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Associative Learning: Definition, Theory & Examples

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Theresa Spanella

Theresa has taught college Writing for 15 years and is two classes from completing a doctorate in Education

Associative learning is a theory that states that ideas reinforce each other and can be linked to one another. This lesson will explain the theory of associative learning as well as provide some practical, real-life examples of this type of learning.

Associative Learning

Sit back and close your eyes. Relax yourself and get ready to recall some really specific details. Imagine your mother's left eyebrow. Not her right eyebrow. Not her eyes. Just her left eyebrow. Hard, isn't it? When you try to envision your mother's eyebrow, you see her eyes, cheeks, forehead, nose, chin - her whole face! Why is it so difficult to recall just her eyebrow?

Associative learning is a learning principle that states that ideas and experiences reinforce each other and can be mentally linked to one another. In a nutshell, it means our brains were not designed to recall information in isolation; instead, we group information together into one associative memory. That's why it is difficult to recall just one eyebrow without seeing the whole face.

Associative learning can be a powerful classroom management and teaching tool and has many uses in the classroom. It can be used to help students connect with information more deeply and recall that information with greater accuracy.

Associative Learning and Behavior

Associative learning is a form of conditioning, a theory that states behavior can be modified or learned based on a stimulus and a response. This means that behavior can be learned or unlearned based on the response it generates. For example, a student might know that if she misbehaves in class (stimulus), she will not be permitted to go out for recess (response).

This type of learning can be helpful in classroom management.

Much like conditioning, associative memory can be called upon based on the relationship between two stimuli. Using both positive and negative reinforcers (stimuli used to change behavior), teachers can help students modify their behavior.

Some examples of positive reinforcement are:

  • Awarding good grades for work that is well done.
  • Allowing students to watch a video for finishing an assignment.
  • Verbally rewarding students for their effort and hard work.
  • Giving students a 'punch' in their punch card each time they do something well. When the punch card is full, the student receives a reward.

By using positive reinforcement, teachers can condition students to associate good work and good behavior with a reward. On the other hand, negative reinforcement can be used to punish students for poor behavior.

Some examples of negative reinforcement are:

  • Removing recess from students who 'act out' in class.
  • Taking points off of work that is turned in late.
  • Not allowing a student who is misbehaving to sit with his friends.
  • Using a chart to document the number of times a student has misbehaved (using stickers). When the chart line is full, the student loses a classroom privilege.

Associative Learning and Teaching

Associative memory can be a powerful teaching tool. Because associative learning relies on the principle that ideas and experience can be linked together and ultimately reinforce one another, association can be used to help students remember information.

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