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A Compare and Contrast of different Learning Theories

I am exploring three different learning theories. These theories are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the social learning theory. Each theory of learning is approached differently, but they have many similarities and differences. Classical conditioning is based on pain to stimulus and getting results. Operant conditioning uses reinforcements and punishments and the social learning theory uses observation. All of these elements have an impact on learning.

There are many different ways people learn. Three theories of learning are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the social learning theory. Each of these different theories has a unique and different approach. Classical conditioning is simply learning by associate of two different stimuli. Operate conditioning is learning by consequences. The social learning theory is learning through observation and repeating what you saw. Learning, in psychology, by definition “is the modification of behavior through practice, training, or experience.” (Dictionary)

Classical conditioning, also known as “Pavlovian” conditioning, was an accidental discovery of Ivan Pavlov. He was doing a study on the role in saliva and what it did for digestion. During his study on saliva Pavlov noticed that the dogs were starting to salivate when the attendant that was feeding the dogs would enter the room the dogs would start to salivate. Either the sight or sounds of the attendant evoked this behavior in the dogs. Thought Pavlov was not studying the dogs for this reaction, it was a big discovery.

Classical conditioning is “a form of learning that was based on nothing more than the repeated associate of two stimuli.” (Lahey, 2004) With classical conditioning things are essentially ‘programmed’ into your brain. You learn that when the first stimulus is introduced you should expect the second stimulus to follow shortly.

The first step of classical conditioning is to introduce a neutral stimulus. When this neutral stimulus is presented another stimulus also needs to be presented. The second step is to introduce a second stimulus. This second stimulus needs to be something that is of significant, like in Pavlov’s original experiments. When the attendant entered the room he had food. The end result is the dogs salivated when the attendant entered the room because the dogs new that he brought food.

Operant Conditioning is essentially learning from the consequences of your actions or behavior. The first person to describe operant conditioning was an American psychologist named Edward Thorndike. He was originally questioning the intelligence of animals. He built his famous homemade puzzle box because he wanted to test the intelligence of cats.

Thorndike placed a hungry cat inside his puzzle box and placed food on the outside of the box. It was up to the cat to figure out how to get out and get the food. Thorndike was observing how long it took the cat to get out of the box and get to the food. There were many trials. With each trial, the cat became quicker at escaping from the box to get its food. Through Thorndike’s experiment he came up with the “law of effect.” The law of effect states “that the consequences of a response determine whether the response will be performed in the future.” (Lahey, 2004) This law of effect later became known as operant conditioning.

“Operant conditioning deals with the modification of ‘voluntary behavior’ or operant behavior.” (Operant conditioning, 2009) Operant conditioning uses reinforcement, punishment and extension. The reinforcement will cause the behavior to happen more. Punishment will cause the behavior to occur less frequently. There are positive and negative reinforcements and punishments. With a positive punishment or reinforcement the end result should be that that behavior is used more. With negative the behavior will hopefully decrease. Extinction occurs when there is a lack of consequences. This means that the behavior will occur less frequently.

The Social Learning Theory originated from Albert Bandura. “Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modeling.” (Social Learning Theory (Bandura) Learning-Theories.com, 2009). His theory is considered the ‘bridge’ cogitative and behaviorist learning theories. The Social Learning Theory uses three things. These are observing, imitating, and reinforcements. This theory is associated with criminology a lot.

Bandura thought that there was more to learning than just direct reinforcements in learning. He thought that people were able to learn by watching other people. This was called observational learning or modeling. Modeling can be used to explain a number of different behaviors. There are four conditions that are necessary for modeling. These conditions are attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

To learn something you must be paying attention. If something grabs your attention you might miss something important that you are trying to learn. This could have a negative effect on what you are learning. The next thing is you need to be able to retain this new information. You are going to need to pull up the information later that you have retained. Next, once the information is retained you need to be able to reproduce the behavior that you have observed.

Finally, after you pay attention, retain and reproduce the new behavior you are going to have to have motivation to imitate the new behavior. Motivation can come from knowing if a person gets rewarded or punished for that behavior. An example would be if you worked really hard on a project at work and got a raise verses someone that did not put any effort into their job and did not get a raise.

Bandura used a Bobo doll to demonstrate his social learning theory. The Bobo doll was three feet high and had a sand bag base. What he was proving was that if children saw aggression towards the doll they would reproduce the behavior that they had saw or if they saw adults playing the toy set in the same room they would likely play with the toy set. Not surprisingly, if the child saw an adult use aggression towards the Bobo doll the child was more likely to also hit the doll. If the adult were to ignore the doll and play with the toy set the child was a lot more than likely to ignore the doll and play with the toy set.

