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There is Only One Kind of Learning

Updated on August 24, 2016

To begin, we will discuss classical conditioning. Classical conditioning was discovered in two places around the same time in the 19th century; in the United States by Edwin B. Twitmyer and in Russia by the ever so popular Ivan P. Pavlov. Pavlov’s method of research involved the measurement of saliva when food was presented to a dog. When food was actually presented to the dog the amount of saliva was great. The attempt was created several times to ensure the presentation would yield the same result. Then the food was replaced with a placebo and the result was different. The amount of saliva was lessened.


An example of classical conditioning is what we commonly refer to as a reflex. This may be a stretch but the popularity of food commercials may have some science behind them. The presentation of food is very attractive, people need to eat to survive, and the more frequent we see these commercials the more we may be convinced to eat. For this instance, the sight of food would be the stimulus and the constant presentation would cause people to go out and purchase the food. Just like the placebo placed for the dog that caused a decrease in saliva, that same placebo would be the sight of lesser attractive food, like the inside of a bare refrigerator.

Another example of classical conditioning comes from the work of Nikolai I. Krasnogorskii. Krasnogorskii used children instead of animals to conduct his studies. One of which was a 14 month old child, and their rate of swallows was the measurement for the test. First the child was measured naturally on how many times they swallowed. Then the presentation of milk was shown and the rate of swallows increased. After a few presentations of the milk, the ringing of a bell was presented before the presentation of the milk and the swallows increased even more. After the child went through the conditioning, the ringing of the bell alone caused more swallows than the presentation of the milk alone.

The underlying principle for this type of learning appears to be training. In this training there consists the following: a conditioned stimulus, unconditioned stimulus, and a conditioned reflex. The conditioned stimulus is the item that triggers a response. The unconditioned stimulus could be represented as a surprise, something unexpected that could also influence and increase the response from the conditioned stimulus. The conditioned reflex is the final reaction that comes from practice involving the conditioned and unconditioned stimulus. The conditioned reflex also appears to be stronger as the presentation of the conditioned and unconditioned stimulus is presented.

What makes this type of learning different is that it has no physical form of reinforcement. In order to yield a desired result, the stimulus must be presented in an order to “train” the subject. After the subject has been trained, from a visual stimulus alone, their brain is able to process what it has learned. The subject will then be able to provide the conditioned reflex at a stronger rate because the mind has been trained to yield that result.

The other type of learning discussed in psychology is instrumental or operative conditioning. Burrus F. Skinner takes credit for discovering operative conditioning in 1937. This form of conditioning involves a degree of reinforcement to yield the desired result. The reinforcement in this case would be food for a specific animal. The reinforcement schedule would define the length of time, or rate, it takes the animal to be trained. There have been misinterpretations of operative conditioning. The reinforcement is sometimes referred to as a punishment for not receiving the desired result. For example, a positive reinforcement can be interpreted as causing a good change to occur. In actuality, the positive reinforcement is adding a reward to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior. Another example is negative reinforcement, which is sometimes referred to the change that causes a behavior to disappear. The negative reinforcement is really increasing a desired behavior to avoid a future consequence.

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Operative conditioning has been referred to as a choice. In a study conducted by Kahneman and Tversky, participants had the option to choose between winning $400 guaranteed or taking a 50% chance to win $1000. Most of the participants chose the guaranteed amount. The remaining individuals decided to take the risk. A good example of operative conditioning or choosing what to risk is evident in the classroom. The teacher has a specific amount of time to teach their students subject matter. A way to expedite the process of learning would be to use reinforcers in the lesson plan. The use of a positive reinforcer could be the use of stickers or a treasure box full of gifts for the students achieving the desired response; to pass their tests. The negative reinforcer would be the use of assigning extra homework, not as a disciplinary action but as a learning tool to expand the student’s knowledge of the material. Knowing that students enjoy rewards, the positive reinforcer in this case should increase the likelihood that the students will pay attention in class, do their work, and ultimately pass their tests. Also, knowing that students dislike extra homework, the negative reinforcer should increase result of passing their tests because the extra work would still cause them to learn. The risk in this example would be the reward verses time. The likelihood of most of the students choosing the reward should be higher than the remainder of the students choosing to risk their time doing extra work.


The underlying principle for operative conditioning is the use of the reinforcement. Like classical conditioning, operative conditioning does involve a type of training. However, operative conditioning involves something that classical does not; a choice. Instead of training the brain to yield a desired response, the use of reinforcement with punishments and rewards may help the individual decide what they are willing to do to achieve the result. The underlying principles are also what make operative conditioning different. Instead of having a set rate to measure the amount of time to achieve the desired result, the ratio to compare is the likelihood of the desired result based on the positive and negative reinforcement.

So, what is the only kind of learning? The only kind of learning is the one that provides a choice. Classical conditioning is a helpful tool to use for introductory phases. Possibly more helpful when trying to achieve desired results in pets and in infants. Having the ability to teach an infant that it is time to eat by showing them a bottle will be beneficial to the parents. It would put their minds at ease knowing that their child has learned to eat, especially if the child initially had trouble catching on to feeding. It would also be beneficial to someone trying to train their pet to go to the bathroom or to know when it is time to go for a walk.


It seems that classical conditioning is more helpful when training subjects that are unable to communicate verbally. The only true way to learn is when a choice is involved. When individuals are at an age where they are able to communicate and voice their opinions, their mind is able to process what they want and do not want to do. It is at that critical age that rules must be enforced to achieve desired results. One of the easiest ways to convince children to behave in a manner that is desirable is the use of rewards or positive reinforcements. In another course that I am studying, the use of partial reinforcements has been discussed. This form of reinforcement causes the desired behavior to be achieved with less reward. When using partial reinforcement while teaching multiplication to students in class, the use of candy would be used as the positive reinforcement. As an introduction to the course and to the correct answers, students would receive a piece of candy for each correct answer. As the students progress, the amount of candy would decrease; they would receive a piece of candy for each passing quiz. By the end of the lesson plan, the reward of candy would be received very sparingly. The students would achieve the result of passing the quiz with the hopes that they just might get the candy. The use of partial reinforcement may be more helpful with enforcing the desired behavior. It can ease the transition from constant positive reinforcement, to partial reinforcement, to no reinforcement at all, still being able to receive the desired behavior without having to provide the reward. When that goal is achieved, the task of learning is complete making operative conditioning the most effective way to learn.


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