The scientific investigation of the learning process was begun at the end of the 19th cent. by Ivan Pavlov in Russia and Edward Thorndike in the United States. Three models are currently widely used to explain changes in learned behavior; two emphasize the establishment of relations between stimuli and responses, and the third emphasizes the establishment of cognitive structures. Albert Bandura maintained (1977) that learning occurs through observation of others, or models; it has been suggested that this type of learning occurs when children are exposed to violence in the media.Classical Conditioning
The first model, classical conditioning, was initially identified by Pavlov in the salivation reflex of dogs. Salivation is an innate reflex, or unconditioned response, to the presentation of food, an unconditioned stimulus. Pavlov showed that dogs could be conditioned to salivate merely to the sound of a buzzer (a conditioned stimulus), after it was sounded a number of times in conjunction with the presentation of food. Learning is said to occur because salivation has been conditioned to a new stimulus that did not elicit it initially. The pairing of food with the buzzer acts to reinforce the buzzer as the prominent stimulus.Operant Conditioning
A second type of learning, known as operant conditioning, was developed around the same time as Pavlov's theory by Thorndike, and later expanded upon by B. F. Skinner. Here, learning takes place as the individual acts upon the environment. Whereas classical conditioning involves innate reflexes, operant conditioning requires voluntary behavior. Thorndike showed that an intermittent reward is essential to reinforce learning, while discontinuing the use of reinforcement tends to extinguish the learned behavior. The famous Skinner box demonstrated operant conditioning by placing a rat in a box in which the pressing of a small bar produces food. Skinner showed that the rat eventually learns to press the bar regularly to obtain food. Besides reinforcement, punishment produces avoidance behavior, which appears to weaken learning but not curtail it. In both types of conditioning, stimulus generalization occurs; i.e., the conditioned response may be elicited by stimuli similar to the original conditioned stimulus but not used in the original training. Stimulus generalization has enormous practical importance, because it allows for the application of learned behaviors across different contexts. Behavior modification is a type of treatment resulting from these stimulus/response models of learning. It operates under the assumption that if behavior can be learned, it can also be unlearned (see behavior therapy).Cognitive Learning
A third approach to learning is known as cognitive learning. Wolfgang Köhler showed that a protracted process of trial-and-error may be replaced by a sudden understanding that grasps the interrelationships of a problem. This process, called insight, is more akin to piecing together a puzzle than responding to a stimulus. Edward Tolman (1930) found that unrewarded rats learned the layout of a maze, yet this was not apparent until they were later rewarded with food. Tolman called this latent learning, and it has been suggested that the rats developed cognitive maps of the maze that they were able to apply immediately when a reward was offered.
See T. Tighe, Modern Learning Theory (1982); B. Schwartz, Psychology of Learning and Behavior (2d ed. 1983).
Learning ranges from simple forms of learning such as habituation and classical conditioning seen in many animal species, to more complex activities such as play, seen only in relatively intelligent animals and humans. Therefore, in general, a learning can be conscious and not conscious.
For example, for small children, non-conscious learning processes are as natural as breathing. In fact, there is evidence for 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.
Learning has also been mathematically modeled using a differential equation related to an arbitrarily defined knowledge indicator with respect to time, and dependent on a number of interacting factors (constants and variables) such as initial knowledge, motivation, intelligence, knowledge anchorage or resistance, etc. Thus, learning does not occur if there is no change in the amount of knowledge even for a long time, and learning is negative if the amount of knowledge is decreasing in time. Inspection of the solution to the differential equation also shows the sigmoid and logarithmic decay learning curves, as well as the knowledge carrying capacity for a given learner.
It is generally recognized that memory is more easily retained when multiple parts of the brain are stimulated, such as through combinations of hearing, seeing, smelling, motor skills, touch sense, and logical thinking.
Repeating thoughts and actions is an essential part of learning. Thinking about a specific memory will make it easy to recall. This is the reason why reviews are such an integral part of education. On first performing a task, it is difficult as according to current theory synaptic modification is necessary for the task to be acquired. After several repetitions it is believed that structural changes occur in relevant synapses, thus rendering the task easier. When the task becomes so easy that you can perform it at any time, these structural changes have likely ceased.
The most common human learning process is imitation; one's personal repetition of an observed behaviour, such as a dance. Humans can copy three types of information simultanesouly: the demonstrators goals, actions and enviironmental outcomes (results, see Emulation (observational learning)). Through copying these types of information, (most) infants will tune into their surrounding culture.
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.
Formal learning is learning that takes place within a teacher-student relationship, such as in a school system.
Non-formal 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.
The educational system may use a combination of formal, informal, and non-formal 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 proof this offered valuable new insights, 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: