Understanding Learning

Understanding learning within humans and non-humans is an area that psychologists have researched over many years. The first major approach was behaviourism which lead to the comparative and cognitive approaches.

These two approaches are supported by different physiologists, who have defined methods to help understand learning such as; animals behaviour and the humans mind. These approaches both use experiments, however, they consider different elements to help prove their research, which can be similar and contrast with each other.

The comparative perspective in psychology is based on behaviourism; the behaviourist psychologists use mainly experiment to observe the behaviour of animals and other creatures in learning. Researchers propose that learning is potentially observable and measurable and the environment is taking a huge part in studying behaviour in learning. The cognitive perspective come from behaviourism it also uses experimental, but as time goes on the aspects of studying learning has changed. It focuses on more understanding the inferences that happens in the brain processes.

The processes in the brain is one of the main aspects of the cognitive perspective. This approach does still have behaviourism as a major element like comparative, however, it also balances it with the mental processes. A method which helps differentiate the cognitive approach is category learning which group things together to help humans organise their experiences. One of the first experiments or studies for category learning was by Bruner at al, who used a method called hypothesis testing. This method of proving and disapproving the hypothesis is not considered by comparative approach. A comparative approach which does uses part of the cognitive approach was part of Tolman’s research.

Tolman used classical and instrumental conditioning to find out how the rats behaviour changed and learnt. His experiment focuses on whether the rat learnt from its given environment and adapted its behaviour by taking account the learning within the brain. His experiment combines the comparative and cognitive approach because it makes inference of what is going on in the rats head.

The behaviourist Tolman suggest “that learning involves ‘something in the head as well as a change in behaviour” p181 Tolman

The comparative approach usually does an experiment based on condition that observes the subjects behaviour. The researcher will make judgement of the outcome of the behaviour that the subject shown in the artificial environment. The artificial environments which are set up in this approach can also be seen by the cognitive perspective. In Skinners box an environment was set up to monitor behaviour of rat learning how to get food.

The experiment involved rat to learn expectancies by giving series of positive reinforcement, which the delivery of food is manipulated by the experimenter which is called operant conditioning. The experiment showed that the behaviour of the rat learnt from the experiment which is applied by the law of effect. The environment of the experiment has a lack of ecological validity due to behaviour of the rat may not be linked closely to humans despite of animals adapt as humans do.

In comparison to comparative approach, the lack of ecological validity can also be seen in the Bruners’s card experiment. His work has not got the real life scenario and it is based on an empiricism method. He developed cards which are classed as artificial stimuli, the participants categorised the cards by asking if certain cards were part of the same category and when the participants settled on their hypothesis they wrote it down. This cognitive approach looked at how the mind categorise items, Bruners said that people use two main strategies; successive scanning and conservative focusing.

Bruners argue that “people learn concepts via a process of generating and then refining hypothesis in the light of further evidence”p193

This type of cognitive approach can have several results and there are some human interpretations. Another problem with Bruners hypothesis approach was pointed out by Fodor and Chomsky, known as induction problem. This is when the hypothesis is based on past experiences and there could a number of different hypothesis’s that are correct, which could also contradict each other. This is very different to the empirical nature of the comparative approach seen in Skinners box which gives clear results in the changing behaviour of the rat.

The researchers of the cognitive approach shifted from Bruners empirical based experiment to more meaningful categories. Murphy and Kaplan believed the background knowledge was important in category learning. For example, the results of the experiment show that the participants did not try to learn the different attributes they used the background knowledge to link the attributes. However, these two view points of this approach differ from each other because Brunner does not take into account prior knowledge. Murphy’s experiment uses one related attribute and five unrelated attribute of cars. This theme meant that participants learnt twice as quick than those who did not have related theme.

In contrast to the cognitive approach the comparative approach takes into account the innate knowledge of the subject. As shown in the Skinners box when the behaviour of rat is observed using its natural knowledge of desire for food. Without this innate nature the rat would not acquire the necessity of learning to get the food. Similar points of view have been suggested using a cognitive approach by Fodor and Chomosky. They both argue that learning comes from innate, which is similar to the Plato who believed that learning primarily came from nativism. They suggested that an alternative to category knowledge is the subject’s innate behaviour.

The different approaches that psychologists have studied to help understand learning with animals and humans have meant that there are many methods that can help explain. Comparative with its background in behaviourism tended to monitor events of animals and it was later that physiologists started to make inferences of the brain to try and help explain the results. The cognitive approach identifies ways which humans categorises things depending on our experiences, previous knowledge or innate abilities. The two approaches to learning use very different methods but they also draw on certain similar elements especially when making inferences about the brain.