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Chapter 8
Theories of Learning




Since 1960s, Cognitive psychology has been the primary perspective within which research has been conducted and theories of learning have evolved.  In other words, we are kind of moving away from Operant and Classical condition theories.


We want to focus more directly on Cognitive Processes, that is considering how people perceive, interpret, remember, and think about environmental events they experience.




While Edward Tolman was a prominent learning theorists, much of his work had a distinct Cognitive flair.  Tolman included internal mental phenomena in his explanation of how learning occur.  Tolman  felt:


  • Behavior should be studied at a molar level:


Rather than reducing learning to simple (S R) as did Pavlov, Thorndike and Watson, Tolman felt we should take a more global (molar) view, that is considering the totality of behavioral experiences.


  • Learning can occur without reinforcement or reward:


Review the rat experiment with 3 different groups of rats on page 147 148 of your textbook.


  • Learning can occur without a change of behavior:


While behaviorists have historically equated learning with behavior change, Tolman argued that learning can occur without being reflected in a change in behavior.


  • Intervening variables must be considered:


According to Tolman,  things such as habits, strength, drive and incentives play critical role in learning.


  • Behavior is purposive:


Tolman believed that learning encompassed much more than just (S R) but as a process of learning that certain events lead to other events.


He purposed that once an individual learn that a behavior produces a certain goal, the individual behaves in order to achieve that goal.  In other words, behavior has a purpose, that being goal attainment.

  • Expectation affects behavior:


Rather than rewards influencing a behavior, the expectation affects the behavior prior to an individual performing an action.




During the early twentieth century a perspective emerged out of Germany known as Gestalt Psychology.  This perspective was advanced by such theorist as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka.


Gestalt psychologists emphasized the importance of organizational processes in perception, learning, and problem solving and believed that individuals were predisposed to organize information in a particular way.  Some of the basic ideas of Gestalt psychology are:


  • Perception is often different than reality:


An analogy of this idea was demonstrated by the use of two lights that  blinked on and off sequentially at a particular rate, they often appear to be only one light moving back and forth.


  • The whole is more than the sum of its parts:


Gestaltists believe that human experiences cannot be successfully understood when various aspects of experience are studied in isolation from one another.


  • An individual is predisposed to organize experience in particular ways:


Gestaltists believe that organisms are predisposed to structure their experiences in similar, and therefore predictable, ways.  They proposed several principles to describe how people organize their experiences.  One of the dominant principles affecting how people organize information is the law of proximity: People tend to perceive as a unit those things that are close together in space.  For example, look at the following dots:


O O O    O O O    O O O


Not only do you see nine dots, you probably also perceive an arrangement of three groups of three dots each; that is, you see those dots that are in closer proximity to one another as somehow belonging together.


One very high way


On every highway


In both phrases, the same letters appear in exactly the same sequence.



Jean Piaget was a Swiss born biologist who did much research concerning how children learn.


Piaget research employed what he called the clinical method a technique not looked upon very favorably by his colleagues because it did not utilize the tightly controlled conditions typically employed by most behaviorist research.  Tenants of Piagets work include:


  • People are active processors of information:


Rather than just responding to the stimuli around them, people manipulate those stimuli and observe the effects of their action. (Experiment with his son; object on table and a stick).


  • Cognitive development results from the interaction that children have with their physical and social environment.



  • The processes through which people interact with the environment remain constant.


 Piaget felt that people interact with environment through two unchanging processes:

assimilation and accommodation. 


In assimilation an individual interacts with an object or event in a way that is consistent with an existing experience.  For example, an infant who sees Mamas flashy, dangling earrings may assimilate those earring to his grasping experience, clutching and pulling at them in much the same way that he grasps bottles. 


In accommodation an individual either modifies an existing experience or forms a new one to account for a new event.  An infant who has learned to crawl must adjust her style of crawling somewhat when she meets a flight of stairs.  A boy who calls a spider an insect must revise his thinking when he learns that insects have six legs but spiders have eight. 



  • People are intrinsically motivated to try to make sense of the world around them.


According to Piaget, people are sometimes in a state of equilibrium, they can comfortably explain new events in terms of their existing experience. However, this equilibrium does not continue indefinitely.  Sometimes people encounter new events that they cannot adequately explain in terms of their current understanding of the world.  When this occurs, the individual is said to experience disequilibrium, a mental discomfort of sorts.  

  • Cognitive development occurs in distinct stages, with thought processes at each stage.


A major feature of Piagets theory is the identification of four distinct stages of cognitive development, each with its own unique patterns of thought.  The four stages are:


Sensorimotor  stage

Preoperational stage

Concrete operations

Formal operations






A logical outgrowth of the behaviorist movement was an extension of behaviorist principles to a unique human behavior language.   The results of this research program are collectively known as verbal learning.


Central to verbal learning research were two learning tasks:


Serial Learning

Paired associate learning


Serial learning involves learning a sequence of items in correct order, the alphabet, the days of the week, and the nine planets of the solar system are examples.


Paired associate learning involves pairs of items.  Learning foreign language vocabulary words and their English equivalents or learning States and their capitals are two examples of paired associate learning.





The assumptions underlying contemporary cognitive theories of learning are radically different form those underlying behaviorism.  What follows are some of the most central assumptions of Cognitive theories:

  • Some learning processes may be unique to human beings.


  • Cognitive processes are the focus of study.


  • Objective, systematic observations of peoples behavior should be the focus of scientific inquiry; however, inferences about unobservable mental processes can often be drawn from such behavior.



  • Individuals are actively involved in the learning process.


  • Learning involves the formation of mental associations that are not necessarily reflected in overt behavior changes.


  • Knowledge is organized.


  • Learning is a process of relating new information to previously learned information.






Cognitive processes:  If learning is a function of how information is mentally processed, then students cognitive processes should be a major concern to educators.


Students learning difficulties often indicate ineffective or inappropriate cognitive processes, for example children with learning disabilities tend to process information less effectively than others children.  Teachers should be aware not only of what students are trying to learn but also of how they are trying to learn it.


As children grow, they become capable of increasingly more sophisticated thought:  Teachers must take their students current level of cognitive functioning into account when planning topics and methods of instruction.  For example, children in elementary school grades are likely to have difficulty with abstract ideas that dont tie in with their own experiences.


People organize the things they learn.  Teachers can facilitate students learning by presenting information in an organized fashion and by helping students see how one thing relates to another.


New information is most easily acquired when people can associate it with things they have already learned:  Teachers can therefore help students learn by showing them how new ideas relate to old ones.  When students are unable to relate new information to anything with which they are familiar, learning is likely to be slow and ineffective.


People control their own learning:  When students control their own cognitive processes, it is ultimately they themselves, not their teachers, who determine what things will be learned.




Cognitive theory is currently the predominant perspective within which human learning is described and explained.  The roots of cognitive theory can be found in research and

theories dating back in the 1920s and 1930s spearheaded by theorists such as Edward Tolman, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. 


Cognitive theory encompasses several perspectives. information processing theory, constructivism, and contextual views that all contribute to our understanding of how human beings think and learn. 


Teachers must take students cognitive processes into account when considering how best to help students be successful in the classroom.

























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