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Introduction to learning

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Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

In the fields of neuropsychology, personal development and education, learning is one of the most important mental function of humans, animals and artificial cognitive systems. It relies on the acquisition of different types of knowledge supported by perceived information. It leads to the development of new capacities, skills, values, understanding, and preferences. Its goal is the increasing of individual and group experience. Learning functions can be performed by different brain learning processes, which depend on the mental capacities of learning subject, the type of knowledge which has to be acquitted, as well as on socio-cognitive and environmental circumstances[1].

Learning ranges from simple forms of learning such as habituation and classical conditioning seen in many animal species, to more complex activities such as play, seen only in relatively intelligent animals[2][3] and humans. Therefore, in general, learning can be either a conscious or non-conscious process.

For example, in small children, non-conscious learning processes are as natural as breathing. In fact, there is evidence for behavioral learning prenatally, in which habituation has been observed as early as 32 weeks into gestation, indicating that the central nervous system is sufficiently developed and primed for learning and memory to occur very early on in development.[4]

From the social perspective, learning should be the goal of teaching and education.

Conscious learning is a capacity requested by students, therefore is usually goal-oriented and requires a motivation.

Learning has also been mathematically modeled using a differential equation related to an arbitrarily defined knowledge indicator with respect to time, and dependent on a number of interacting factors (constants and variables) such as initial knowledge, motivation, intelligence, knowledge anchorage or resistance, etc.[5][6] Thus, learning does not occur if there is no change in the amount of knowledge even for a long time, and learning is negative if the amount of knowledge is decreasing in time. Inspection of the solution to the differential equation also shows the sigmoid and logarithmic decay learning curves, as well as the knowledge carrying capacity for a given learner.

Types of learningEdit

Simple non-associative learningEdit


Main article: Habituation

In psychology, habituation is an example of non-associative learning in which there is a progressive diminution of behavioral response probability with repetition of a stimulus. It is another form of integration. An animal first responds to a stimulus, but if it is neither rewarding nor harmful the animal reduces subsequent responses. One example of this can be seen in small song birds - if a stuffed owl (or similar predator) is put into the cage, the birds initially react to it as though it were a real predator. Soon the birds react less, showing habituation. If another stuffed owl is introduced (or the same one removed and re-introduced), the birds react to it again as though it were a predator, demonstrating that it is only a very specific stimulus that is habituated to (namely, one particular unmoving owl in one place). Habituation has been shown in essentially every species of animal, including the large protozoan Stentor Coeruleus.[7]


Main article: Sensitization

Sensitization is an example of non-associative learning in which the progressive amplification of a response follows repeated administrations of a stimulus (Bell et al., 1995). An everyday example of this mechanism is the repeated tonic stimulation of peripheral nerves that will occur if a person rubs his arm continuously. After a while, this stimulation will create a warm sensation that will eventually turn painful. The pain is the result of the progressively amplified synaptic response of the peripheral nerves warning the person that the stimulation is harmful. Sensitization is thought to underlie both adaptive as well as maladaptive learning processes in the organism.

Associative learningEdit


Operant Conditioning Edit

Operant conditioning can be described as a process that attempts to modify behavior through the use of positive and negative reinforcement. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence[2].

  • Example 1: Parents rewarding a child’s excellent grades with candy or some other prize.
  • Example 2: A schoolteacher awards points to those students who are

the most calm and well-behaved. Students eventually realize that when they voluntarily become quieter and better behaved, that they earn more points.

  • Example 3: A form of reinforcement (such as food) is given to an

animal every time the animal (for example, a hungry lion) presses a lever[3]. The term “operant conditioning” originated by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, who believed that one should focus on the external, observable causes of behavior (rather than try to unpack the internal thoughts and motivations)

Reinforcement comes in two forms: positive and negative. We will explain this below.

Positive and negative reinforcers Edit

  • Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are given

to the individual after the desired behavior. This may come in the form of praise, rewards, etc.

  • Negative reinforcers typically are characterized by the removal of

an undesired or unpleasant outcome after the desired behavior. A response is strengthened as something considered negative is removed. The goal in both of these cases of reinforcement is for the behavior to increase.

Positive and negative punishment Edit

Punishment, in contrast, is when the increase of something undesirable attempts to cause a decrease in the behavior that follows.

