What is Learning? - Understanding Effective Classroom Strategies

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  • 0:50 Types of Learning
  • 3:35 Learning Strategies
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Wind Goodfriend

Wind has her PhD in Social Psychology and Master's in Social Psychology from Purdue University.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

We all learn new things every day, but how is 'learning' defined in educational psychology? This lesson covers the definition of learning, different types of learning, and discusses learning styles.

Defining Learning

When you were a little kid, did you learn how to ride a bike? Did you learn how to do long division, or learn the capital cities of different countries? How about learning how to drive a car when you were a little older, or learning how to do laundry?

We use the term 'learning' all the time in everyday life. But within the field of educational psychology, the term learning is actually a specific term. Different people use different words to define learning within educational psychology, but in general, we're talking about a step-by-step process in which an individual experiences permanent, lasting changes in knowledge, behaviors, or ways of processing the world. Let's go through a few examples of different types of learning you might hear about in the field of educational psychology.

Types of Learning

One way that we all learn, even from infancy, is by observation. In educational psychology, we define observational learning as learning not by our own experiences, but by watching someone else behave and noting the consequences of that behavior. For example, we all learn how to speak as very young children by simply watching and listening to the people around us. We learn how to do simple motions (such as walking) by watching all of the adults around us walk. Sometimes, observational learning is so natural that we don't even realize that it's happening.

Russian scientist Pavlov studied learning through conditioning

Another type of learning identified by educational psychology is cognitive learning, which is learning through active and constructive thought processes, such as practice or using our memory. One example might be that you were taught how to tell time by looking at a clock. Someone taught you the meaning of the big hand and little hand, and you might have had to practice telling time when you were first learning it. This process of learning was entirely inside your mind, and didn't involve any physical motions or behaviors. It was all cognitive, meaning an internal thought process.

The next type of learning that educational psychologists study is learning through conditioning. We've identified two types of conditioning. The first type, classical conditioning, is learning to associate a particular thing in our environment with a prediction of what will happen next. The most famous example of classical conditioning is research by the Russian scientist Pavlov, who taught his dogs that every time he rang a bell, he would give them food. Eventually, the dogs started to drool with anticipation every time they heard the bell ring. So, classical conditioning is when we react to an environmental cue that tells us what's going to happen next.

The second type of conditioning is called operant conditioning. Here, we learn that a particular behavior is usually followed by a reward or punishment. We usually choose to keep doing behaviors that are followed by rewards and avoid behaviors that are followed by punishments. For example, you might learn that a particular teacher responds positively to you asking a lot of questions in class, so you are encouraged to keep doing that. If another teacher frowns and says mean things to you when you ask questions, that social punishment teaches you not to ask questions in that particular class.

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Additional Activities


Activity 1:

You read that different people have different learning styles. Some people are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and some are kinesthetic learners. In this activity your goal is to develop a lesson plan for students that will be meaningful to all three types of learners. Think of a topic you would like to teach (How to solve an algebra problem? How to organize a paper?). Next, choose the grade level of students you would like to teach. Now develop a lesson plan to teach your topic such that will be understood by visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

Activity 2:

This lesson discussed cooperative learning, or learning in a group. Some students love cooperative learning whereas others prefer to learn individually. What pros and cons do you see with cooperative learning? Do you think more learning occurs in a group context or less? Write two to three paragraphs addressing the pros and cons (generate at least three of each) and discuss how some of those cons might be addressed within the group context to remediate them. Conclude your paper by advocating for or against group projects.

Activity 3:

The lesson stated that observational learning occurs a great deal in early childhood, which is indeed the case. This method of learning continues to occur throughout life, however. Think of your own life and identify three tasks that you learned primarily through observation. Write a journal entry about those tasks, and reflect on why observational learning was important in those three instances.

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