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The Psychology Behind Learning and Cognition

By Edited Mar 13, 2014 0 0

Researchers have studied and continue to study the subject of learning in order to gain a better understanding of the learning mechanism and how to improve the learning process. The study of learning includes the study of cognition because learning essentially consists of the components that make up cognition.  The more we understand about learning, the better equipped we are to develop new, more effective learning methods that can help individuals to learn faster and more effectively in less time and perhaps with greater enjoyment[1].

Learning Components

Learning essentially consists of four main components. First, learning is the result in a change in memory such that new information is stored or old information is modified or changed. Second, the change in memory results in a change in behavior. Note that without the visible change in behavior it is nearly impossible to prove that learning has taken place. Next, the process of learning takes place over the course of experience or as the result of experience. So a change in memory occurs as the result of some experience that also causes a change in behavior. The fourth important component in learning is that learning is relatively permanent. For example, if an individual’s short term memory is modified such that they are able to write “hello” in the german language but later cannot write “hello” in german, learning has not taken place because the memory modification was short term and not permanent even though there was a temporary change in behavior. So the permanence factor is relative to not only how long memory is changed but also how long behavior has changed (relatively permanent).

The Role of Behavior in Learning

Behavior plays a role in the process of learning in at least three ways. First, to understand whether or not learning has occurred, we must understand the nature of the initial behavior of a subject.  So the first role behavior plays in learning is establishing what behavior was before any learning takes place. Second, behavior is an element of the experience that causes learning. Behavior, such as the response to a stimulus can or may result in further change in the environment and it is this interaction that constitutes the experience portion of the learning process. It is important to note that this interaction can occur in a “virtual” sense meaning inside the subjects mind and does not necessarily have to visible (only observable in some way).  Third, a change in behavior essentially defines that learning has taken place. Once initial behavior has been defined and understood, we can compare this initial behavior “baseline” to the behavior of a subject after the subject has been exposed to an experience that causes learning to take place. If the behavior after the experience is different than the behavior before the experience (and given that the behavior is also permanent), then we can say that the subject has learned during the interim experience period between the initial behavior and the new or modified behavior.

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Fundamental Learning Types

Classical Conditioning

There are many different types of learning that have been identified and defined. One type of learning that is well known and one of the first to be identified is called Classical Conditioning. In this type of learning, the subject experiences a stimulus that that results in a reaction of some sort, which is presented along with a second stimulus. The repeated pairing of the two stimuli results in the subject associating the stimulus that is not initially associated with the reaction, to the reaction that occurs with the presentation of the first stimulus. The result is that when only the second stimulus is presented, the subject reacts as if the second stimulus was presented when, in fact, it was not. Ivan Pavlov first demonstrated this type of learning through an experiment performed on a dog. Pavlov measured the amount of saliva secreted by the dog when food was presented. Pavlov then presented the food and rang a buzzer at the same time. After several iterations, Pavlov only rang the buzzer but did not present the food (the first stimulus in the explanation above). Even though the food was not presented, the dog would still salivate, apparently associating the buzzer to the presentation of food. The reaction in Classical Conditioning has all the elements of learning in that it is permanent, gained through experience, involves a change in memory (remembering that food is presented when the buzzer rings), and that it occurs through experience.

Operant Conditioning

Another type of learning is Operant Conditioning or Instrumental Conditioning. B.F. Skinner initially defined this type of learning as the result of experiments he performed using what many refer to as the “Skinner Box.” Skinner’s experiments involved placing a subject, such as a chicken or a rat, into the “Skinner Box,” and then presenting a stimulus when a specific action was performed. Skinner found, for example, that a rat would learn to pull a lever when a pellet of food was presented each time the lever was pulled. Skinner also found that the stimulus could elicit a behavioral change even when not presented every time the desired behavior was performed, such as at variable or random intervals. The subject’s behavior was changed through the experience of receiving a desired stimulus (in this case a food pellet) when they performed the desired, specific behavior. Operant Conditioning also contains all the elements of learning, such as experience and behavioral change (as mentioned above), a permanent change in memory (associating the behavior to the desired stimulus), and a permanent change in behavior.

Cognition and Problem Solving

Learning, as mentioned earlier, contains the elements of cognition, which include problem solving, judging, knowing, remembering and thinking. Each of these elements are present in some, but not all forms of learning, and some, such as remembering and knowing, we have already identified. Problem solving involves determining what needs to be done in order to either accomplish a specific task or elicit a specific response. While problem solving is not an element of Classical Conditioning, the rat placed in a Skinner Box had to use problem solving at some level to determine that pulling the lever is the behavior to perform in order to get a food pellet. The rat had to try various behaviors before noticing that the pellet appeared when the lever was pulled. The rat would then pause for a moment and try another behavior to determine whether or not the lever was the only action that would produce the desired result (the food pellet). During the process of determination, the rat used judgment to identify that only the lever would result in receiving a food pellet while other behaviors would not. So problem solving involves thinking to determine the steps of each action and judgment to determine what actions are significant to solving a problem. Cognition is the activity inside the subject’s mind that forms the process that leads to learning.



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  1. Mikulus "The Psychology of Learning." University of West Florida. 17/02/2014 <Web >

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