  • Positive punishment is when unfavorable events or outcomes are given in order to weaken the response that follows.
  • Negative punishment is characterized by when an favorable event or outcome is removed after a undesired behavior occurs.

The goal in both of these cases of punishment is for a behavior to decrease.

Classical conditioningEdit

Main article: Classical conditioning

The typical paradigm for classical conditioning involves repeatedly pairing an unconditioned stimulus (which unfailingly evokes a particular response) with another previously neutral stimulus (which does not normally evoke the response). Following conditioning, the response occurs both to the unconditioned stimulus and to the other, unrelated stimulus (now referred to as the "conditioned stimulus"). The response to the conditioned stimulus is termed a conditioned response.


Main article: Imprinting (psychology)

Imprinting is the term used in psychology and ethology to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. It was first used to describe situations in which an animal or person learns the characteristics of some stimulus, which is therefore said to be "imprinted" onto the subject.

Observational learningEdit

Main article: Observational learning

The most common human learning process is imitation; one's personal repetition of an observed behaviour, such as a dance. Humans can copy three types of information simultanesouly: the demonstrators goals, actions and environmental outcomes (results, see Emulation (observational learning)). Through copying these types of information, (most) infants will tune into their surrounding culture.


Main article: Play (activity)

Play generally describes behavior which has no particular end in itself, but improves performance in similar situations in the future. This is seen in a wide variety of vertebrates besides humans, but is mostly limited to mammals and birds. Cats are known to play with a ball of string when young, which gives them experience with catching prey. Besides inanimate objects, animals may play with other members of their own species or other animals, such as orcas playing with seals they have caught. Play involves a significant cost to animals, such as increased vulnerability to predators and the risk of injury and possibly infection. It also consumes energy, so there must be significant benefits associated with play for it to have evolved. Play is generally seen in younger animals, suggesting a link with learning. However, it may also have other benefits not associated directly with learning, for example improving physical fitness.

Multimedia learningEdit

The learning where learner uses multimedia learning environments (Mayer, 2001). This type of learning relies on dual-coding theory (Paivio, 1971).

e-Learning and m-LearningEdit

Electronic learning or e-learning is a general term used to refer to Internet-based networked computer-enhanced learning. A specific and always more diffused e-learning is mobile learning (m-Learning), it uses different mobile telecommunication equipments, such as cellular phones.

Rote learningEdit

Main article: Rote learning

Rote learning is a technique which avoids understanding the inner complexities and inferences of the subject that is being learned and instead focuses on memorizing the material so that it can be recalled by the learner exactly the way it was read or heard. The major practice involved in rote learning techniques is learning by repetition, based on the idea that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more it is repeated. Rote learning is used in diverse areas, from mathematics to music to religion. Although it has been criticized by some schools of thought, rote learning is a necessity in many situations.

Informal learningEdit

Main article: Informal learning

Informal learning occurs through the experience of day-to-day situations (for example, one would learn to look ahead while walking because of the danger inherent in not paying attention to where one is going). It is learning from life, during a meal at the table with parents, Play, exploring.

Formal learningEdit

Main article: Education
Laurentius de Voltolina 001

A depiction of the world's oldest university, the University of Bologna, Italy

Formal learning is learning that takes place within a teacher-student relationship, such as in a school system.

Non-formal learning is organized learning outside the formal learning system. For example: learning by coming together with people with similar interests and exchanging viewpoints, in clubs or in (international) youth organizations, workshops.

Non-formal learning and combined approachesEdit

The educational system may use a combination of formal, informal, and non-formal learning methods. The UN and EU recognize these different forms of learning (cf. links below). In some schools students can get points that count in the formal-learning systems if they get work done in informal-learning circuits. They may be given time to assist international youth workshops and training courses, on the condition they prepare, contribute, share and can proof this offered valuable new insights, helped to acquire new skills, a place to get experience in organizing, teaching, etc.

In order to learn a skill, such as solving a Rubik's cube quickly, several factors come into play at once:

  • Directions help one learn the patterns of solving a Rubik's cube
  • Practicing the moves repeatedly and for extended time helps with "muscle memory" and therefore speed
  • Thinking critically about moves helps find shortcuts, which in turn helps to speed up future attempts.
  • The Rubik's cube's six colors help anchor solving it within the head.
  • Occasionally revisiting the cube helps prevent negative learning or loss of skill.

