Understanding How We Learn
Prior to engaging in this discussion, read Introduction: Understanding How We Learn, in your required text and review the instructor guidance.
- Identify areas within at least three of the theories that are summarized (behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and humanism) that you do not have prior knowledge about.
- Discuss your previous knowledge (what you do know) about this content and how it supports, or does not support, the things you read about for which you had no previous knowledge (part a.).
- For example, did you know there are multiple sub-theories within behaviorism? Cognitivism? Do you have previous knowledge about the stimulus-organism-response (S-O-R) model suggested by constructivism?
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After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
Describe how understanding how we learn can be applied in a real-world setting with self and others.
Explain the basic premises of behaviorism as applied to learning theory.
Explain the basic premises of cognitivism as applied to learning theory.
Explain the basic premises of constructivism as applied to learning theory.
Explain the basic premises of humanism as applied to learning theory.
Identify evolving frameworks of learning theory that expand upon our understanding of how we learn.
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i.1 Understanding How We Learn
i.1 Understanding How We Learn
Have you ever
· tried to help someone with a task, but the more you encouraged him or her, the worse the process became?
· studied all night for an exam but received an F on the test?
· heard a song from 20 years ago on the radio but still knew the lyrics? (Maybe you even wondered how you could possibly still know the old melody but not remember the name of the classmate you met less than 24 hours ago.)
· ignored someone because his or her beliefs differed from your beliefs?
· felt frustrated because your child was struggling in school?
· needed to train a group of employees but had no idea how to begin the process?
· assumed that the people around you should learn something as easily as you do?
· looked back on a decision and recognized that you were not thinking logically when that decision was made?
· had someone dear to you pass away and, afterwards, found it difficult to focus on tasks for any length of time?
If you have ever experienced any of these situations, then the psychology of learning could potentially be one of the most important areas that you will ever study. Understanding how humans learn, based on the psychological principles of learning and educational psychologies, can have profound results on productivity, success, and the search for self-actualization. Such knowledge is applicable in your personal and professional lives. It can empower you to know yourself better. Your knowledge about learning can help you teach and support others better, too. Learning, in essence, is something that you do and that affects you every day (Curran, Harrison, & Mackinnon, 2013).
Understanding how you learn enables you to teach and support others.
Before you can successfully apply such information in your daily life, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the theories, models, and conceptual frameworks associated with learning. A theory is a set of principles used to explain, predict, and understand why a phenomenon occurs. Theories are supported by research but may not be valid in all situations; theories are propositions, not facts. For example, cognitive load theory (CLT), which is discussed further in Chapter 3, proposes that learning is more effective when it is designed to support the brain’s processing structure. A model is much like a theory, but it explains how something may occur. Models often include visual representations of a theory. For example, Baddeley’s model of working memory, which is discussed in Chapter 3, can be explained using an illustration that depicts the core components of working memory and how different elements affect memory development. A conceptual framework (or theoretical framework) is a structure that supports a theory by providing clear connections to all aspects of a research problem. For example, a conceptual framework could be used when studying the association between cognitive load and working memory. Shields and Rangarjan (2013) noted that conceptual frameworks are “the way ideas are organized to achieve a research project’s purpose” (p. 24). (For more information about theories, models, and conceptual frameworks, see Research Skills for Psychology Majors , written by W. K. Gabrenya Jr.)
Psychologists have studied different aspects of learning from different perspectives over time. Their research continues to explore knowledge acquisition, the process of absorbing and storing new information in one’s memory. Researchers seek to explain how and when knowledge acquisition occurs and to identify the properties or characteristics in the environment that can affect it, also known as variables. The age of technology also provides researchers with new ways to better understand the mind and the variables that influence learning and memory (Jonassen, Howland, Marra, & Crismond, 2008; Willis, 2006).
There are numerous theoretical frameworks, and the lines that separate one perspective from another are blurred, although introductory textbooks often present the perspectives as definitively distinct (Abramson, 2013; Watrin & Darwich, 2012). Four foundational theories will be presented in this text: behaviorism (also called behavioral analysis), cognitivism, constructivism, and humanism. These areas will help you develop an understanding of how learning can occur and how to increase the likelihood of successful knowledge acquisition. Although many ideas about these theories have occurred throughout the course of history (see Figure i.1), behaviorism and cognitivism propose specific viewpoints for understanding how learning takes place. These two theories are addressed first in this text. As the understanding of knowledge acquisition broadened, additional attention was placed on discovering practical strategies and variables that affect knowledge acquisition (e.g., past and vicarious experiences, culture, and motivation). Hence, constructivism and humanism, which tend to suggest such strategies, will be addressed after behaviorism and constructivism, with an emphasis on their importance, especially when aligned with the previous theoretical models.
