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Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow learning curves.
Human learning may occur as part of education, personal development, school or training. It may be goal-oriented and may be aided by motivation. The study of how learning occurs is part of neuropsychology, educational psychology, learning theory, and pedagogy. Learning may occur as a result of habituation or classical conditioning, seen in many animal species, or as a result of more complex activities such as play, seen only in relatively intelligent animals. Learning may occur consciously or without conscious awareness. There is evidence for human behavioral learning prenatally, in which habituation has been observed as early as 32 weeks into gestation, indicating that the central nervous system is sufficiently developed and primed for learning and memory to occur very early on in development.
Play has been approached by several theorists as the first form of learning. Children play, experiment with the world, learn the rules, and learn to interact. Vygotsky agrees that play is pivotal for children's development, since they make meaning of their environment through play.
Types of learning
Simple non-associative learning
In psychology, habituation is an example of non-associative learning in which there is a progressive diminution of behavioral response probability with repetition stimulus. An animal first responds to a stimulus, but if it is neither rewarding nor harmful the animal reduces subsequent responses. One example of this can be seen in small song birds—if a stuffed owl (or similar predator) is put into the cage, the birds initially react to it as though it were a real predator. Soon the birds react less, showing habituation. If another stuffed owl is introduced (or the same one removed and re-introduced), the birds react to it again as though it were a predator, demonstrating that it is only a very specific stimulus that is habituated to (namely, one particular unmoving owl in one place). Habituation has been shown in essentially every species of animal, including the large protozoan Stentor coeruleus.
Sensitization is an example of non-associative learning in which the progressive amplification of a response follows repeated administrations of a stimulus (Bell et al., 1995). An everyday example of this mechanism is the repeated tonic stimulation of peripheral nerves that will occur if a person rubs his arm continuously. After a while, this stimulation will create a warm sensation that will eventually turn painful. The pain is the result of the progressively amplified synaptic response of the peripheral nerves warning the person that the stimulation is harmful.[clarification needed] Sensitization is thought to underlie both adaptive as well as maladaptive learning processes in the organism.
Associative learning is the process by which an element is taught through association with a separate, pre-occurring element. It is also referred to as classical conditioning. Honeybees display associative learning through the proboscis extension reflex paradigm.
Operant conditioning is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of behavior. Operant conditioning is distinguished from Pavlovian conditioning in that operant conditioning uses reinforcement/punishment to alter an action-outcome association. In contrast Pavlovian conditioning involves strengthening of the stimulus-outcome association.
Behaviorism is a psychological movement that seeks to alter behavior by arranging the environment to elicit successful changes and to arrange consequences to maintain or diminish a behavior. Behaviorists study behaviors that can be measured and changed by the environment. However, they do not eliminate that there are thought processes that interact with those behaviors (see Relational Frame Theory for more information).
Delayed discounting is the process of devaluing rewards based on the delay of time they are presented. This process is thought to be tied to impulsivity. Impulsivity is a core process for many behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, problematic gambling, OCD). Making decisions is an important part of everyday functioning. How we make those decisions is based on what we perceive to be the most valuable or worthwhile actions. This is determined by what we find to be the most reinforcing stimuli. So when teaching an individual a response, you need to find the most potent reinforcer for that person. This may be a larger reinforcer at a later time or a smaller immediate reinforcer.
The typical paradigm for classical conditioning involves repeatedly pairing an unconditioned stimulus (which unfailingly evokes a reflexive response) with another previously neutral stimulus (which does not normally evoke the response). Following conditioning, the response occurs both to the unconditioned stimulus and to the other, unrelated stimulus (now referred to as the "conditioned stimulus"). The response to the conditioned stimulus is termed a conditioned response. The classic example is Pavlov and his dogs. Meat powder naturally will make a dog salivate when it is put into a dog's mouth; salivating is a reflexive response to the meat powder. Meat powder is the unconditioned stimulus (US) and the salivation is the unconditioned response (UR). Then Pavlov rang a bell before presenting the meat powder. The first time Pavlov rang the bell, the neutral stimulus, the dogs did not salivate, but once he put the meat powder in their mouths they began to salivate. After numerous pairings of the bell and the food the dogs learned that the bell was a signal that the food was about to come and began to salivate when the bell was rung. Once this occurred, the bell became the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the salivation to the bell became the conditioned response (CR).
