What Is the Psychology of Learning?

Understanding how people learn and interact with their environments

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The psychology of learning focuses on a range of topics related to how people learn and interact with their environments.

Are you preparing for a big test in your psychology of learning class? Or are you just interested in a review of learning and behavioral psychology topics? This learning study guide offers a brief overview of some of the major learning issues including behaviorism, classical, and operant conditioning.

Let's learn a bit more about the psychology of learning.

The 3 major types of behavioral learning
 Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

What Is Learning?

Learning can be defined in many ways, but most psychologists would agree that it is a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from experience. During the first half of the 20th century, the school of thought known as behaviorism rose to dominate psychology and sought to explain the learning process. Behaviorism sought to measure only observable behaviors.

Types of Behavioral Learning

Behavioral learning falls into three general categories.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a learning process in which an association is made between a previously neutral stimulus and a stimulus that naturally evokes a response.

For example, in Pavlov's classic experiment, the smell of food was the naturally occurring stimulus that was paired with the previously neutral ringing of the bell. Once an association had been made between the two, the sound of the bell alone could lead to a response.

For example, if you don't know how to swim and were to fall into a pool, you'd take actions to avoid the pool.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a learning process in which the probability of a response occurring is increased or decreased due to reinforcement or punishment. First studied by Edward Thorndike and later by B.F. Skinner, the underlying idea behind operant conditioning is that the consequences of our actions shape voluntary behavior.

Skinner described how reinforcement could lead to increases in behaviors where punishment would result in decreases. He also found that the timing of when reinforcements were delivered influenced how quickly a behavior was learned and how strong the response would be. The timing and rate of reinforcement are known as schedules of reinforcement.

For example, your child might learn to complete their homework because you reward them with treats and/or praise.

Observational Learning

Observational learning is a process in which learning occurs through observing and imitating others. Albert Bandura's social learning theory suggests that in addition to learning through conditioning, people also learn through observing and imitating the actions of others.

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Basic Principles of Social Learning Theory

As demonstrated in his classic Bobo Doll experiments, people will imitate the actions of others without direct reinforcement. Four important elements are essential for effective observational learning: attention, motor skills, motivation, and memory.

For example, a teen's older sibling gets a speeding ticket, with the unpleasant results of fines and restrictions. The teen then learns not to speed when they take up driving.

History of the Psychology of Learning

One of the first thinkers to study how learning influences behavior was psychologist John B. Watson, who suggested in his seminal 1913 paper Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It that all behaviors are a result of the learning process. Psychology, the behaviorists believed, should be the scientific study of observable, measurable behavior. Watson's work included the famous Little Albert experiment in which he conditioned a small child to fear a white rat.

Behaviorism dominated psychology for much of the early 20th century. Although behavioral approaches remain important today, the latter part of the century was marked by the emergence of humanistic psychology, biological psychology, and cognitive psychology.

Other important figures in the psychology of learning include:

A Word From Verywell

The psychology of learning encompasses a vast body of research that generally focuses on classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. As the field evolves, it continues to have important implications for explaining and motivating human behavior.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.