What is Learning? Meaning, Definitions, Features, and More

What is Learning?

Learning is the relatively permanent change in an organism’s behavior due to practice and experience. It is our readiness and purpose due to which we want to learn something.

We have been learning from the very beginning of our lives and we will continue to learn for the rest of our lives. It is a continuous process and encompasses much more than what we just do in school. We learn from parents, friends, relatives, movies, televisions, newspapers, and jobs, even before starting school. It is a key process in human behavior. It covers a major section in psychology.

Without learning, life becomes meaningless and colorless. It shapes our thoughts, language, motivations, emotions, personalities, and attitudes which help us to adapt to the changing condition in the world around us. The process of learning plays an important role in our activities. It is not limited to any sex, age, education, race, or culture. It is influenced by the learner, learning materials, methods, process, environment, etc. It can result from vicarious as well as from direct experiences. People are affected by observing events and behaviors occurring in the environment as well as by participating in them.

Learning usually involves acquiring the ability to do something that we have not done before. It is also the ability to use already acquired reactions in a new and different way. It is much more than the learning skills or academic subject materials. For example, perceiving the world in relation to emotional, motivational, social, and personality development is also a learning process. It causes the individual to make necessary adjustments and adaptations in order to coexist with the environment. It is purposeful and goal-oriented. It would be hard to learn without any purpose.

Definitions of Learning

In psychology, the term learning refers to any relatively permanent change in behavior through experience because of interactions with the environment. Kimble and Garmezy (1963) defined “learning as a relatively permanent change in behavioral tendency and is the result of reinforced practice.” This definition stresses reinforced practice is the cause of learning. This definition indicates it as:

  • Reinforced practice
  • Behavioral tendency (process)
  • Change in behavior

The reinforced practice is the cause of learning. It occurs between the cause and the result. Behavioral tendency distinguishes between learning and performance, the input and output. We can not observe learning but can observe the change in performance. A person who does not know anything, in the beginning, becomes active and knowledgeable when the learning process occurs. For example, when a child sees fire the child never puts his finger in it because he had already learned that fire will burn him. In the same way, a dog who has learned the command “sit down” will sit when ordered. Learning to drive a car, memorizing a poem are all-new performances that we acquired with reinforced practice.

Morgan, King, Weiz, and Schopler (1993), defined learning “as any permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of practice of experience.” This definition states three important elements:

  • It is a change in behavior, for the better or worse. The changes produced by it, are not always positive in nature, as people acquire bad habits as well as good ones.
  • It is a change that takes place through practice or experience.
  • Before the behavior can be called learned, the change must be relatively permanent, lasting for a fairly long time, usually days, months, or years.

Characteristics of Learning

The major characteristics are:

  • It is a universal and continuous process not limited to any particular age, sex, race, and culture, etc.
  • It is a change in behavior that does not necessarily mean that the change must bring a positive improvement or development.
  • It causes the individual to make necessary adjustments and adapt to coexist with the environment.
  • It is purposeful and goal-oriented.
  • It does not include the change in behavior on account of maturation, growth, fatigue, drugs, etc.
  • It is influenced by the learner, stimulus, and environmental factors.
  • It ranges from simple to complex.

What is Not Learning?

All changes in behavior are not the result of learning. The definition distinguishes learning behavior from those that occur automatically in response to external events, for example, shivering when cold or sweating when it is hot is not. Psychologists identified there are certain behaviors that describe changes that are not learning. They are:

Native Response Tendencies or Instincts

A change in innate or inherited tendencies is not learning. For example, natural responses and activities such as a knee jerk, eye blink, breathing, and nausea are not learned, as these reflexes are universal in species, who by birth bear these capabilities. We also do not acquire these through practice or reinforcement. There are certain behaviors that are both products of instinct and learning, such as mating behavior and imprinting. Imprinting is the tendency of newborn animals or birds to follow the first moving object they encounter during a critical period shortly after birth.

Change Due To Maturation

An increase in height and weight due to anatomical maturation and growth is not learning. Maturation is the unfolding of characteristics potentially present in the individuals that come from the genetic endowment. Phylogenetic functions such as creeping, crawling, sitting, and walking in a particular race come from maturation. By contrast, ontogenetic functions are specific to the individual such as swimming, riding bicycles, or writing. Training is essential to develop these abilities through effort and practice.

For example, a two-year-old toddler cannot lift a heavy ball, but the same toddler can perform this task around his fourth birthday due to the maturation of the muscles and nerves. Similarly, a child can not talk before proper vocal and neural development. In the early adolescence stage a boy’s voice changes, a girl has menstruation. These changes usually come at a certain period in all the members of the particular species.

Change Due To Fatigue, Drug, Injury, and Illness

Other biological causes such as fatigue, drugs, injury, illness, or like are not learning. They only bring a temporary change in behavior. For example, if you are on a trek the walking uphill may lead you not to walk further. The resulting change in behavior due to failure to walk is not learning. Similarly, drugs produce or inhibit changes only temporarily. For example, a paracetamol pill may help to ease a headache. This change is not learning. Some drugs can positively influence individuals’ learning and memory.

Each day millions of people around the world use drugs to alter their mood or state of consciousness. These drugs produce temporary changes in consciousness but do not create permanent modifications. These temporary changes do not involve a practice or past experience and so, a modification due to past experience and practice cannot be attributed to learning. The term drug abuse refers to instances in which people take drugs purely to change their moods, and in which they experience impaired behavior or social functioning as a result of doing so. This change is not learning. The change due to injury and illness, in the same way, is not learning even though it brings short-term or long-term differences and changes one’s life.

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