See alsoEdit


  1. Interpretation based on the IPK model of the systemic TOGA meta-theory, Adam Maria Gadomski, 1993
  2. Jungle Gyms: The Evolution of Animal Play
  3. What behavior can we expect of octopuses?
  4. Sandman, Wadhwa, Hetrick, Porto & Peeke. (1997). Human fetal heart rate dishabituation between thirty and thirty-two weeks gestation. Child Development, 68, 1031-1040.
  5. Fadul, J. "Mathematical Formulations of Learning: Based on Ten Learning Principles" International Journal of Learning. Volume 13 (2006) Issue 6. pp. 139-152.
  6. deFigueiredo, R.J.P. Mathematical formulation of cognitive and learning processes in neural networks, 1990
  7. Wood, D. C. (1988). Habituation in Stentor produced by mechanoreceptor channel modification. Journal of Neuroscience, 2254 (8).
  • Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paivio, A (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Holt, John (1983). How Children Learn. UK: Penguin Books. ISBN 0140225706

External linksEdit

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Types of learning
Avoidance conditioning | Classical conditioning | Confidence-based learning | Discrimination learning | Emulation | Experiential learning | Escape conditioning | Incidental learning |Intentional learning | Latent learning | Maze learning | Mastery learning | Mnemonic learning | Nonassociative learning | Nonreversal shift learning | Nonsense syllable learning | Nonverbal learning | Observational learning | Omission training | Operant conditioning | Paired associate learning | Perceptual motor learning | Place conditioning | Probability learning | Rote learning | Reversal shift learning | Second-order conditioning | Sequential learning | Serial anticipation learning | Serial learning | Skill learning | Sidman avoidance conditioning | Social learning | Spatial learning | State dependent learning | Social learning theory | State-dependent learning | Trial and error learning | Verbal learning 
Concepts in learning theory
Chaining | Cognitive hypothesis testing | Conditioning | Conditioned responses | Conditioned stimulus | Conditioned suppression | Constant time delay | Counterconditioning | Covert conditioning | Counterconditioning | Delayed alternation | Delay reduction hypothesis | Discriminative response | Distributed practice |Extinction | Fast mapping | Gagné's hierarchy | Generalization (learning) | Generation effect (learning) | Habits | Habituation | Imitation (learning) | Implicit repetition | Interference (learning) | Interstimulus interval | Intermittent reinforcement | Latent inhibition | Learning schedules | Learning rate | Learning strategies | Massed practice | Modelling | Negative transfer | Overlearning | Practice | Premack principle | Preconditioning | Primacy effect | Primary reinforcement | Principles of learning | Prompting | Punishment | Recall (learning) | Recency effect | Recognition (learning) | Reconstruction (learning) | Reinforcement | Relearning | Rescorla-Wagner model | Response | Reinforcement | Secondary reinforcement | Sensitization | Serial position effect | Serial recall | Shaping | Stimulus | Reinforcement schedule | Spontaneous recovery | State dependent learning | Stimulus control | Stimulus generalization | Transfer of learning | Unconditioned responses | Unconditioned stimulus 
Animal learning
Cat learning | Dog learning  Rat learning 
Neuroanatomy of learning
Neurochemistry of learning
Adenylyl cyclase  
Learning in clinical settings
Applied Behavior Analysis | Behaviour therapy | Behaviour modification | Delay of gratification | CBT | Desensitization | Exposure Therapy | Exposure and response prevention | Flooding | Graded practice | Habituation | Learning disabilities | Reciprocal inhibition therapy | Systematic desensitization | Task analysis | Time out 
Learning in education
Adult learning | Cooperative learning | Constructionist learning | Experiential learning | Foreign language learning | Individualised instruction | Learning ability | Learning disabilities | Learning disorders | Learning Management | Learning styles | Learning theory (education) | Learning through play | School learning | Study habits 
Machine learning
Temporal difference learning | Q-learning 
Philosophical context of learning theory
Behaviourism | Connectionism | Constructivism | Functionalism | Logical positivism | Radical behaviourism 
Prominant workers in Learning Theory|-
Pavlov | Hull | Tolman | Skinner | Bandura | Thorndike | Skinner | Watson 
Category:Learning journals | Melioration theory 

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