Learning Theory Researchers Term Paper

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Learning Theory

Researchers have suggested a number of different theories to explain the process of learning. From the late 19th century and the early 20th centuries to present times, psychologists and other scholars have been interested in the acquisition of knowledge and behavioral patterns.

There are several learning theories, three primary ones. The first concept of learning is behaviorist or classical conditioning, where a conditioned stimulus leads to a conditioned response, even when the unconditional stimulus is missing. The second form of learning is called operant or instrumental, where a response is learned because it leads to a specific result or reinforcement; it is fortified every time it is reinforced. Positive reinforcement fortifies a response when given afterwards and negative reinforcement strengthens a response if it is not provided. As soon as a response is learned, it may be retained by partial reinforcement that is offered just after chosen responses.

In the third major learning theory, social, which is most indicative for humans, the behavior is cognitive and observational. People follow or imitate someone else's actions or modeling to determine how to behave. For example, it is now well-known that children watch their friends, especially as they get older, to see how they should dress or speak.

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Since the late 1800s, the concept of learning has been of interest to researchers in a variety of fields. Psychologists, for example, have applied learning theory in the clinic to change undesired behavior and negative emotional responses, such as obsessive compulsions or phobias. Anthropologists consider learning when they study a specific culture and the acquisition of cultural traditions from one generation to another. Although there are many different approaches, or subcategories, to learning, normally they are divided into three basic types of learning theories: behaviorist/classical, operant, and social. Despite being separated into these separate categories that place an emphasis on differences, similarities or crossovers exist as well.

Theories of learning normally share three assumptions. The first is that experience shapes behavior. Especially in complex animal forms, including humans, most responses are learned rather than innate. Second, learning is adaptive. Just as nature eliminates organisms that are not well adapted to their environments, the environment naturally selects those behaviors in a person that are adaptive and filters out those that are not (Skinner 1977). Behaviors that are helpful to the organism, such as not participating in fights with larger members of its species, will be reproduced since their consequences or safety from bodily injury. The third assumption is that careful experimentation can reveal laws of learning, a large number that refer to both humans and other animals. Learning theorists feel that the way to test a theory is to determine whether or not predictions will also hold true in laboratory research (Westen, 1996, p.177).

The earliest learning theories were based on the findings of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. As he was studying the digestive systems of dogs, he noticed an interesting occurrence. Similar to humans and other animals, the dogs salivate when seeing food. This is a simple cause-and-effect reflex, or a behavior that occurs automatically by a stimulus in the environment. This happens, for example, when the doctor tests for the knee-jerk reflex. A stimulus is something that elicits a response.

Pavlov found that if an environmental stimulus, such as a ringing bell, occurred repeatedly just as the dog was about to be fed, the animal would begin to salivate even when hearing the bell and not even seeing the food. The bell became as much of a stimulus as the food itself (Pavlov, 1927).

This came to be known as classical conditioning theory. An innate reflex, such as salivation to food, is an unconditioned response. It occurs without the person thinking about it. An unconditioned reflex is one that happens naturally without any learning taking place, and an unconditioned stimulus activates a reflexive response similarly without learning. In Pavlov's experiment, the unconditioned stimulus was the food, and the unconditioned response was the salivation. Conditioning, however, is when a form of learning is taking place.

Pavlov's experiment significantly impacted psychology, because this could and does occur outside of the laboratory and explains a wide array of learned responses. Classical conditioning has considerable influence on human behavior. For instance, chemotherapy for cancer victims frequently results in nausea as a side effect. Patients learn in as few as two applications of the chemotherapy to expect this nausea (Berstein, 1991). Some patients even start feeling sick when hearing the nurse's voice, seeing the hospital, or thinking of treatment (Bovbjerg et. al, 1990).

Emotional responses can be classically conditioned, as well. When a parent hears the voice of his or her child, for example, there is normally a positive reaction. In 1920, John Watson and Rosalie Rayner presented a nine-month-old boy named Albert with a number of different objects, which included a dog, rabbit, white rat, masks and a fur coat. Albert did not show fear of any of these items. He even played with the rat.

Then, a few days later, Watson and Rayner made a loud noise behind Albert. He reacted unconditionally by jumping, falling forward and crying. Next, Watson and Rayner conditioned a fear of the white rat in the baby. Every time that Albert reached for the white rat, they made the loud sound. Within a few occurrences of the noise and reaching for the rat, Albert learned to fear the rat. Later, this was recognized as the explanation of some phobias, or irrational fears (Mercklelbach et al., 1991).

About this same time, in 1898, Edward Thorndike put a hungry cat in a box with a mechanical latch and then placed food in full view just outside of the box. The cat cried, paced back and forth, and rubbed against the walls of the box. Accidentally, the cat was so distressed that it opened the latch and was able to get the food. Thorndike repeated the experiment; after happening several times, the cat was able to quickly open the latch. It became so versatile, that as soon as it saw the food, it could trip the lock.

Thorndike (1898) saw this as a different form of learning, which he named law of effect. In other words, the cat's tendency to repeat an action is based on that action's effect on the environment and the impact of that effect on the cat. If opening the latch had not had the result of helping the cat get the food, it would not have learned to continue brushing against the latch in the same fashion. The law of effect states that consequences control behavior.

The cat's action was an example of instrumental learning, as Thorndike called it, because behavior is instrumental in attaining more satisfaction, or operant conditioning, as B.F. Skinner termed it, because it is learning to operate on the environment to bring about a result (Skinner, 1977). Operants are behaviors that are emitted instead of elicited by the environment. In Pavlov's dogs, food elicited salivation. To the contrary, Thorndike's cat spontaneously emitted its behavior to open the latch, which led to the effect that conditioned future behavior. That is, the behavior in operant conditioning comes before the environmental event that produces conditioning. However, in classical conditioning, the stimulus comes before the response. The dogs could only salivate after they heard the bell; no matter how much they salivated, they could not have any food until it was given to them. The cat could feed itself by its actions (Westen, 1996, pg. 186).

The basic idea behind operant conditioning, therefore, is that behavior is chosen by its results. Two types of results that produce operant conditioning are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is when something, as its name implies, reinforces or encourages behavior. Positive reinforcement is when a stimulus makes a behavior more apt to be repeated. In his research, Skinner (1938) placed a pigeon in a cage with a target on one side. As its typical innate behavior, the pigeon pecked around the cage. By chance, if the pigeon hit the target, it would get a piece of grain. It positively reinforced this behavior. If a child receives Positive reinforcement from his or her parent when singing songs, he or she will sing more songs to please them and to praised again.

However, if the reinforcement is negative, it will deter the behavior or make something less apt to happen. Thus, the removal of an aversive stimulus rewards a response. A teenager cleaning his or her room is negatively reinforced by no longer hearing his or her mother yelling. Hitting the off button on an alarm in the early morning is negatively reinforced by no longer hearing the disturbing noise. Negative reinforcement takes place in escape learning, when the animal escapes the disliked situation. For example, a person takes medicine to get rid of a stomach ache. Instead,… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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