DSE212 Exploring Psychology: Three approaches to learning

Chapter 3, on Three approaches to learning, runs to 46 pages is back to proper psychology. This is the first of the part 2 exam chapters so isn’t tested in any TMA which means that my notes will initially be less fleshed out on this but will improve as the exam approaches.

I’ve highlighted the key exam topics.

This chapter looks at three basic approaches to learning starting with conditioning which is essentially the basis for rote learning, moving on to category learning and finally looking at social and cultural aspects to learning. Quite a fundamental thing and a topic that is covered in some depth in the Child Development module as you would expect.

The comparative approach looks at how different species and generally does this through the methods of behaviourism which look at actual behaviours and ignore the possibility of any internal mental states that may exist.

Classical conditioning introduces a whole raft of terminology, taking up around 1/3rd of the chapter along the way i.e. it’s a pretty important topic. It all started with the physiologist Pavlov who was interested in reflexes. He began by creating a contingency by pairing a neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell) with a natural one (e.g. salivating when food is in the mouth) and found that after a number of repetitions, the neutral stimulus was sufficient to create the salivation (the conditional response) i.e. it had become a conditioned stimulus (or conditioned stimulus), this process being called classical conditioning with the reflex linking the bell to the salivation being the conditional reflex; the food itself is the unconditional stimulus and its salivation is the unconditional response. Watson went on to screw up little Albert by banging a lump of metal behind him whenever he saw a rat which he initially wasn’t scared of.

Instrumental conditioning is where the subject taking a particular action is either rewarded for doing this (positive reinforcement) or something undesirable for them is stopped by their action (negative reinforcement). If the subject is required to so something specific to obtain their reward this is operant conditioning e.g. rats pressing a lever to gain food pellets. Punishment is the initiation of something as a consequence of their actions that would cause negative reinforcement. These techniques have been used in behaviour modification. Experiments based on instrumental conditioning include Tolman with the fan of maze routes showing that there they develop a mental model rather than just having their behaviour modified and variations on this based on room layout.

Category learning arises when we realise that things are generally not unique but rather fall into specific categories which can aid application of knowledge acquired in one context in an entirely different one e.g. we can identify a creature with scales as a “fish” which in turn means that we know it can swim even if we don’t know the specific species. However, that begs the question: how do we build these categories in the first place and a plethora of experiments have looked at that e.g. Bruner and his stimulus cards revealed a number of different strategies used to identify categories (eliminating categories by focusing on one property rather than just randomly scanning works best). Criticisms include that these are artificial categories and that natural categories are quite different e.g. birds need wings to fly and aren’t just things with wings. There’s the issue of whether we can learn new categories and how we do so: is it by hypothesis testing as Bruner would argue, or are the categories innate as Chomsky and Fodor would say? Quite a complex area and these notes don’t really cover it properly yet (see p196-200 of the book).

The sociocultural perspective considers the use of tools and how it depends on interpersonal relationships and is embedded in the society and culture in which it takes place. For example, you could learn to do calculations on paper, on a calculator or perhaps with an abacus. This moves on to the issue of the use of language in problem solving and the differences between cumulative talk (that merely sums up what has gone before) and exploratory talk (that moves the conversation onwards). Finally there is the business of enculturation or indoctrination into the school system: making sense of how school works or learning how to learn in a school context.

For the exam, the key topics for this chapter are highlighted above and are:

Sociocultural perspective
Operant conditioning
Classical conditioning
Category learning

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