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The Evidence of Change: How We Can Define Learning as Changes in Cognition and Behavior

Updated on April 24, 2013

The Evidence Of Change: How do You Measure Learning?

Learning is a key part of life. Understanding the process of learning is vitally important to psychologists who seek to understand changes in behavior. The ability to learn helps to shape our conception and understanding of the world in which we live. To understand the mental functions which contribute to learning we must first examine what defines learning, how learning occurs and how learning is involved with cognition. The evidence of learning is change in behavior and learning itself is the evidence of changes in cognitions.

Changes in Behavior as Evidence of Learning.

Olson and Hergenhahn (2009) define learning as “a relatively permanent change in behavior or in behavioral potentiality that results from experience and cannot be attributed to temporary body states such as those induced by illness, fatigue, or drugs” (p. 6). This definition makes behavior the yardstick by which we measure learning. Behavior is a good way to measure because a person's behavior is overtly observable. If you see someone perform a task correctly you know that they understand how to perform the task.

Including the Potential for Change in Behavior

Learning is not confined though simply to a change in behavior but is also open to behavioral potentiality or to the development of a potential change in behavior. This means that a person can learn something at one point in time but not demonstrate any change in behavior until a later point in time. An obvious problem with this is that if change in behavior is, as stated previously, how we measure that something has been learned then we can not measure that until the behavior is exhibited. This would mean that behavioral potentiality can not be measured until after the potential is fulfilled.

Behaviors That Can Be Excluded

Not all changes in behavior suggest that something has been learned. Olson and Hergenhahn's definition also restricts the concept of learning to changes in behavior that are not the result of outside influences or physical stress. Slurred speech and loss of balance are clear behavioral changes which are the result of alcohol consumption. These behaviors could also be the result of other physical changes. Such behavioral changes obviously do not constitute any sign of the process of learning.

Learning Through Conditioning

Learning takes place when changes in behavior or changes in the potential for behavior takes place. Conditioning is the active attempt of changing behavior (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). There are two forms of conditioning; classical and instrumental (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

Classical Conditioning.

This is the form of conditioning that most people are familiar with. Everyone has heard the famous story of Pavlov and his dogs though they may not understand exactly what is happening when the bell rings and the dogs salivate. Classical conditioning is the result of combining an unconditioned stimulus which causes a reaction with a neutral stimulus which causes nothing (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). This pairing is repeated until the neutral stimulus presented alone produces the same reaction as the unconditioned stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). At this point the neutral stimulus becomes known as a conditioned stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). If you show a small child a piece of fruit and you say the word “apple” then eventually the child will associate the sound of the word “apple” with that piece of fruit.


Though a conditioned response is a powerful connection the results aren't completely permanent. This means that in order to keep a response you need to sometimes repeat the exposure of the pairing. This introduction and continued exposure of the unconditioned stimulus which results in this association is called reinforcement (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Every-so-often the person or animal needs to be reminded of the association between the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus.

Who Controls this Classical Conditioning?

It is important to understand that “in classical conditioning, reinforcement is not contingent on any overt response made by the organism” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 7). This means that the reinforcement in classical conditioning is never controlled by the organism being conditioned but by the person performing the conditioning. This is the central difference between classical conditioning and instrumental conditioning.

Instrumental Conditioning

Olson and Hergenhahn (2009) explain that “with instrumental conditioning, the organism must act in a certain way before it is reinforced; that is, reinforcement is contingent on the organism’s behavior” (p. 7). Learning through instrumental conditioning relies on the organism figuring out that performing a certain behavior produces a certain result and that to achieve that result again requires repeating the same behavior.

What is the Relationship Between Learning and Cognition?

Learning is a combination of mental processes that involves bringing information into the mind, interpreting that information, retaining the information in storage and retrieving the information to use at a later time (Kolwalski and Westen 2005). The mental processes involved are referred to by psychologists as cognition. Cherry (2010) asserts that “cognition is a term referring to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension, including thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving” (What is Cognition, para. 1). The process of learning has affects in each of these areas. Kolwalski and Westen (2005) assert that “humans and other animals are always developing mental images of, and expectations about, the environment, and these cognitions influence their behavior”(Cognitive-Social Theory, para. 2).

How Do You Measure the Changes Resulting from Conditioning?

An animal that has learned through instrumental conditioning that pushing a lever produces food has developed the mental image of this association within the context of it's environment. The animal has the expectation that food will appear when the lever is pushed. It demonstrates these cognitions by repeating the behavior of pushing the lever. A child that has learned to associate the word “apple” with a specific piece of fruit may demonstrate this association by repeating the word until her parent gives the child that piece of fruit. This demonstration reveals the process of cognition not only in the association of the word with the fruit but also between the understanding of hunger, the desire to alleviate that hunger, the need to communicate the child's desires, and the processing of language in the pursuit of that communication.

Learning is Simply Changes in Cognition

The process of learning is the creation of a change in a person or animal's behavior. This change can be created through the associations developed by either classical conditioning or instrumental conditioning. The development of these associations is a cognitive function which alters other cognitive functions including the perception of an environment and expectations about that environment. What we learn shapes our view of the world. It shapes how we interact with that world and everyone and everything in it. The process of learning shapes our expectations. Learning does not actually change behavior but rather the process of learning is the name that has been given to the changes revealed in cognition that are revealed through changes in behaviors. The changes in behavior that define the process of learning are themselves the evidence of changes in cognition. It is this change in cognition which we call learning.


Cherry, K. (2010). Cognition -What is Cognition. Retrieved from

Kolwalski, R and Westen, D (2005). Psychology (4th ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Olson, M and Hergenhahn, B (2009). An Introduction to Theories of Learning (8th ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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    • Wesley Meacham profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesley Meacham 

      6 years ago from Wuhan, China


      Hi and thanks for commenting but would you mind clarifying your comments a bit?

      This article in it's originally form was written as a psychology paper for a University course. In that assignment I was instructed by my psychology professor to show how conditioning was related to learning. Perhaps you are correct in your assertion but could you at least explain why?

      You state, "The phrase 'a person or animal' would work as 'humans and other animals' - and animals don't have language skills."

      Fair enough, though I feel this is a bit like saying that you're holding six in one hand and half a dozen in the other. The choice of words you are referring to aren't even my own but are from a quote by Kowalski and Westen in their textbook on Psychology.

      And I'm uncertain about the rest of your comment. I haven't written anything about "philosopher's envy" or "ancient Greek forms." While this may be interesting, why do you mention it?

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 

      6 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Hi, Wesley,

      Conditioning has nothing to do with teaching as well as learning. The phrase 'a person or animal' would work as 'humans and other animals' - and animals don't have language skills.

      I am an evolutionist, yet an evolutionist strictly - the homo sapiens is different.

      I write about philosopher's envy in one of my blogs - ancient Greek forms might have referred to life forms, not animals,

    • yoginijoy profile image


      7 years ago from Mid-Atlantic, USA

      Well written and clearly explained hub on an important topic. Great hub! Voting up and interesting! Take care and keep on writing.

    • Wesley Meacham profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesley Meacham 

      7 years ago from Wuhan, China

      Thank you.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      7 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Wesley, This is a very useful, well-researched and well-written hub on the relations of behavior, cognition, and learning. Every teacher should be aware of these concepts. Voted up as useful and sharing.


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