Learning theories are theories within the behavioral sciences that focus on how and why people learn. There are three primary types of learning theory, classical conditioning, operant conditioning and observational learning. Classical conditioning focuses on involuntary stimuli and response patterns that occur naturally. In contrast, operant conditioning looks at voluntary responses to stimuli and the reinforcers that make them more or less likely to occur. Finally observational learning focuses on how people learn from observing others. Many studies have been conducted on all three types of learning theory ranging from studies on Alzheimer's Disease to studies on Sports Behavior.

Learning Theories: Theoretical Perspectives and Applications

University Learning Theory

Learning theories can be defined as theories developed by professionals in the behavioral sciences (psychology sociology and anthropology) to explain how and why people learn. There have been many different explanations for how and why human beings learn the way they do ranging from the idea that humans learn by being conditioned to respond to stimuli in their environment in a specific way, to the idea that people learn by observing others model specific behaviors or actions. Each of these theories has positive and negative aspects and each theory has helped to further human understanding of the learning process in order to develop better methods of helping people learn and maintain new information.

There are three primary learning theories. Classical conditioning theories focus on a straight stimuli response model in which a person is exposed to stimuli to which they respond in a patterned or programmed manner. Operant conditioning takes this idea one step further by arguing that people are more likely to respond to a behavior if they are rewarded with positive reinforcers such as, food and less likely to respond to certain behaviors if they are punished. Finally, observational learning occurs when a person watches another person modeling a specific behavior like playing the piano copies the modeled behavior and gradually learns to repeat the modeled behavior without observing it. All three of these theories explain how and why people learn in certain ways. These theories can be useful in helping people learn new academic knowledge, or in helping to extinguish negative behaviors such as, substance abuse, violent behavior, or overeating. By learning about these theories students can develop their own ideas and opinions on how people learn as well as begin to start thinking seriously about how they learn themselves.

Classical Conditioning

A Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov was one of the first to notice that dogs responded in a specific way to food, and to stimuli associated with food such as, the time of day, the presence of the employee that fed them, or the sound of the food being put into bowls. He termed this phenomena "classical conditioning" and determined that it was a topic that needed further study. He determined that food and stimuli related to food were what he called an unconditioned response or UCS. This means that this was a stimulus that occurred naturally to which people or animals would demonstrate an unconditioned response or UCR. Pavlov further discovered that pairing a neutral stimulus or S with the UCS would condition the dogs to respond to the neutral stimulus with the same UCR (food or food related stimuli) that occurred with the UCS. Gradually the neutral response or S would become a conditioned stimulus or CS, and the UCR would become a conditioned response to the sound of the bell (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

Classical conditioning theory has been applied in psychological research in many different ways. Schultz and Helmstetter (2010) have studied the link between classical conditioning and contingency awareness. Contingency awareness is essentially how human beings link their actions with environmental consequences. In a study of 32 undergraduates Schultz and Helmstetter used visual stimuli paired with Skin Conductance Response (SCR) in order to determine if there were any links between classical conditioning and contingency awareness. The results indicated that the experimental group that was unaware of the consequences of their actions e.g. a negative stimulus applied when they did not respond as expected demonstrated less association between the conditioned response and contingency awareness than did the control group that was aware of the contingency.

This article was mainly effective in demonstrating that people are rarely aware of the effect of classical conditioning in their lives. Classical conditioning often occurs in response to naturally occurring stimuli and it is not done consciously. This makes it difficult to prove exactly how classical conditioning affects learning as for the most part people are not aware of the role of classical conditioning in their lives.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in several ways. First, it focuses on voluntary response to stimuli in response to rewards, punishments, or the removal of unpleasant stimuli (Positive reinforcers, punishment, and negative reinforcers). This theory also explores the role the people or animals play in effecting change on their environment. Finally, this theory looks at the ability of people to differentiate between different but similar stimuli (stimulus differentiation) (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

One of the first to study the role of operant conditioning was B.F Skinner who discovered that voluntary responses to stimuli could be changed by the use of reinforcers. Skinner determined that there were three different types of reinforcement, positive, negative and punishment. Positive reinforcement is the idea that people will continue to perform voluntary behaviors if they are rewarded (for instance being paid for working). Negative reinforcement is the idea that negative stimuli such as; loud noises are removed if a person performs a voluntary response to a stimulus. Finally, punishment removes rewards or something a person desires if they refuse to respond to stimuli in a specific way.

