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Chapter 2
Theories of Learning





In this Chapter we will look at


*Major Assumptions


*Key Theorists


* Educational Implications




(Structuralism and Functionalism)


How one behaves is the first and a primary psychological perspective to indicate how human beings learn.


Early on, the two dominant perspectives utilized in studying how learning takes place were structuralism and functionalism.  Both liked a precise, carefully defined research methodology.


The primary means of investigating learning especially for the Structuralist, was a method called introspection:  People were simply asked to look inside their minds and describe what they were thinking.


Later the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov and the American psychologist Edward Thorndike designed a more objective approach to the study of learning . one that focused on observable events rather than non-observable mental events.   These researchers looked primarily at behavior..  something that they could easily see and objectively describe.  Consequently, the behaviorist movement was born.






Not all Behaviorists agree on the specific process that account for learning, yet, most have certain basic assumptions:  These assumptions are


*    Certain Principles of learning apply equally to different behaviors and to different species of animals. (Regardless of Human or Animal: administering Rewards increase the likelihood that a behavior will be learned)


Behaviorists assume that human beings and animals learn in similar assumption known as equipotentiality.

*    Learning processes can be studied most objectively when the focus of study is on stimuli and response.


By focusing on these two phenomena psychologists can objectively observe and measure what happens when a stimuli is inserted into the environment, and what response the organism makes to the stimuli.


*    Internal Cognitive processes are largely excluded from scientific study.


Many behaviorists believe that because we cannot directly observe and measure internal mental processes (thought, motives, emotion) we should exclude such processes from our explanations of how learning occurs.


*    Learning involves a behavior change.


Some behaviorists suggest that if no behavior change occurs, then learning cannot possible be taking place.


*   Organisms are born as blank slates.


Except for instinct (birds build nests, baby nurse, human blink their eyes) we are born without any predisposition to behave in any particular way.


*   Learning is largely the result of environmental events.


An organism is conditioned by environmental events.  Many behaviorists believe that learning is the results of our experiences.


Not all behaviorists would agree with all the assumptions listed above.  For instance, some theorists disagree with the black box assumption, and rather, believe that internal factors. those occurrences within the organism are just as important when it come to human learning.  Such neo-behaviorist theorists are sometimes called S-O-R (stimulus-organism-response) theorists rather than S-R (stimulus-Response) theorists.


*    The most useful theories tend to be parsimonious ones.


According to behaviorists, we should explain the learning of behavior from the simplest to the most complex, by as few learning principles as possible.  This assumption reflects a preference for parsimony (conciseness).





Numerous theorists contributed to the rise of behaviorism during the decades of the twentieth century.  The contributions of six are briefly described below:


Ivan Pavlov.Best known for his classical conditioning theory.  Remember how the Dog learn to salivate not only to food but also to other environmental events that it associated with food.  For example, the laboratory assistant who often delivered the dogs food.  The dog even begin to associate the footsteps coming toward his cage with food thus begin to salivate. (Pavlov, 1927). 




Edward Thorndike. Introduced connectionism  (A theory that emphasized the role of experience in strengthening and weakening of stimulus response.  An example is the Cat In a Box:  Thru trial and error, a cat learns to tap a device that allows it to escape from the box.  Consequently, in relation to connectionism Thorndike put forth the concepts:



Law of effect:     Responses to situations that are followed by satisfaction are strengthen   

                           Responses that are followed by discomfort are weakened



Law of exercise:     Stimulus-Response that are repeated are strengthen                

                               Stimulus-Response that are not used are weakened                      




John B. Watson.Although Pavlov and Thorndike are considered to be among the earliest contributors to the behaviorist tradition, it was John Watson, who actually introduced the term behaviorism.  Watson purposed two Laws regarding S-R Habits.   



Law of frequency:   The more frequent a stimulus and response occur in association with

                                 each other, the stronger the S-R habit becomes.


Law of recency:      Stresses the importance of timing and suggests that the response that

                                has most recently occurred after a particular stimulus is the response

                                most likely to be associated with that stimulus.


Watson believed that past experience accounts for virtually all behavior.  His extreme environmentalism, which denied that hereditary factors had any effect on behavior whatsoever, was reflected in the following quote:


Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed and my own specified world to   bring them up in and Ill guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select  -  doctor, lawyer, artist, and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, tendencies, abilities vocation and race of his ancestors. (Watson, 1925).


Edwin R. Guthrie. Had similar beliefs as Watson and purposed the contiguity theory.  Guthries perspective emphasized S-R connections, but Guthrie rejected the notion that reward played a role in these connections.  His basic principle of learning

was as follows: (1935 1942)



           A stimulus that is followed by a particular response will, upon its reoccurrence,

           tend to be followed by the same response again.



Burrhus F. Skinner. Without question the best known psychologist in the behaviorist tradition.  Like Pavlov and Throndike, B.F. Skinner subscribed to the principles of Operant Conditioning.   Skinners most fundamental principle of Operant conditioning can be paraphrased as follows:



A response followed by a reinforcing stimulus is strengthened and therefore more likely to occur again.


Closely related to this principle, is Skinners Law of Extinction which states:


A response that is not followed by a reinforcing stimulus is weakened and therefore less likely to occur again.


To precisely measure the responses in a controlled environment Skinner developed a piece of equipment now known as the Skinner Box.






Although much of Pavlovs Classical Conditioning and Skinners Operant Conditioning remain as major theoretical perspectives, they are continually being refined by ongoing research.


Several trends characterize the latest or newer behaviorism movements.  These trends are:


       Increased attention on motivation as a factor affecting learning


       Increased attention to the role adverse consequences or punishment play in learning

       (Thorndike, Guthrie, Skinner each maintained that punishment had little effect on   

       behavior or learning).


       Increased recognition that learning and performance must be considered as separate,

       yet, related entities.



As we have already noted, behaviorists define learning as a change in behavior due to experience.  The behaviorist perspective has at least two implications for education.


*   Student should be active participants throughout the learning process rather than just passive recipients of whatever information is being taught.  People are more likely to learn when they actually have a chance to behave--------that is...... when they can talk, write, experiment or demonstrate.


The second implication relates to assessment of student learning is:


*   Regardless of how effective teachers think a certain lecture or particular set of curriculum material might be, they should never assume that students are learning anything unless they actually observe behaviors changing as a result of instruction.






If I gave you overwhelming statistics supporting the fact that wearing seatbelts saves lives and improve driving safety, and you say you believe data is correct, yet, you refuse to buckle up, would you say learning has taken place.




Only behavior changes------ in the form of higher test scores, improved athletic performance, more appropriate interaction skills, or better study habits-----can ultimately confirm that learning has taken place. 









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