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Learning, the process by which behavior is modified through experience and practice. All animals are capable of learning. Humans far surpass all these in the ability to learn, especially in the ability to acquire a language. Psychologists do not agree about how learning takes place, but certain principles seem clear.

Classical conditioning

The simplest type of learning is the formation of conditioned reflexes in this process, an individual learns to associate 2 events, or stimuli, and to respond in the same way to both. During early life, much behavior is learned in this way. A wide range of behavior patterns are conditioned and always occur when the right stimuli are presented.

Instrumental conditioning

Much behavior is learned as a result of random acts that elicit, or draw forth, a response. Satisfying drives, such as hunger and thirst, are important in this kind of learning. If a particular act reduces the drive, that act will more likely be repeated next time the drive seeks satisfaction. Positive reinforcement—reduction of a drive by a satisfying reward—is usually more effective than negative reinforcement; thus a child who wins approval for performing a task well is more likely to be successful than a child whose “reward” is simply the avoidance of punishment for performing the task badly. Instrumental conditioning is particularly important in the development of acceptable social behavior during the early years of life.

Problem solving and insight learning

There are 2 ways to solve a problem: firstly, by trial and error and secondly, by reasoning out a solution, using insight. Learning by trial and error is encouraged by presenting the problem a number of times and only rewarding the correct solution. Insight learning involves thinking about the problem and grasping the solution without any trial and error.

Human learning

Many psychologists agree that the upper and lower limits of a person's ability to learn are determined by inherited factors. But related factors such as personality, social background, early childhood experiences and level of motivation make it difficult to predict how well a person will perform. A given amount of time is more effective if distributed over several short sessions. Practice is more efficient if directed toward part of a learning task at a time. Trying to learn 2 similar pieces of information at the same time often leads to confusion between the 2. Actually performing a practical task is better than watching others do it. Activities such as writing down notes will lead to faster learning than just reading about or listening to the facts. Mastering one subject will make it easier to learn a closely related subject. It is easier to remember something if there is a period of inactivity, especially sleep, between learning and attempts to remember.

An especially important aid to learning is knowledge of performances as one is actually progressing with a learning task. This is one advantage of teaching machines, which only move on to a new problem after the student has correctly solved the previous one.

Additional topics

21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia - Lange, Dorothea to Lilac