Learning Theories


Psychologists have always been interested in knowing the process of how an individual learns. They have conducted experiments and tried to understand the process and propounded various theories. There are 3 basic theories of learning which are discussed as follows:

  1. Classical conditioning
  2. Operant/Instrumental conditioning
  3. Social learning

Classical conditioning

This theory was propounded by a Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov conducted an experiment with a dog which formed the basis of this theory.


In his experiment he put a dog in a cage. Whenever food was given to him a bell would ring at the same time. The dog salivated on seeing the food. This continued for several days. After a few days the bell rang but the food was not presented. It was observed that even though the food was not presented the dog salivated at the sound of the bell. This established the fact that the dog had associated the sound of the  bell with food. This phenomenon was termed conditioning

Later on when the food was not presented for several days after the sound of the bell, the dog stopped salivating on hearing it. This phenomena was termed as extinction

Pavlov concluded that learning takes place through association or conditioning. That is, if one stimulus is associated with another stimulus it leads to conditioning. In the experiment the stimulus of sound of the bell was associated with the stimulus of smell of the food. Later on dissociation took place when one stimulus was removed. 

This theory formed the basis of many psychological therapies for learned behaviours which was undesirable like phobia and anxiety or to learn certain desirable behaviour.

Operant/Instrumental Conditioning

children learn by hit and trial

This theory was propounded by Skinner. His theory was based on experiments conducted by Thorndike. He conducted experiments with cats. In his experiment he put a cat in a cage which had a lever. On pressing the lever the door of the cage could open.  The food was kept just outside the door. When the cat felt hungry it tried to reach the food but could not. When it felt more hungry it started jumping and moving wildly within the cage untill it accidently hit the lever. The door opened and the cat could go out and eat the food. The next day same thing was repeated. After a few days it was seen that on seeing the food when the cat felt hungry it simply pressed the lever and came out. The cat had learned how to open the door through hit and trial. Similar experiments were conducted with more complicated obstacles giving same results.

Thus, Skinner concluded that learning takes place through actions and its consequences. In this type of conditioning association is between complex multiple stimuli. The behaviour and the consequences of the behaviour forms the learning. If the result of the action is positive the action is repeated if the result is negative the action is not repeated. 

This theory is the basis for teaching new skills to  small children through reward and punishment. 

Skinner termed this as reinforcement which can be positive or negative to teach a behaviour. Punishment is another form of operant conditioning which is used to modify behaviour. 

  • Positive reinforcement: when a behaviour is rewarded it is repeated again.
  • Negative reinforcement: When an unattractive stimulus  associated with a behaviour is removed it is  repeated again
  • Punishment: when an unattractive stimulus is added to a behaviour it is not repeated.

Social Learning

This theory was propounded by Albert Bandura. He emphasized upon the importance of learning by observing, imitating and modelling the behaviour of others. He emphasized the role of the cognitive process in interaction with the social environment. People learn through the following processes:

Observational Learning

Children observe other people and learn behaviours in many ways. The people whom children observe are called models and their behaviours are imitated by children. There are numerous models in the environment like teachers, parents, siblings, people through the mass media etc. Children observe their behaviour and try to imitate those behaviours. If the behaviour is rewarded then it is repeated again and again and learning takes place. If the imitated  behaviour is not rewarded then it is not repeated. 

The imitation of the behaviour is initially not gender specific but in later childhood it can become gender specific. Children tend to imitate behaviour of those whom they think are similar to themselves. Girls generally try to imitate their mothers and boys try to imitate their fathers. 

Children also learn by identifying with someone. Through identification the children imbibe the characteristic behaviours of their model and try to behave like them. While imitating they exhibit one behaviour of the model but in identification the child imbibes multiple behaviours of the person with whom the child identifies.

Observational Learning incorporates advanced cognitive processes. There are several factors which contribute to learning through observation which are called mediational processes. These are:

  • Attention: There are many behaviours which we observe on a daily basis but in order to imitate them, it needs to catch our attention. The behaviour and its consequences form a mental representation and then it is enacted. 
  • Retention: how much the behaviour is retained is important in learning through imitation. We observe many behaviors in our environment but are able to retain only a few based on our attention span.
  • Reproduction: The behaviour is observed and processed in our mind and then it is reproduced. In doing so there can be modifications from the original behaviour. We imitate those behaviours which we are able to reproduce. If a person thinks that he does not have the capability to reproduce it then may not imitate it. 
  • Motivation: which behaviour shall be imitated depends upon the motivation of the individual. Sometimes we are interested in a particular consequence of a behaviour so we will try to observe it and imitate it. 


These theories are inclusive of each other and learning in an individual takes place through a combination of all the principles. Though there has been criticism related to these theories but still they form the basis of many therapies. 

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