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Psychological Concept of Learning Essay

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Updated: May 23rd, 2020


Learning takes place at all stages of one’s life. However, one may not be aware that learning occurs continuously. It is advisable to define and describe learning in order to understand it. Psychologists like Jean Piaget, Howard Gardner, Lev Vygotsky, B.F. Skinner, and Albert Bandura have extensively studied different ways in which learning takes place. Other researchers from different fields have also concentrated on understanding underlying concepts that allow learning to take place. This article explores the concept of learning by focusing on learning, the role of behavior in relation to learning, types of learning, and the relationship between learning and cognition.

A definition of learning

The known definition of learning involves a process that results in ”a relatively permanent change in behavior based on an individual’s interactional experience with its environment” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Hence, learning is a significant process that defines an individual’s adaptation.

The major assumption associated with learning psychology is that factors like the environment, reinforcement, and other forms of interventions offer the best conditions for understanding human behavior and learning. Learning has relatively long-term changes in behaviors. Hence, learning does not result from fatigue, and it does not result from physique changes that occur due to aging and development.

It is difficult to separate an individual’s learning processes and the environment. This makes learning to be a form of biological adaptation. Learning leads to behavioral changes, which are unique to a person. It only takes place within one’s lifespan and originates from environmental experiences.

One can note the importance of the environment and an individual’s interactions with it. The environment is responsible for changes in behaviors that lead to learning (Pimmer, Pachler and Genewein, 2013). At the same time, behaviors also exert their influences on the environment. Psychologists note that adaptation to the environment and learning to adapt result from the need to survive and find comfort.

Changes in behaviors reflect that learning has “taken place due to interactions with the environment” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

The role of behavior in relation to learning

Behavioral changes take place in an individual during the process of learning (Zentall, Galizio and Critchfied, 2002). Behavioral changes reflect one’s adaptation to the environment during a lifespan. This is an effort of survival in the environment. Psychologists have observed that learning is “a relative permanent change in behavior due to experience” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). This shows that behavior is flexible and does not have any relationships with an individual’s genetic compositions. Some changes may not necessarily reflect learning. These are usually temporary situations e.g., fatigue, motivation, injuries, and diseases among others associated with certain conditions. They may change one’s behavior, but they do not reflect learning.

One’s experiences, which lead to learned behaviors, may persist throughout his or her life. On the other hand, learned behaviors may also fail to manifest themselves throughout one’s life. In some cases, it is difficult to prove that learning has taken place until later time. This suggests that behaviors, which may indicate that learning has taken place, may not manifest themselves until a situation warrant them (Susan and Stephen, 2002). Hence, one may react to the environmental condition to show that learning has occurred.

Reinforcement of behaviors has critical impacts on learning outcomes. Reinforcement aims to enhance chances of a response taking place again. One can observe and identify responses when learning occurs. However, some responses like fast heartbeats are internal i.e., they take place within the body.

Two different types of learning

Classical condition learning depends on what takes place before one responds to a situation. Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning is “a learning process that takes place through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Pavlov’s concept of learning involves the use of a neutral stimulus and natural reflex. In his classical study that involved a dog, Pavlov used sound as “a neutral signal while salivating in the dog because of the food acted as a naturally occurring reflex” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Pavlov concluded that when one associated “the neutral stimulus (tone) with the environmental stimulus (food), the sound of the tone alone could produce the salivation response” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). People apply classical conditioning in training pets and animals.

Operant conditioning depends on the results of responses. In this learning process, whether or not one may repeat a certain behavior depends on “the reinforcement, punishment, or a lack of consequences” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). All species demonstrate some forms of operant conditioning in behaviors. Operant conditioning has influenced several aspects of psychology. For instance, operant conditioning is effective in changing behaviors of children. One must actively take part in operant conditioning in order to learn the behavior. A response may reinforce or discourage a behavior. For instance, positive responses may facilitate the repeat of the same behavior while negative responses may discourage it.

The relationship between learning and cognition

Learning requires mental elements of an individual. Learning processes require involvement of cognitive processes and other mental activities. Psychologists have used cognitive processes in relation to stimuli and responses in order to explain learning theories. The relationship between learning and cognitive is that cognitive activities result in certain outcomes, which may change or result in some behaviors (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

Learning results from training, conditioning, and repetitive habits. Consequences of these activities depend on cognitive abilities of an individual. For instance, a person may be able to associate a dog with fierceness after experiencing an attack from a dog. The person learns to associate fierceness with a dog. When the person sees the dog, the sight of the dog reinforces his or her cognitive experiences. The person may learn to associate all dogs with fierceness. However, over time, one may learn that not all dogs are fierce. A lack of cognitive relationships may make learning process to be reflexive and associative.

Learning aspects like conditioning, habits, and training among others require cognitive elements. Overall, one’s learning involves cognitive elements. Cognitive accounts for understanding and knowing of an individual when he or she relies on cognitive processes for learning. Cognitive learning covers some aspects of thinking, memory, and other abilities that go beyond basic training and conditioning.


One can examine relatively permanent changes in behaviors, which occur in learning processes. In this context, behaviors act sources of information that one can use to verifiable learning. Classical and operant conditioning demonstrate the relationship between learning and cognitive processes. The relationship is interrelated and aids organisms in their attempts to survive and adapt to their environments.

Understanding learning processes cannot occur without involving aspects of cognitive activities. Psychologists have used these associations to understand normal and adaptive processes in learning and prevent what could be abnormal or maladaptive in people.


Olson, H. & Hergenhahn, B. (2009). An introduction to theories of learning (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Pimmer, C., Pachler, N., and Genewein, U. (2013). Reframing Clinical Workplace Learning Using the Theory of Distributed Cognition. Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 2(34), Web.

Susan, B., and Stephen, C. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychol Bull., 128(4), 612–637.

Zentall, T., Galizio, M., and Critchfied, T. (2002). Categorization, concept learning, and behavior analysis: an introduction. J Exp Anal Behav, 78(3), 237–248. Web.

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