Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning and Cognition

One of the most studied components of human experience is the covert and unobservable process of learning. However, by studying its overt companion, the scientific study of learning takes an observable form in behavior. Behavior is a verifiable phenomenon from which science infers the nature of learning's secretive processes. Instrumental and classical conditioning assist in describing how behavioral modification takes place, and by these descriptions, learning is better understood (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Learning and cognition are inextricably intertwined in a relationship that demands the presence of both. Without cognition learning is relegated to reflexive and instinctual associations, yet without learning, cognition is mere unlocked potential.

Definition of Learning

Although learning is commonly defined as the process of gaining knowledge, comprehension or mastery through experience or study, psychologists believe this definition contains nebulous terms unacceptable in accommodating the science that studies observable behavior (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The preferred definition by many, suggested by Gregory Kimble is defined as "a relatively permanent change in behavioral potentiality that occurs because of reinforced practice" (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 3). Olson and Hergenhahn (2009), claim this change is one that cannot be attributed to transient physical or emotional states such as sickness, fatigue, or chemical substances.

The Role of Behavior in Learning

Learning is a tool used to accommodate adaptation by living organisms to their environment (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Learning is used by humans, animals, and some lower life forms, and it supplements evolutionary mechanisms, reflexive responses, and other adaptive behaviors. In the psychological paradigm, the observable product of learning is behavior. Behavior is a verifiable phenomenon by which to study learning processes otherwise unobservable. By studying behavior, inferences can be made concerning the processes by which learning transpires. Olson and Hergenhahn (2009) note many theorists agree these processes limit direct study and the characteristics of learning can be inferred only from the indirect study of behavioral changes. As such, the results of learning must first be identified in observable behavior. After learning, individuals must have the ability to produce a new and specific behavior, and the change in behavior must be relatively permanent, although it may not necessarily occur immediately after the learning experience (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The relatively permanent change in behavior is the result of experience or practice and must be repeated or reinforced for learning to take place.

Two Types of Learning

Olson and Hergenhahn (2009) use the term conditioning to describe the procedures that modify behavior. The notion of conditioning was first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov and later used by B. F. Skinner. The two types of conditioning - instrumental and classical - describe how behavioral modification transpires, and through which learning is understood. With instrumental conditioning, behavior is reinforced, and as stated by Olson and Hergenhahn (2009), "reinforcement is contingent on the organism's behavior" (p. 5). Classical conditioning involves associating an unconditioned stimulus with a conditioned response by repeatedly pairing a conditioned stimulus with an unconditioned response. This behavioral approach demonstrates how conditioning affects behavior. Instrumental or operant conditioning involves reinforcing behavior, increasing the likelihood that the same or similar behavior will recur. Both forms of conditioning influence behaviors, although classical conditioning assists in determining behavior most conducive to survival, and instrumental conditioning assists in gaining or avoiding specific effects, situations, or events. In both classical and instrumental conditioning, cognitive expectancy is an essential component (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Learning may occur by other means; however, conditioned learning creates a basic parameter by which other complex forms of learning are understood.

The Relationship between Learning and Cognition

Learning theories are based on cognitive associations between stimuli and responses. These associations are founded on the notion that cognitive processes produce anticipation of particular outcomes, and the process alters or causes behavior (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).
Learning in humans occurs because of conditioning, training, or habituation (Relationship between Learning and Cognition, n.d.), and these consequences are based on cognitive associations. For example, when a young child sees a dog for the first time, she does not have the cognitive experience to identify it. Once someone identifies the dog for her, she has the cognitive experience of "dog." Over time, as the child sees other dogs and other pictures of dogs, her cognitive experience is practiced and reinforced; she gains the ability to identify many types of dogs. She may even identify other furry four-legged animals of similar size until she has sufficient experience to identify other animals. Without cognitive associations, learning remains reflexive and associative, but without the complexity which occurs through cognitive processes.

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In examining the relatively permanent change in behavioral potentiality that takes place in the process of learning, behavior provides a scientific and verifiable means by which to study learning. The two fundamental psychological paradigms of learning, classical and instrumental conditioning demonstrate the mechanisms by which cognitive associations enable learning. In their intertwined relationship, learning must be accompanied by cognition, or only fundamental associational attempts by the organism exist as a means toward adaptation to its environment. Advances in the understanding of cognition have made the study of learning a necessary component of psychological as well as educational research (Glaser, 1991). Additionally, a keener awareness of the learning process allows psychology the discerning perspective between normal and adaptive behavior versus that which is maladaptive and abnormal, and enables appropriate prevention, intervention, and treatment.


Glaser, R. (1991). The maturing of the relationship between the science of learning and cognition and educational practice. Learning and Instruction, 1(2), 129-144. doi: 10.1016/0959- 4752(91)90023-2

Olson, M. H. & Hergenhahn, B. R., (2009). An introduction to theories of learning (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Relationship between Learning and Cognition. (n.d.). Activities for the elderly. Retrieved February 24, 2011, from http://www.elderlyjournal.com/elderly-health/physical- examination/mental-exam/cognition/Relationship-Between-Learning-And- Cognition.html

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