Another influential person in the world of Classical Conditioning is John B. Watson. Watson's work was very influential and paved the way for B. F. Skinner's radical behaviorism. Watson's behaviorism (and philosophy of science) stood in direct contrast to Freud. Watson's view was that Freud's introspective method was too subjective, and that we should limit the study of human development to directly observable behaviors. In 1913, Watson published the article "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views," in which he argued that laboratory studies should serve psychology best as a science. Watson's most famous, and controversial, experiment, "Little Albert," where he demonstrated how psychologists can account for the learning of emotion through classical conditioning principles.
Imprinting is the term used in psychology and ethology to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. It was first used to describe situations in which an animal or person learns the characteristics of some stimulus, which is therefore said to be "imprinted" onto the subject.
The learning process most characteristic of humans is imitation; one's personal repetition of an observed behavior, such as a dance. Humans can copy three types of information simultaneously: the demonstrator's goals, actions, and environmental outcomes (results, see Emulation (observational learning)). Through copying these types of information, (most) infants will tune into their surrounding culture.
Play generally describes behavior which has no particular end in itself, but improves performance in similar situations in the future. This is seen in a wide variety of vertebrates besides humans, but is mostly limited to mammals and birds. Cats are known to play with a ball of string when young, which gives them experience with catching prey. Besides inanimate objects, animals may play with other members of their own species or other animals, such as orcas playing with seals they have caught. Play involves a significant cost to animals, such as increased vulnerability to predators and the risk of injury and possibly infection. It also consumes energy, so there must be significant benefits associated with play for it to have evolved. Play is generally seen in younger animals, suggesting a link with learning. However, it may also have other benefits not associated directly with learning, for example improving physical fitness.
Enculturation is the process by which a person learns the requirements of their native culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquires values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture. The influences which as part of this process limit, direct or shape the individual, whether deliberately or not, include parents, other adults, and peers. If successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values and rituals of the culture. (compare acculturation, where a person is within a culture different to their normal culture, and learns the requirements of this different culture).
Episodic learning is a change in behavior that occurs as a result of an event. For example, a fear of dogs that follows being bitten by a dog is episodic learning. Episodic learning is so named because events are recorded into episodic memory, which is one of the three forms of explicit learning and retrieval, along with perceptual memory and semantic memory.
E-learning and augmented learning
Electronic learning or e-learning is a general term used to refer to Internet-based networked computer-enhanced learning. A specific and always more diffused e-learning is mobile learning (m-learning), which uses different mobile telecommunication equipment, such as cellular phones.
When a learner interacts with the e-learning environment, it's called augmented learning. By adapting to the needs of individuals, the context-driven instruction can be dynamically tailored to the learner's natural environment. Augmented digital content may include text, images, video, audio (music and voice). By personalizing instruction, augmented learning has been shown to improve learning performance for a lifetime. See also Minimally Invasive Education.
Rote learning is a technique which avoids understanding the inner complexities and inferences of the subject that is being learned and instead focuses on memorizing the material so that it can be recalled by the learner exactly the way it was read or heard. The major practice involved in rote learning techniques is learning by repetition, based on the idea that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more it is repeated. Rote learning is used in diverse areas, from mathematics to music to religion. Although it has been criticized by some schools of thought, rote learning is a necessity in many situations.
Meaningful learning refers to the concept that the learned knowledge (lets say a fact) is fully understood by the individual and that the individual knows how that specific fact relates to other stored facts (stored in your brain that is). For understanding this concept, it is good to contrast meaningful learning with the much less desirable, rote learning.Learning from which students have understood the information they are learning rather than memorising it specifically for the purpose of passing assessment tests.
Informal learning occurs through the experience of day-to-day situations (for example, one would learn to look ahead while walking because of the danger inherent in not paying attention to where one is going). It is learning from life, during a meal at table with parents, play, exploring, etc.
Formal learning is learning that takes place within a teacher-student relationship, such as in a school system.
Nonformal learning is organized learning outside the formal learning system. For example: learning by coming together with people with similar interests and exchanging viewpoints, in clubs or in (international) youth organizations, workshops.
Nonformal learning and combined approaches
The educational system may use a combination of formal, informal, and nonformal learning methods. The UN and EU recognize these different forms of learning (cf. links below). In some schools students can get points that count in the formal-learning systems if they get work done in informal-learning circuits. They may be given time to assist international youth workshops and training courses, on the condition they prepare, contribute, share and can prove this offered valuable new insight, helped to acquire new skills, a place to get experience in organizing, teaching, etc.
