How do we define “learning”?

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Learning is something that does not only occur in small school age children; it can happen in infants who are still in the womb, it can occur in adults and even in animals such as dogs and goldfish. Psychologists that study learning deal more with discovering general principles that apply to many species and learning scenarios, then quite specific ones where they are only useful in some.

So, how do we know when we have learnt something? Well, a change occurs. These changes can be increases or decreases in things like time, intensity and duration. For example, when learning how to ride a bike the learning is shown in the length of time one is capable of staying on the bike and distance of which one can ride while on it. Many psychologists say that durability is what qualifies if learning has occurred, however where do we draw the line at what qualifies as durable? The best way to decipher if something has been learned is whether or not a change has occurred, not how long it lasted for.

What is it that changes when we learn something? Behaviours. Behavior is defined broadly with psychologists studying learning, and can be as simple as salivation or verbal reporting; it can also be heart rate and things like responses to an online survey. As with cognitive psychology it isn’t really possibly to directly observe learning, however, the changes that we see happen in the behaviours we can observe and interpret as the product of learning.

So how then does one show that they have learnt something? And moreover; how do we show that scientifically? We can do this through performance, on say a writing task or an exam. Performance is definitely something that can be measured and therefore statistically interpreted and applied scientifically. Learning, however, needs to be inferred from the changes in performance. Experimentally, there are many factors that could contribute to a change in behaviours that is not attributed to learning such as; motivational states, maturation, willingness and physiological states. All these can contribute to changes in behaviours, but not learning. Maturation is a really important one; this is when something (usually someone actually) goes from an immature state, say that of a child, to a mature state, that have an adult or teenager. If the changes that occur in behaviours are due purely to maturation, then it occurs independently of experience and thus is not a learned behavior. These are instead called “innate” or “biologically determined” factors. One example of this is when babies are learning to walk. If they an infant is held up under the arms with the bottom of their feet touching the ground, their legs move of their own accord in a stepping motion. This stepping motion is not learned, they have not experienced it somewhere else etc. the stepping motion of infants is an innate quality that helps with survival, so, it is not a result of experience but a stage in development.

Learning is essentially involved in accommodating changes and adapting to a changing world; it is a significant part of taste aversions, sporting ability, racial intolerance and the formation of drug addictions. Learning is central to human existence and also explains why I hate Brussel sprouts so much (yuck).

S, xo

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2 thoughts on “How do we define “learning”?

  1. I like this passage in the sense that it provides a perspective from a psychologist point of view. It is very well-elaborated and well-explained. Adding on to the topic, from a biological point of view, learning is a process of making our brain more complicated. As we learn, the complexity of the nervous system increase since more nerve fibres are extended from nerve cells. It is also much easier to learn when you are a child since the brain is developing rapidly at the infant / toddler stage. Nice to know a psychologist on wordpress as well 🙂 .

    • Thank you @brendabrandy! Yes, i am very interested in the biological side of learning too and how the brain grows. I am currently a psychology student though, not a psychologist (yet 😉 )

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