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Understanding the Concept of Learning

Updated on March 19, 2014


Although it seems like a simple concept, the process of learning can be very complex. There are many schools of thought that attempt to explain how learning occurs and knowledge is obtained. Some theories subscribe to the idea that we are born with certain types of knowledge while others claim knowledge is developed over time through our experiences. Whether or not humans are born without any previous knowledge or born with the basic hardware to learn already installed, verifying that learning has occurred cannot be done through simple observation. Any discussion on learning cannot begin without first defining the term, explaining the two main concepts of knowledge formation, distinguishing the difference between learning and performance, and comparing the most used approaches to study learning.

What is Learning?

Definition of Learning

A general definition of learning would be the gaining knowledge. Knowledge can include abilities, skills, language, and behaviors. However, in any scientific study more than a general definition is needed. The formal definition of learning is “…a relatively permanent change in behavior, or behavioral repertoire that occurs as a result of experience” (Terry, 2009, pg. 5). This formal definition clarifies what is and is not included in the process of learning. Because it is a scientific process, there must be evidence that learning has occurred. The change in behavior caused by the knowledge gained must be measurable in some observable way, and cannot be caused by behavioral variations in motivation or attention (Terry, 2009).


Epistemology is a field of study dedicated to understanding how we obtain knowledge. While no-one can dispute that we learn from experience there are other theories about how we acquire knowledge. Nativism theory suggests that some knowledge is innate. One example of this would be Chomsky's theory on language development that proposes that the acquisition of language is an inherent function of the brain. He supports his theory by looking at how children learn language. The process of language acquisition happens without the need for parents to try to persuade their child to talk. Children start talking on their own. There is an optimal window of opportunity to learn language between the ages of three and 10 after which it is harder to learn (Crabtree, 1999). Closely connected to nativism is rationalism theory. This theory focuses on the premise that we have knowledge about matters not contingent upon our intellectual knowledge. According to this theory we obtain knowledge through the use of logic and reason (Terry, 2009), and innately through the rational nature of our minds that allows us to understand facts and realities intellectually (Parkinson, 2003).


Empiricism comes from the idea that all knowledge comes from experience. John Locke disagreed with the idea of innate knowledge. He thought that the mind was like a blank sheet of paper when we were born and we acquire knowledge through our experiences (Pinker, 2002). Empiricism inspired researchers to study how knowledge was obtained through experience, which led to developing such concepts as association, frequency, similarity, and contrast (Terry, 2009).

Learning versus Performance

The process of learning occurs within an individual’s brain so it cannot be seen by an observer, but the assumption that learning has occurred can be verified through observable behaviors such as performance. There have been advances in the process of mapping brain activity, which has allowed some cognitive functions to be observed using specialized equipment like PET scans - word retrieval for example. For the most part the process of learning cannot be observed, but by manipulating the learning environment psychologists can measure the changes in behavior to verify learning has occurred (Terry, 2009).

Although psychological studies are often used to verify learning, there are other ways to measure the same thing. For instance, in an educational environment learning can be verified by performance through the use of tests and assessments. In a work environment training is often given to new employees, newly promoted employees, or when there are changes in policies and procedures. While tests and assessments are sometimes used in this environment as well, learning is usually verified through the performance level of the employee and his or her ability to meet the expectations of the position.

Conceptual Approaches to the Study of Learning

Theories about learning vary, depending on the viewpoint through which they were developed. There are many different learning theories, but three of the most well-known approaches used in the study of learning are functional, behavioral and cognitive. From the functional standpoint learning and memory developed as a way for life forms to obtain the skills required to adapt to changes in the environment and to facilitate survival. The behavioral viewpoint focuses on learning the behaviors, or responses, precipitated by impulses, or stimulus, needed to complete essential tasks. A large part of this theory looks at the connection between the impulse that caused the behavioral response, the action itself, and the consequences of that action. The cognitive perspective consists of acquiring the knowledge needed to meet the expectations of the situation through internal processes. From a cognitive perspective information is ‘encoded, transformed, stored, and retrieved’. While each has its own focus, they are often combined to develop a complete understanding of the learning process (Terry, 2009).


In conclusion, the study of learning involves understanding not only what knowledge is, but how and why we acquire it. Depending on the environment there are different ways to show that learning has occurred even though the process itself is not observable. There are many theories about learning developed through the comprehensive study of opposing schools of thought about obtaining knowledge, but I believe to gain true understanding, rather than focusing on one viewpoint, psychologists must look at the process of learning through a combination of different perspectives.


Crabtree, E. (1999). Noam Chomsky. Retrieved from

Parkinson, G. H. R. (2003). The Renaissance and 17th Century Rationalism. New York, New

York: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, New York:

Penguin Books.

Terry, W.S. (2009). Learning and memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. Boston:

Pearson/Allyn Bacon.


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