Learning: Concepts, Styles & Types of Learning

Learning: Concepts, Styles & Types of Learning

Learning is a key process in human behaviour. Most of our behaviours are acquired through the process of learning. All children are born with limited capacity of reflexes but it is only learning that empowers individual to realise one’s potentials. Interestingly enough learning is not directly observable. It is often inferred from changes in the external behaviour. It is apparent in terms of improvement in the performance.


Learning has been defined as a relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a result of practice/ experience. There are three important factors in this definition:

  1. Learning brings change in behaviour.
  2. The change in behaviour should be permanent to be called as learning.
  3. Change takes place through practice (here) is differing from changes due to growth/ maturation or experience. Any change in behaviour in the absence of practice or experience does not qualify as learning. For example the maturational changes in the child, like crawling, standing and walking at certain ages are not included in learning. Similarly, illness and drug induced temporary changes are not due to learning. To qualify as learning, a change in behaviour must be relatively long duration.

Types of Learning:

Psychologists, on the basis of studies on human beings and on animals, have tried to explain the process of learning. Based upon which there has been multiple types of learning including:

  • Classical Conditioning
  • Operant Conditioning
  • Observational Learning
  • Cognitive Learning
  • Verbal Learning

Classical Conditioning

  • Also called as Pavolovian conditioning because it was discovered by a Russian scientist Ivan P. Pavlov.
  • He presented food to dog with a sound of bell and noted the salivation of dog.  Initially, the sound of the bell elicits only an orienting response (alerting response) but after few trails, when food is immediately followed by sound of bell. It was observed that, the dog started salivating at the sound of the bell.

Operant Conditioning

  • B.F. Skinner is considered as the most influential psychologist advocating the role of operant conditioning in learning.
  • He developed an experimental chamber (called Skinner Box) to study learning process in rats.
  • The chamber included a lever attached to the front wall. Pressing the lever is the response to be learned. The hungry rat is placed in the chamber and it starts doing random activity in it. After some time, the rat accidentally presses the lever and a pellet of food drops automatically in the plate and the rat eats it. After eating the pallet the rat again starts activity in the chamber. After some activity it again presses the lever and gets pellet (a reward). Gradually the random activity changes to more specific activity around the lever. Finally, the rat learns that pressing the lever results in dropping of the food, a satisfying outcome. In other words the pressing of lever by the rat is instrumental in providing food (reinforcement). The response (pressing the lever) is reinforced and the behaviour is acquired or learned.

Observational Learning

  • Observational learning is also a fundamental way to  learn.  Acquiring new skills by observing the behaviour of others is very common.
  • Bandura and his colleagues in a series of experimental studies investigated observational learning in detail.
  • Earlier this form of learning was called imitation.  In many situations individuals do not know how to behave. They observe others and emulate their behaviour. This form of learning is now also called as modeling

Cognitive Learning

Cognitive theorist state that learning cannot be satisfactorily explained in term of stimulus-response (S-R) association. This form of learning shows up in insight learning and latent learning.

Insight Learning:

  • Kohler, a German psychologist, on the basis of his experiments on chimpanzees, emphasized that while working on a problem one grasp the inner relationships through insight.
  • In his typical experiment, a chimpanzee in the cage with bars was given 2 unequal size of sticks and the fruit was kept outside the bars, which could not be reached by one stick alone. After several trials the animal all of a sudden joined the 2 sticks together to make it a single long stick and with that could reach the fruit. Insight Learning is often observed in problem solving puzzles and riddles.

Latent Learning:

  • Latent learning refers to any learning that is not evidenced by behaviour at the time of the learning.
  • Tolman made an early contribution to the concept of latent learning.
  • One can get ample examples of latent learning from own experiences, when one does not consciously put an effort to learn, but later he/she can perform that particular skill or responses.

Verbal Learning:

  • Verbal learning is different from conditioning and is limited to human beings.
  • Human beings can acquire knowledge about objects, events, and their features largely in terms of words.

Concept Learning:

  • One of the many things human beings do is to organise the objects, events, animals, etc., into categories so that within the category, objects are treated as equivalent even though they are different in their features. Such categorisations involve concept learning.

Styles of Learning

Individuals show preference for different learning conditions. These are called learning styles, or learning preferences. The learning style theories recognise that individuals learn in different ways and that each individual has a unique style of learning.

  1. Some persons take a ‘deep processing approach‘, seeking the underlying concepts and meanings of what they are attempting to learn. Others take a surface – processing approach, focusing on memorization rather than analysis and understanding.
  2. VARK: The acronym VARK stands for Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic sensory modalities that are used for learning information. Fleming and Mills (1992). It categorizes above 4 learning styles.
    • Visual –  Visual learners prefer the use of images, maps, and graphic organizers to access and understand new information.
    • Auditory – Auditory learners best understand new content through listening and speaking in situations such as lectures and group discussions. Aural learners use repetition as a study technique and benefit from the use of mnemonic devices.
    • Read & Write – Students with a strong reading/writing preference learn best through words. These students may present themselves as copious note takers or avid readers, and are able to translate abstract concepts into words and essays.
    • Kinesthetic  – Students who are kinesthetic learners best understand information through tactile representations of information. These students are hands-on learners and learn best through figureing things out by hand i.e. understanding how a clock works by putting one together.)


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