The acquisition of knowledge of the environment where an autonomous individual lives enables the rational interaction of that agent within that environment, which is known as the learning process. Theories of learning, therefore, provide a wide conceptual framework that describes and explains how information is gathered, absorbed, processed and retained during learning by an autonomous agent. Learning itself can be described as the permanent change in knowledge or behavior that comes about as a result of experience. Experience results in habituation, which is perhaps the simplest form of learning. Habituation refers to the tendency to become familiar with a stimulus as a result of repeated exposure. This takes us to the first theory of learning known as the classical conditioning theory.
The classical conditioning theory is a phenomenon of learning that involves the acquisition of a new behavior through the process of interaction with the surrounding environment. It is the most basic form of learning that begins during the early stage of development. The classical conditioning theory hinges on the element of association, which refers to the tendency to connect events that occur at the same time. Classical conditioning thus involves the learning process, where an autonomous agent learns the association between two things. The agent can link two stimuli together to produce a new learned response. The principal identity of the classical conditioning theory is that an agent learns to associate two stimuli and develops a response at the introduction of such stimuli.
Classical conditioning theory differs largely from the operant conditioning theory of learning. Operant conditioning describes how individuals develop and acquire the patterns of behavior that operate on the environment to bring about behavioral consequences in that environment. This theory of learning is instrumental learning that involves reinforcement in terms of the consequences based on the behavior that is acquired. Therefore, under the operant conditioning theory, the adoption and further performance of an action critically depends on the consequences experienced upon completion of the adoption of that behavior. Thus, unlike in classical conditioning, the autonomous agent under the operant conditioning is afforded some degree of control over its environment in that it has the aptitude to produce changes in its situation by performing a suitable action. This contradicts the classical conditioning theory, where learning is limited to associating a possibly random conditioned stimulus with a reinforcing stimulus that elicits a behavioral response (Chance, 2008).
The other theory which explains the learning process is a combination of both the classical conditioning theory and the operant conditioning theory. This is the behaviorism theory of learning. It is the theory that describes learning as the result of an observable change in the behavior of the learner. Under this theory, learning is the invariable permanent change in performance that resulted from experience and continued interaction with the environment. Therefore, the basic argument here is that it is only observable, measurable behavior that is fitting for the psychological study. Behaviorism learning theory contends that psychology could only become an objective science if it is based on observable behavior in test subjects. Therefore, under this theory, the learners observe the information, practice that information and then receive reinforcement through praise. Perhaps the most glaring similarity between the behaviorism theory and the classical and operant conditioning theories is that they do not look at the mental activities that take place during the learning process. They base their foundation on the observable changes in the learner.
Classical conditioning has a number of basic principles, which are common with the learning process. These principles, which describe how the learning process occurs, are the result of research spanning over decades by well accomplished theorists. The cardinal principles associated with the classical conditioning theory include the following basic principles. The principle of acquisition is the process whereby the conditioned stimulus (CS) becomes associated with the unconditioned stimulus (US), thus resulting in the unconditioned response (UR). This principle is predominantly dependent on a number of factors, the most critical of which are the order and timing of the presentation. Thus, ideally, the conditioned stimuli should precede the unconditioned stimuli by a second or less and the two should overlap somewhat in time. Accordingly, for instance, where dogs associate the sound of a bell with food, the bell, which is the conditioned stimulus, should precede the onset of the food, which is the unconditioned stimulus. Therefore, acquisition refers to the process, through which an autonomous agent develops a reflex response in relation to a certain stimulus.
The principle of extinction refers to the process whereby a conditioned stimulus (CS) that is already associated with the unconditioned stimuli (US) is continuously and consistently presented to the subject without the unconditioned stimuli (US). The result is that the response gradually weakens and becomes extinct, thus the dog can no longer salivate at the sound of a bell. This is because the strength of the acquisition decreases and eventually returns to the same level of association as observed prior to the acquisition (Kasi, 2009). Therefore, the classical conditioning is the result of the association of two stimuli to elicit a reflex response from the autonomous agent. Thus, where one stimulus is missing, the reflex response will weaken and eventually become extinct. The third principle of the classical conditioning theory is the blocking principle. This is where the conditioned stimulus stops another conditioned stimulus from acquiring an association with the unconditioned stimulus, when the two are reinforced simultaneously.
The principles behind the operant conditioning theory of learning are considerably different from those of the classical conditioning theory. Operant conditioning theory suggests that the consequences of the behavior will lead to changes in the probability that the behavior will occur. Therefore, where the behavior results in a satisfactorily effect, it is most likely to be repeated, whereas in case the behavior results in a negative effect, it is most likely not to be repeated. Thus, operant conditioning has two primary principles of reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement refers to the outcome that increases the probability that behavior will occur; thus, it strengthens the behavior. The explanation is that, when a person has engaged in an act that has been encouraged, that person is more likely to repeat the behavior. Incidentally, there is positive and negative reinforcement. A positive reinforcement strengthens behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. While a negative reinforcement involves the removal of an adverse stimulus, which is rewarding to the learner. Both types of reinforcements strengthen the behavior.
