed that the behavioural change strongly depends on the schedules of reinforcement with focus on timing and rate of reinforcement.

3. Observational Learning: The Observational Learning process was propounded by Albert Bandura in his Social Learning Theory, which focused on learning by imitation or observing people’s behaviour. For observational learning to take place effectively, four important elements will be essential: Motivation, Attention, Memory and Motor Skills.