Figure i.1: Timeline of milestones in learning theory
This timeline provides context for the theoretical frameworks surrounding the psychology of learning. Understanding when viewpoints developed and experiments occurred throughout history is crucial in understanding the scope of each theory.
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This introductory chapter is designed to help you review the basics of behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, humanism, and a selection of evolving frameworks. The other chapters will expand upon the summaries provided in this chapter and feature excerpts from publications written by researchers, psychologists, and academics, each of whom attempts to answer two questions:
· How do we learn?
· How can we learn more effectively?
As you progress through each chapter, be an active participant in the learning process by using skeptical inquiry, by applying critical thinking and reasoning to all you read. Some of the questions you can ask yourself include, but are not limited to, the following:
· Are all theories and methods valid?
· Which theories and methods are most valid?
· How can I apply this information to my own life?
· How can I use this information to help others?
This text aims to support the argument that no approach is “best” or superior to the others. However, you should use the research considered to compare and contrast the approaches and identify your own beliefs about learning goals and how to attain them. This text is intentionally designed to include works from a range of different authors to support the view that not all authors, researchers, and scholars have the same ideas about learning. Authors often have different conceptual frameworks about the area of theory they investigate. Consider this: What if you learned everything from only one person your entire life? Do you think all you learned would be accurate? Often, one author’s texts provide excellent information, yet they are presented from the view of only one scholar. Thus, the inclusions of works developed by a variety of authors should further encourage you to apply skeptical inquiry throughout the learning process. As you discover more about how we learn, keep in mind that one text cannot highlight every view of the vast research available in each area, but the information presented in this text will give you a better understanding of the research available and help guide you as you identify your particular interests in the field.
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The rule, or measuring rod, which the behaviorist puts in front of him always is: Can I describe this bit of behavior I see in terms of “stimulus and response”?
—John B. Watson
All of the foundational theories and models that will be addressed in this text introduce scholars who study behaviors, the ways that humans and other organisms respond to events in their environments, or stimuli. Do not confuse the global idea of studying behaviors with behaviorism or classify someone who studies behaviors as a behaviorist. The basis of behaviorism and human learning is the idea that we each can be trained to learn and that this training is coordinated with physiological needs (Watrin & Darwich, 2012). Foundationally, behaviorism suggests that observable stimuli in our environment (rewards or punishments) are what produce our learning. A behaviorist is someone who holds to this perspective. Even today, we can consider and apply the foundational behaviorist view of learning. For example, children might learn that if they stand in a straight line for the bus, then they will receive a sticker from their teacher at the end of the day (a reward). Or perhaps they learn that if they stand in line, then they will avoid a timeout (a punishment). Either way, the children respond to stimuli (reward or punishment) and learn the teacher’s desired behavior. (See Figure i.2.)
Figure i.2: Example of the stimulus-response connection
A foundation of behaviorism is the theory that learning can be developed through the use of rewards and punishments. In other words, a behaviorist believes that humans can be trained to learn a behavior.
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Behaviorism as a theory has recognizable foundations, but there are also controversial ideas within its body of research and literature. The theory initially relied on the idea that what we do is simply a reflex, discounting the roles of thoughts and emotions. There are some scholars who argue that behaviorism is no longer an area of study because they believe it was replaced by cognitivism, which is a misleading assumption (Watrin & Darwich, 2012). As you learn about the multifaceted circles that exist within behaviorism, think about whether you agree with the ideas presented.
Branches of Behaviorism
Understanding the theory of behaviorism can be difficult because there are multiple beliefs within this branch of psychology. Zuriff (1985) described behaviorism as potentially unlimited: “a loose family resemblance” (p. 1). This complexity thus supports misperceptions, and sometimes disagreement, about the ideologies aligned with behaviorism. Thus, this overview will introduce four branches of behaviorism as evidence of the complex progression of behaviorism and the scholars who have historically been aligned with its foundations. Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Behaviorism’s Many Branches also invites you to discover additional branches of behaviorism.
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One of Pavlov’s notable experiments, which included giving a treat to a dog when it responded correctly to a command, is an example of psychological behaviorism.
An early stage of behaviorism, psychological behaviorism contends that behaviors are learned through positive and negative reinforcers, or variables that increase the probability that a behavior or response will occur. For instance, if a child is performing well in the class environment (listening intently and sitting still), then the teacher could potentially reinforce this behavior to encourage its continuance.