The other principle under the operant conditioning is punishment. Punishment refers to the corollary that decreases the probability that the behavior will occur. It seeks to weaken and ultimately eliminate the behavior, and can be achieved by either giving to the individual something unpleasant, which results in decreasing the occurrence of the behavior. Another option is by removing something pleasant that also decreases the occurrence of the preceding behavior. Punishment thus presents the fastest way of changing negative behavior and is designed to weaken or eliminate such behavior. The major principles of the behaviorism theory exist in its basic propositions. Firstly, in behaviorism, learning is seen in the permanent observable and measurable change in the learner. Thus, behaviorism theory does not rely on the mental processes of the learner but rather on the observable and permanent changes in that learner. Secondly, behaviorism also relies on the principle that the behavior of the learner is determined by the environment, which that learner lives in. This ideally asserts that the learner has no free will and is a product of the environment. Therefore, his behavior is a result of the interaction of the learner with that environment. This is also the notion that all human behaviors are acquired by way of stimuli response no matter the complexity of the behavior (Powell, Symbaluk, MacDonald, & Honey, 2008).
The different theories of learning have received contributions from many writers and researchers but only a few stands out with their works on these theories. Under the classical conditioning theory, the first name that comes to mind is that of Ivan Pavlov. The classical conditioning theory is also known as the Pavlovian conditioning theory, named after one of the earliest, primary people who introduced the classical conditioning theory. He was among the first theorists, who objectively and empirically studied the concept of associations, and established their importance in the growth and development of psychological and emotional reactions, as well as mental activities. Ivan Pavlov is famously known for his experiments conducted on the dogs, where he created an audible tone immediately prior to the dogs having a substance directly placed into their mouths, which would cause the reflex action of salivation. He also investigated the details of how neutral and reflex eliciting stimulus can be paired in time, which helped define several alternative procedures that are variations of classical conditioning. His research in classical conditioning led to the many practical applications of his research in daily life.
Other notable scientists of that time include Aristotle with his emphasis on the importance of temporal associations for acquiring or learning new actions. John Locke similarly carried further studies in this field. An American psychologist B.F. Skinner is considered to be the father of operant conditioning theory. He made outstanding contributions to this learning theory that essentially helped in the development and understanding of the concept. He developed the principles of operant conditioning and identified the many variables involved in this learning. Skinner introduced the term reinforcement in order to explain the consequences that would result in the increased likelihood of a given behavior to occur again. He also identified the punishment process. According to Skinner, the probability of a certain type of behavior is decreased by possible consequences; thus, punishment reduces the frequency at which the behavior occurs. Skinner also investigated several other alternatives of operant procedures like shaping. This was primarily an operant procedure, which involved a process of operant conditioning with a new type of behavior by means of reinforcing subsequent approximations to the ultimately desirable form of behavior form. These are just but a few of the contributions made by B.F. Skinner.
Most of the theorists that developed both the classical and operant conditioning theory ultimately contributed to the behaviorism theory of learning. For instance, the experiments by Ivan Pavlov on the digestive system of the dogs contributed largely to the understanding of the behavioral patterns of the animals in regards to their digestive system. Similarly, the Little Albert experiment, as conducted by Watson and Rayner in 1920, helped in the understanding of human behavior in relation to their fears. Ultimately, there are many theorists who worked the different theories of learning, and the list is endless. The different theories of learning account for the mental process in different ways in regards to the learning process.
The classical conditioning theory is conceived around the concept of association, which helps in conceptualizing the learning process. Thus, classical conditioning theory accounts for the mental process through associative learning. Associative learning means that humans involve the formation of association between mental events in structuralism and environmental events in behaviorism. The classical conditioning is similar to the non-associative learning process called habituation, which is the decreased responsiveness to the frequently repeated stimulus. Under the operant conditioning, the mental process of learning is through the adoption of new behavior that occurs as a result of either reinforcement and\or punishment. The mental process is essentially achieved when the learner can appreciate the differences in the consequences that each behavior attracts. The learner through observation appreciates the consequences of each behavior and thus is able to learn (Sikazwe, 2009).
On the other hand, the mental process under behaviorism stands on the ability of the individual to observe and learn new behavior. Behaviorism theory is the observable and measurable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion. The reinforcement under behaviorism is normally through the use of praise. This approach reinforces the behavior praised. The theory has nothing to do with the learner’s mental behavior and does not analyze how the information travels from the sensory memory through working memory to long-term memory. Thus, it accounts for the mental activity through the process of observation. The aspect of prior experience is critical in the process of learning and helps in explaining the theories of learning. Experience is mainly the ability to deal with a situation better having aforementioned knowledge of it. Under the classical conditioning theory, the aspect of experience plays a crucial role in the learning process. The theory relies on the element of association to elicit a given response. Classical conditioning is one of the forms of learning, in the process of which a stimulus that provokes an inborn reflex becomes associated with a previously neutral stimulus previously considered neutral. The latter stimulus then obtains the power to educe the same response. Therefore, classical conditioning implies prior exposure to the neutral stimulus and thus experience. This theory borrows from the simplest form of learning known as habituation, which allows the learner to become familiar with a given stimulus as a result of repeated exposure. For instance, in a situation where dogs associate the sound of a bell with food and thus eliciting the response of salivating, the experience of hearing the bell will be crucial if the dogs are to salivate.