All three theories relate to learning. They all modify your behavior. The way that these theories do this is through using either a stimulus, reward, reinforce or punishment. No matter what method is used you will learn a new behavior. There are a few similarities between classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

One of the major similarities is that both classical conditioning and operant conditioning is that both are learning by association. Classical conditioning is learning based on two stimuli. Operant conditioning is learning through either positive reinforcement or punishment or negative punishment or reinforcement.

Other similarities in classical conditioning and operant conditioning are that neither will last if they are not reinforced. Also in both cases the responses are under control in a stimulus environment. Another interesting thing about these to conditions is that you can build new behaviors on the previously learned behaviors.

I think that the social learning theory and operant conditioning are more similar that the social learning theory and classical conditioning. Both the social learning theory and operant conditioning rely on motivation, rewards or punishment. In operant conditioning learning is based on what is acceptable and results in either a reinforcement (reward) or punishment. Social learning theory is based on watching and learning. If I were to see someone with good behavior get rewarded, I would be motivated to reproduce their good behavior to get the same reward. The same applies that if I were to see someone get punished for stealing something and that person gets punished I would not steal because I would not want to get punished.

Classical conditioning and the social learning theory have a biological aspect. Thought classical conditioning you respond biologically without realizing that you are. This was true for the dogs when the attendant brought them food. The dog was salivating without meaning to. With the social learning theory the way you are raised and your biologically programmed has an effect on how you will handle a situation. Are you going to follow the crowd or stick up to them if they do something bad?

There are differences between classical conditioning, operant conditioning and the social learning theory. These different include whether the behavior or reaction is an intentional or unintentional response. For example in classical conditioning the response is involuntary, but in both operant conditioning and the social learning theory the response is voluntary.

One difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning is that the end result is not based entirely on one stimulus. In classical conditioning something learns a response based on a stimulus. With classical conditioning the response is not voluntary. “Classical conditioning is passive on the part of the learner.” (Abisamra, 1999) With classical conditioning things are ‘programmed’ into your brain. With operant conditioning the person learning is participating in their learning. In operant conditioning things are learned through consequences. They know what they are doing and know that there will be something that will result from their action.

With classical conditioning the response is a reflex. The subject has no control over its response. For instance, when the attendant came into the room the dogs learned through classical conditioning that they would get food. Now when they saw are heard the attendant they would start to salivate.

In operant conditioning things are learned through consequences and trial and error. If my cat scratches my sofa instead of using her scratching post, I scold her and show her the scratching post. In theory by me scolding the cat she will learn that this is a consequence. The same goes for if my kid pulls that cats hair, I scold him. If the cat uses her scratching post I give her a treat to let her know that is the right thing to do. I am trying to reinforce her good behavior with a reward.

Another difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning is that the end result is not based entirely on one stimulus. In classical conditioning something learns a response based on a stimulus. With classical conditioning the response is not voluntary. “Classical conditioning is passive on the part of the learner.” (Abisamra, 1999) With operant conditioning the person learning is participating in their learning. They know what they are doing and know that there will be something that will result from their action.

The last important difference between classical conditioning and operant learning is in that in operant conditioning there is an incentive or reinforcement for an action. With classical conditioning there are no incentives for actions. There is no right or wrong for an action and you do not know that if you do the right thing you get rewarded or if you chose the wrong action you might get punished.

A good side by side comparison of the differences of classical and operant conditioning would be in the study of Skinner’s cat and Pavlov’s dog. The cat was confined and held back from its food. The cat had to learn how to get out of its box by trial and error. Once the cat escaped its box it got a reward. The hungry cat got food. Through positive reinforcement the cat got its food. In Pavlov and the dogs, there was an attendant that feed the dogs. When the attendant was near the dogs salivated. This was a reflex.

With classical conditioning and the social learning theory there is not direct connection between one set stimulus and a reaction. The social learning theory is based on observing whereas classical conditioning is based on the introduction of a stimulus to get a result. The social learning theory takes place through observing, imitating, and modeling someone. With this theory you model someone based on what they did and will get the same result that their original behavior got. I try to model good behaviors that end with good results. Through observation I know what the outcome of my actions will be. With classical conditioning the result is predictable, after time, like when Pavlov’s dogs were expecting their food. The dog does know, through observation, when the attendant enters the room the dog is going to get feed. When the attendant enters the room the dog starts salivating because the dog is anticipating getting feed.

When we compare the three learning theories classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the social learning theory they all share similarities and differences. These theories modify behavior through various things such as stimulus, rewards or punishments. The social learning theory and operant conditioning rely on rewards or punishments. There are also different between these learning styles. Classical conditioning relies on a stimulus and a response that is involuntary. The social learning theory is based on the conditions you are in and if you will pick up on the actions and behaviors of others. Operant conditioning depends on consequences for your actions.

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