In order to learn a skill, such as solving a Rubik's cube quickly, several factors come into play at once:
- Directions help one learn the patterns of solving a Rubik's cube.
- Practicing the moves repeatedly and for extended time helps with "muscle memory" and therefore speed.
- Thinking critically about moves helps find shortcuts, which in turn helps to speed up future attempts.
- The Rubik's cube's six colors help anchor solving it within the head.
- Occasionally revisiting the cube helps prevent negative learning or loss of skill.
Tangential learning is the process by which people will self-educate if a topic is exposed to them in a context that they already enjoy. For example, after playing a music-based video game, some people may be motivated to learn how to play a real instrument, or after watching a TV show that references Faust and Lovecraft, some people may be inspired to read the original work.
Dialogic learning is a type of learning based on dialogue.
Domains of learning
Benjamin Bloom has suggested three domains of learning:
- Cognitive – To recall, calculate, discuss, analyze, problem solve, etc.
- Psychomotor – To dance, swim, ski, dive, drive a car, ride a bike, etc.
- Affective – To like something or someone, love, appreciate, fear, hate, worship, etc.
These domains are not mutually exclusive. For example, in learning to play chess, the person will have to learn the rules of the game (cognitive domain); but he also has to learn how to set up the chess pieces on the chessboard and also how to properly hold and move a chess piece (psychomotor). Furthermore, later in the game the person may even learn to love the game itself, value its applications in life, and appreciate its history (affective domain).
Transfer of learning
The transfer of learning can be defined as extending what has been learned in one context to new contexts. Determining if and to what extent a person can transfer their learned knowledge can be a strong indication of the quality of the learning experience itself. Effective memorization of information does not equal a meaningful learning experience, because the knowledge acquired might not be understood. The ability to understand and apply learnings, implies a deeper knowledge gained. The context of the original learning, time given to learn, motivation of learner, active participation, and progress monitoring of learning are all important factors that effect the degree to which learning is transferrable. New research within cognitive science has helped unfold the multidisciplinary nature of learning. Anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience all play a role in learning. More importantly, these factors play a role in the level of understanding one person develops versus another person. 
Active learning occurs when a person takes control of their learning experience. Since understanding information is the key aspect of learning, it is important for learners to recognize what they understand and what they do not. By doing so, they can monitor their own mastery of subjects. Active learning encourages learners to have an internal dialogue in which they are verbalizing their understandings. This and other meta- cognitive strategies can be taught to a child over time. Studies within metacognition have proven the value in active learning, claiming that the learning is usually at a stronger level as a result. 
- ^ Jungle Gyms: The Evolution of Animal Play
- ^ What behavior can we expect of octopuses?
- ^ Sandman, Wadhwa, Hetrick, Porto & Peeke. (1997). Human fetal heart rate dishabituation between thirty and thirty-two weeks gestation. Child Development, 68, 1031–1040.
- ^ Wood, D.C. (1988). Habituation in Stentor produced by mechanoreceptor channel modification. Journal of Neuroscience, 2254 (8).
- ^ Bitterman et al. 1983. Classical Conditioning of Proboscis Extension in Honeybees (Apis mellifera). J. Comp. Psych. 97: 107-119.
- ^ a b c Grusec, Joan E.; Hastings, Paul D. "Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research", 2007, Guilford Press; ISBN 1-59385-332-7, 9781593853327; at page 547.
- ^ Terry, W. S. (2006). Learning and Memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
- ^ Baars, B. J. & Gage, N. M. (2007). Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to cognitive neuroscience. London: Elsevier Ltd.
- ^ Augmented Learning, Augmented Learning: Context-Aware Mobile Augmented Reality Architecture for Learning
- ^ Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning
- ^ [(Bransford, 2000, pg.51-78)]
- ^ [(Bransford, 2000, pg.15-20)]
- Holt, John (1983). How Children Learn. UK: Penguin Books. ISBN 0140225706. http://books.google.fr/books?id=glEiAAAAMAAJ.
- Mayer, R.E. (2001). Multimedia learning. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-52178-749-1. http://books.google.com/books?id=ymJ9o-w_6WEC.
- Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. http://books.google.com/books?id=xmB9AAAAMAAJ.
- Vosniadou, Stella. How Children Learn. UK: UNESCO. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/publications/EducationalPracticesSeriesPdf/prac07e.pdf.
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