The aspect of prior experience in classical conditioning in humans can be explained by a situation when a person takes a shower, while another person flushes the toilet in a nearby bathroom. When a person is having a shower, the body is used to the warm and relaxing water, however, when the toilet is flushed, the temperature of the water changes suddenly from comfortable to intensely hot and scalding. The effect is that the person taking the shower will probably scream, although this does not last for long as the water soon returns to its normal temperature. The person will continue showering but will be more alert and aware. In case the toilet is flushed again, the person will quickly jump out of the water even without waiting to feel the temperature (Domjan & Grau, 2009). This is because the body has learned, through prior experience, to associate the two events, the sound of the toilet flushing and the change in water temperature. Under the operant conditioning theory, the use of prior experience is critical in the adoption of new behavior that enables an individual to operate in the environment. Many, if not all, of the operant behaviors are complex skills, which result from many years of practice and experience since childhood. The skills of speaking, writing, reading, problem solving and even interaction and meeting new people are all complex skills, which occur as a result of experience. A person starts learning how to do things at a very young age, and such behavior will be encouraged or discouraged by the consequences that the behavior attracts. The experience gained through the reinforcement of behavior is what encourages that behavior.
The behaviorism theory of learning uses prior experience to influence a permanent change in the observable and measurable behavior of an individual. The behaviorism theory enables an individual to observe, acquire, learn and practice skills that will result in the permanent change of behavior. Therefore, a person learns from the experience of observing other behaviors. The ultimate goal of the learning theories is to influence a permanent change in behavior. Learning is after all the permanent change in the behavior of a person. If this is not the case, then learning will not have taken place. Under classical conditioning, a permanent change in behavior is achieved through the aspect of repeated exposure to an initially neutral stimulus followed by an unconditioned stimulus to produce a given response. After learning, the conditioned stimulus essentially produces a similar response even in the absence of the conditioned stimulus, thus resulting in the permanent change in behavior (Pickren & Rutherford,2010). The basic element under classical conditioning is that the individual learns to associate two events to elicit a given response. Consider the case of a person showering and the toilet is flushed: the person will instinctively jump out of the shower. This is a permanent change in the behavior of that person owing to the prior experience.
Under operant conditioning, a permanent change in behavior results in the event of reinforcement or punishment. The aspect of reinforcement determines whether a certain behavior will be repeated or not while punishment discourages behavior. Through reinforcement and punishment, the resultant behavior will be permanent based on the consequences of that behavior. Behaviorism theory encourages a change in behavior as a result of learning. Thus, the learning process is incomplete if there is no permanent change in the observable and measurable behavior of an individual. The applications of the learning theories in the real world situation are many and varied. These theories are used in every sphere of human life ranging from the business world to the agricultural sector, from education to the medical aspect of human beings. They are used to make human life easier with the many applications that to bring on the table (Jacofsky, Santos, Khemlani, & Neziroglu, 2010)
The classical conditioning is particularly useful in a number of areas. For instance, in the education sector classical conditioning is applied by teachers every day during lessons in order to enable learners to give certain responses that are desired. Teachers can, for example, act as a stimulus that influences the students to participate in class and finish their homework or give an answer in class. Another application of the classical conditioning is in the field of medicine, where it can be used to treat phobias (Sabado, 2010). This therapeutic use has been achieved through research on conditional emotional responses, which has led to a better understanding of how phobias and addictions develop. Therefore, classical conditioning aids in reducing or eliminating these emotional problems by means of therapies like systematic desensitization, aversion therapy and counter conditioning. In marketing, classical conditioning is used when a new product is attached to an existing and well-known brand, so that the brand name acts as the stimuli to influence individuals to purchase the new product. Operant condition is also useful in the field of medicine, since it is utilized to treat anxieties and other similar physiological disorders through a unique technique known as biofeedback. It is also useful in marketing through the use of reinforcement technique to promote a product, for instance, in case a consumer is encouraged to buy one and get the second for free. This is the reinforcement principle used to encourage people to buy the product. In the classroom, the operant technique is used by teachers to encourage or discourage behavior through the use of punishment or reinforcement. The behaviorism theory is useful in the social world, where individuals learn behavior from others by observation. The aspect of interaction is crucial under this theory and thus promotes social activity.
In conclusion, the environment where an individual lives plays a crucial part in the formation of the behavior. The learning process is fully dependent on the interaction of the individual with the environment, and the change in the behavior is the result of the new adaptations of that individual to the environment. A person encounters a number of stimulus aspects, which influence the response he gives to the stimulus based on the experience acquired. This results in the permanent change of the behavior of that particular individual, which is observable and measurable. Therefore, the observable and measurable change in the behavior of a person enables him to be able to operate in that environment.