Notable researchers include Ivan Pavlov and Edward Lee “Ted” Thorndike. Pavlov’s experiments, in which dogs were the test subjects, helped identify the laws of classical conditioning. Pavlov also developed the stimulus-response (S-R) model, which is based on the assumption that behavior is learned by creating connections between a stimulus, such as a dog treat, and a response, such as the act of sitting on command. Thorndike performed experimental studies of animal intelligence, and he also introduced Thorndike’s law of effect and theory of connectionism. These researchers and their findings will be discussed in Chapter 1.
Radical behaviorism, also known as molecular, determinist, or Skinnerian behaviorism, argues that behavior, rather than mental states and thoughts, should be the focus of psychology. Radical behaviorists studied behavior and learning without any reflection on the subject’s inner being. Theorists believe that behavior is only the outward manifestations of said actions. For example, researchers in this area would contend that there is no thought to an action such as learning how to drive a car. This process of learning would be based only on the reinforcement of driving (practice) rather than any motivation to be a legal driver.
Notable theorists include B. F. Skinner and J. B. Watson. Skinner studied operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, and principles of reinforcement. Watson is best known for his “Little Albert” experiments, an example of Pavlovian conditioning, and for coining the term behaviorism (Watson, 1913). These researchers and their findings will be discussed in Chapter 1.
Bernstein, Roy, Srull, and Wickens (1988) suggested that Skinner affiliates were “pioneers in the study of conditioning [who] hoped to explain all learning by the principle of reinforcement and the automatic, unthinking formation of simple associations” (p. 271). This group of researchers also suggested that it is the associative strength of a reward or punishment (e.g., how often the stimulus produces the response) that is the ultimate proximal causation for the behavior, unlike molar behaviorists, whom we will consider next.
In opposition to radical behaviorism is molar behaviorism. Researchers who align with this theoretical foundation, or psychological camp, argue that the rate of reinforcers, not the associative strength, is most important (Baum, 2002). In other words, they believe that the argument that there is only one associated cause for a behavior is imperfect and that the number of events within a specific time period, or rate of reinforcers, would in actuality be the suggested cause for the behavior. But how does molar behaviorism differ from radical behaviorism? We can compare the two perspectives by considering how each might define the concept of loyalty. A radical behaviorist might suggest that one person is loyal to another person because of the number of times this loyalty is reinforced through feedback such as hugs and verbal accolades. A molar behaviorist, on the other hand, might suggest that loyalty is associated with the length of time one person has been loyal to another, noting that singular events such as hugs cannot explain what may be summarized as loyalty.
Molar behaviorism began to take shape in the 1960s, but it became increasingly important in the 1970s (e.g., Baum, 1973; Rachlin, 1976). Prominent researchers include Howard Rachlin, Richard Herrnstein, and William Baum. Rachlin and Baum initially performed analyses of operant behavior in pigeons, and their ideas are based on Richard Herrnstein’s matching law. Rachlin’s current research focuses on behavioral economics, investigating patterns of choice over time and the potential effects on self-control (e.g. Rachlin, 2006; Rachlin, 2010; Rachlin, Arfer, Safin, & Yen, 2015).
Another area within the behaviorist body of work is neo-behaviorism, an area that agrees that all learning and behavior can be described in terms of stimulus-response connections (Abramson, 2013). Prominent researchers include Edward C. Tolman and Clark Hull. According to Hauser (2016),
Tolman and Hull were the two most noteworthy figures of the movement’s middle years. Although both accepted the S-R framework as basic, Tolman and Hull were far more willing than Watson to hypothesize internal mechanisms or “intervening variables” mediating the S-R connection. (para. 11)
So Tolman and Hull, unlike some of their counterparts, also evaluated the influence of cognitive processes (e.g., thinking or remembering). Some researchers have suggested it was Tolman who discovered and proposed “the importance of cognitive processes in stimulus-response learning” by placing rats in experimental situations “in which mechanical, one-to-one associations between specific stimuli and responses could not explain the behavior that was observed” (Zimbardo, 1988, p. 295). (See Figure i.3.) Yet Tolman began his search for truth as a behaviorist. Indeed, Kassin (2004) reminds us of Tolman’s position about animals: “[A]nimals in their natural habitat learn more than just a series of stimulus-response connections. They also acquire a ‘cognitive map’ [a visual map within the mind] . . . and they do so regardless of whether their explorations are reinforced” (p. 204).
It is this line of thinking that ignited another area of learning psychology, cognitivism, and further substantiates the progressive evolution of ideas from which psychological research originates. (Further discussions about cognitivism are in section i.3, as well as in Chapters 2, 3, and 4.)
Figure i.3: Example of Tolman’s maze
Edward C. Tolman is thought to have discovered the importance of cognitive processes during stimulus-response learning while studying animals. He proposed that animals have the ability to produce a cognitive map regardless of reinforcement.
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