Psychology of learning

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The psychology of learning is a theoretical science.

Learning is a process that depends on experience and leads to long-term changes in behavior potential. Behavior potential designates the possible behavior of an individual, not actual behavior. The main assumption behind all learning psychology is that the effects of the environment, conditioning, reinforcement, etc. provide psychologists with the best information from which they can understand human behavior.

As opposed to short term changes in behavior potential (caused e.g. by fatigue) learning implies long term changes. As opposed to long term changes caused by aging and development, learning implies changes related directly to experience.

Learning theories try to better understand how the learning process works. Major research traditions are behaviorism, cognitivism and self-regulated learning. Media psychology is a newer addition among the learning theories because there is so much technology now included in the various types of learning experiences. Neurosciences have provided important insights into learning, too, even when using much simpler organisms than humans (Aplysia). Distance learning, eLearning, online learning, blended learning, and media psychology are emerging dimensions of the field.



Socrates (469-399 B.C.) introduced a method of learning that is now referred to as piloting. Piloting refers to arriving at answers through one's own power of reasoning. This was used when Socrates was teaching geometry to a young slave boy who knew math but nothing of geometry. He would ask this boy to solve a problem like finding the area of a square. When the boy would get the answer incorrect he would repeatedly question his reasoning by contradicting his logic. The notion that knowledge comes from within was inspired by Socrates and his experiments.[1][2]


In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850—1909) continued the study of learning. Specifically he studied memory in its "pure" form. "Pure" meaning free from meaningful associations. With himself as his own experimental subject he exercised this form of memory with the use of meaningless syllables and repetition. Ebbinghaus laid the way to another form of learning; becoming increasingly able to recall something as a result of practice and repetition.[1] He was known for the discovery of the learning curve and the forgetting curve.

Edward Thorndike[edit]

In 1898, Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), through his various real experiments and thought experiments developed his theory of the "Law of Effect". The Law of Effect is a notion that not only humans, but all animals will continue to attempt to find a solution to a problem, and once found will continuously use the same solution in order to solve the same problem. The action that is done, causes a positive effect (solving the problem).[3]

Pavlov and Watson[edit]

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849–1936) was a Russian physiologist in the early 1900s who also contributed to research on learning. Knowing that a dog salivates when food is present, he constructed a series of experiments that proved his thesis that he could make a dog salivate by just the presentation of the sound of a bell. The process he used is now called classical conditioning.

John Broadus Watson (1878–1958) also used this method of learning to cause a young child, not previously afraid of furry animals, to become frightened of them. Although the number of different stimuli is limitless, the reactions that can be caused are limited to the natural reflexes we possess.[1]


Burrhus F. Skinner (1904-1990) was the founder of operant conditioning which uses punishment and reinforcement as learning tools. This learning method is not as limited as the previous learning form. Operant conditioning is only limited by what can be used as reinforcement or punishment.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d <Marton, Ference, and Shirley Booth. Learning and Awareness. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,, 1997. Google Books. Web. 8 December 2011. <>.
  2. ^ Hergenhahn, B. R. An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Belmont: Thompson Learning, 2005. Web. 5 December 2011.
  3. ^ <Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behaviour. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953. Google Books. Web 9 April 2012. <>.
  • Zentall, T.R. (2006). Imitation: Definitions, evidence, and mechanisms. Animal Cognition, 9, 335-353. (A thorough review of different types of social learning) Full text
  • Ulrich Neisser: Kognitive Psychologie, Stuttgart 1974
  • Hans Aebli: Denken: Das Ordnen des Tuns, 2 Bde., Stuttgart 1980-81
  • Robert M. Gagné: Die Bedingungen menschlichen Lernens, Hannover 1980 (in USA 1965)
  • Geoffrey Caine, Renate N. Caine: Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain 1991; revised paperback edition: Dale Seymour Publications 1994
  • Walter Edelmann: Lernpsychologie. Psychologie Verlags Union, Weinheim, 6., vollst. überarb. Aufl. 2000
  • Norbert M. Seel: Psychologie des Lernens. Ernst Reinardt (UTB), München, 2. Aufl. 2003
  • Guy Lefrançois: Psychologie des Lernens. Springer, Berlin, 4. u. erw. Aufl. 2006