Skinner further defines two types of punishment, positive punishments weakens response that are not wanted by using unpleasant stimuli (such as a spanking) and negative punishments remove rewards or pleasant stimuli (for example grounding a child or taking away a favorite toy). Skinner also argues that reinforced behaviors tend to increase while behaviors that are not reinforced tend to be reduced which is called "extinction" by Skinner (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

Behavioral conditioning has been successfully applied in many fields including, working with patients who have Alzheimer's. Spira and Edelstein (2007) performed a study in which four patients with Alzheimer's disease were asked to perform a task in which they were asked to respond to differences between fixed ratio extinction and fixed interval. Correct responses were reinforced with money. Spira and Edelstein (2007) found that patients with Alzheimer's disease had difficulty with responding correctly to stimuli in order to receive a reward. This study indicated that people with degenerative brain disorders may have difficulty with stimulus differentiation which may prevent operant conditioning from working effectively on these patients.

Observational Learning

Observational learning is the basic idea that people learn by observing others and then mimicking their behavior. Bandura termed the behavior being observed as "modeling" and theorized the people were more likely to perform certain behaviors if they saw or observed others participating in similar behaviors. This theory also argued that if people observed someone receiving positive reinforcement for behaving in a certain way, they are more likely to attempt to copy the behaviors they have observed in order to receive a reward themselves. One example of this can be seen in young girls who dress and acts like their favorite celebrity thinking that by doing so they will be able to become celebrities themselves (or will become popular). Bandura further argues that much of human learning occurs by observing others behavior and then copying it rather than by classical or operant conditioning.

Hall et al. (2009) performed a study of 345 athletes in order to determine how observational learning affected their confidence in their athletic abilities. Athletes were asked to fill out a questionnaire that asked them questions related to observing their own athletic performances and those of others and how this affected their confidence and their performance in their chose sport. The results of this study indicated that that athletes that observed themselves performing well were more likely to have strong confidence in their abilities. Athletes that performed poorly were likely to observe what their mistakes were and to correct them in the next game or practice.


Understanding how and why people learn is an important part of the study of psychology. By understanding learning psychologists and educators can develop newer and more effective techniques for helping people learn. There are three main types of learning theories, classical conditioning, operant conditioning and observational learning. Each type of theory has benefits and disadvantages.

Classical conditioning is more focused on a simple stimuli-response pattern of learning where stimuli and responses are natural and involuntary. In contrast operant conditioning focuses more on voluntary response to stimuli as well as the role of reinforcers (positive, negative) and punishment in encouraging or discouraging specific response to behavior. Finally, observational learning theories focus on how people learn by observing others behavior and then mimicking it. Each of these theories have been applied in research studies that range from studies on Alzheimer's Disease to sports related studies. It can be concluded, that while these theories do not always have an effective practical use, they are helpful in helping to understand how learning occurs.


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Hall Craig R.; Munroe-Chandler Christa; Cumming Jennifer; Law Barbi; Ramsey Richard; & Murphy Lisa . (2009). Imagery and observational learning use and their relationship to sport confidence. Journal of Sport Sciences, 27 (4) , 327-337.

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Schultz, Douglas H. and Helmstetter, Fred J. . (2010). Classical Conditioning of Autonomic Fear.

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Spira, Adam P. and Edelstein, Barry A. (2007). Operant Conditioning in Older Adults with Alzheimers Disease . The Psychological Record 57 , 409-427.