The Psychology of Learning

child looking at a molecular model
Hero Images / Getty Images

Psychologists often define learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior as a result of experience. The psychology of learning focuses on a range of topics related to how people learn and interact with their environments.

One of the first thinkers to study how learning influences behavior was the psychologist John B. Watson who suggested that all behaviors are a result of the learning process. The school of thought that emerged from Watson's work was known as behaviorism. The behavioral school of thought proposed studying internal thoughts, memories, and other mental processes was too subjective. Psychology, the behaviorists believed, should be the scientific study of observable behavior. Behaviorism thrived during the first half of the twentieth-century and contributed a great deal to our understanding of some important learning processes.

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 conditioning, and operant conditioning.

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

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 twentieth century, the school of thought known as behaviorism rose to dominate psychology and sought to explain the learning process. The three major types of learning described by behavioral psychology are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.

What Is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism was the school of thought in psychology that sought to measure only observable behaviors. Founded by John B. Watson and outlined in his seminal 1913 paper Psychology as the Behaviorist View It, the behaviorist standpoint held that psychology was an experimental and objective science and that internal mental processes should not be considered because they could not be directly observed and measured.

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 twentieth century. While behavioral approaches remain important today, the later part of the century was marked by the emergence of humanistic psychology, biological psychology, and cognitive psychology.

Learn more in this brief overview of behaviorism and take this quiz to test your knowledge of behaviorism.

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.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a learning process in which the probability of 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.

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. 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.

Influential People in the Field

The following are some of the major figures associated with learning and the behavioral school of psychology.

  • Edward Thorndike
  • Ivan Pavlov
  • John B. Watson
  • B.F. Skinner
  • Albert Bandura

Key Learning Terms

Was this page helpful?