Sunday, 18 January 2015

Practical Aspects of Learning

I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think – Socrates

Learning is a process through which a subject acquires new information, knowledge, skills or capabilities. It can occur as a part of an organised, intentional and systematic institution in the presence of a trainer (formal learning); or as a part of intentional and self-motivated conduct (non-formal learning); or we might automatically learn and process information unintentionally through our daily living conducts (informal learning).

Learning involves the basic physiology of collection of stimulus information via any of our five fundamental senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch – that are associated with various parts of our brain. The basic Thus, the brain as an organ of learning and intelligence is invariably undisputed.

According to the encephalization quotient scale, humans are graded the most intelligent followed by bottlenose dolphin, orca and chimpanzee, etc (Jerison, 1973). Therefore, keen theories have been developed on learning.

Theories on learning have been categorized into three frameworks: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism (humanism).

Behaviouristic Theory of Learning
Behaviourism considers all actions, thoughts and feelings as the behaviour of an individual. The acquisition of such behaviour through training or repeated practice is termed learning. This theory is proved by the famous Pavlov’s dog experiment which shows that response to particular stimuli can be learnt and reinforced through repeated practice.

Cognitivistic Theory of Learning
Cognitivism states that each individual has a unique understand of things based on their personal experiences. This means that learning can be subjective and personal at times where organization and processing of newly learnt information is based on individual prior learning. Stimulation of prior learning allows schema activation where information is arranged in a meaningful way for its easy retrieval.

Constructivistic Theory of Learning
Constructivism states that individuals learn by doing, thus promoting active learning. It is also called as humanism as it takes into account the physical as well as emotional factors that influence learning processes such as the learning environment, state of anxiety, motivation, etc.

Central to all these theories of learning is the information processing model that describes how learning is stored as memory (figure in the following page). Memory is the ability to encode, store and retrieve information and data.


One of the major challenges in learning is ‘forgetting’. It is a natural phenomenon whereby sensory and short-term memory are lost whereby the individual is unable to retrieve or recall some previously learnt information.

Despite the fact that we forget, these are the concepts that prove useful at one or the other point in the process of learning:

1.  Classical conditioning: This was proven by Ivan Pavlov (1927) through experimentally conditioning a dog to produce a certain response to a particular stimulus. This indicates that repeated practice induces learned responses in subjects. Eg: Drivers press on their brakes if they suddenly see a pedestrian crossing the road.

2.    Stimulus generalization: This refers to the fact that in some instances, individuals effect those previously conditioned responses even after the initiating stimulus is withdrawn. Eg: If a child has been conditioned to fear a stuffed white rabbit, it will exhibit fear of objects similar to the conditioned stimulus such as a white rat toy.

3.   Operant conditioning: As the name implies, operant conditioning influences the response of individuals to stimuli depending to the consequence it suffers. If the consequence is a reward, the response is reinforced. Eg: Some children study hard aiming at the prizes and rewards that he can win by passing or topping the exam. However, if the consequence is unpleasant, the response is discontinued. Eg: If a child gets punished every time he gets late into the class, he will ultimately become punctual and his response of getting late will become extinct.

4.      Escape and avoidance conditioning: Escape conditioning occurs when a subject tries to avert an aversive stimulus. Eg: If we see a huge ball of fire razing a building in town, we avoid going near the accident site to prevent ourselves from getting hurt. Avoidance conditioning is inherent in subjects that can judge what is good and what is bad for ourselves. Eg: While walking, we avoid walking over water puddles and take an alternative course. Although walking over the puddle has no grave consequences, we tend to select the most enabling and enhancing comfort for ourselves.

5.  Observational learning: Also known as social or vicarious learning, it occurs when a subject observes a function, keeps it in memory and replicates the novel action. Eg: This applies mostly to how some children pick up soft and polite ways of talking by observing their parents’ actions in good families.

Thus, as said by Socrates at the head of this paper, learning involves gathering of information from the environment, retaining them as memory and replicating or recollecting them when required. Because it is our own brain that is involved in learning, it is imperative that we take personal effort in making ourselves learn the world.

Though there may be biological or idiopathic difficulties in learning, by adapting any of the various theories of learning, we can make the best use of the human-intelligence-capability that we are born with.

Jerison, HJ, 1973 Evolution of the brain and intelligence. Academic Press, New York.
Karunthilake, I, 2012, Lecture presentation, UCFM, Colombo
Lecture presentation, SLFI

This article was written on on 18 January 2012 as an academic requirement for Behavioural Sciences Stream, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo .

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