Theories of Learning


Meaning of Learning

Learning can be defined as a relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a result of prior experiences. Learning takes place when an individual behaves, reacts or responds a result of an experience in a manner different from the way he formerly behaved.

Nature of Learning

  • Learning involves a change in behaviour. The change need not necessarily improvement. Learning may be good or bad. For example, a person may leam new skills or bad habits.
  • Change in behaviour must be relatively permanent. Temporary changes like change caused by fatigue are not covered in learning.
  • The change in behaviour should occur as a result of experience or practice. For example, a child does not learn to work, it is a natural biological phenomenon. The experience may be direct experience, e.g., a course in computers or indirect, e.g., observing others.
  • The experience or practice must be reinforced in order for learning to occur. if reinforcement does not accompany the experience or practice, the behaviour will eventually disappear.
  • Learning is reflected in behaviour. A change in an individual’s attitudes or thought process, not accompanied by changed behaviour is no learning.

Theories of Learning

Classical conditioning

This theory also called ‘law of exercise’ states that behaviour can be learned by the repetitive association between a stimulus and a response (S-R association), For example, during a cleanliness drive in a hospital to prepare for inspection by the Health Minister, nurses and other staff showed greater attention to their duties. This practice continued for a considerable period. Eventually, nurses and other staff began to pay utmost attention to duties whenever the cleanliness drive was carried out even if there was no inspection.

Classical conditioning represents only a very small part of total human learning. Therefore, it has a limited value in the study of organisational behaviour. It is passive. Something happens and we react in a specific or particular way. It is elicited in response to a specific, identifiable event and as such it explains simple and reflexible behaviours. But the behaviour of people in organisations is emitted rather than elicited, and it is voluntary rather than reflexive. The learning of complex behaviours can be better understood by looking at operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning

Operant means behaviour that produces the effect. According to B.F. Skinner, the behaviour is not a function, of inner thoughts, feelings or emotions but of its consequences. People learn to behave to get something they desire or to avoid something they do not like. Behaviour is likely to be repeated if the consequences are favourable and it is not likely to be repeated if the consequences are unfavourable. Thus operant conditioning is a voluntary or learned behaviour and it is controlled by its consequences (law of effect). For example, a child who burnt his fingers by touching a hot iron will keep away from the iron to avoid burning.

Operant conditioning is a powerful tool for managing people in organisations. Most behaviours in organisations are learned, controlled and altered by the consequences, i.e, operant behaviours. Managers can use the operant conditioning process successfully to influence and control the behaviour of employees by manipulating the reward system. If a manager wants to influence behaviour, he must also be able to manipulate the consequences. To conclude. the behavioural consequences that are rewarding increase the rate of response, while the punishing consequences decrease the rate of response.

Cognitive learning

The two earlier theories are based upon cause and effect relationship between stimulus and response. But in cognitive theory learning is considered as the outcome of deliberate thinking about the problem or situation. Here the primary emphasis is on knowing how events and objects are related to each other. Most of the learning that takes place in the classroom is cognitive learning. This theory is based on the premise that learning is achieved by thinking about the perceived relationship between events and individual goals and expectations.

Cognitive learning can be useful in work organisations. Training programmes may be designed to strengthen the relationship between cognitive ones such as supervisors and job procedures: and monetary and other rewards. Many theories of motivation are based upon a cognitive approach to learning. It is believed that employees will learn to be more productive by building a relationship between following directions and procedures and expectation of monetary rewards for these efforts.

Social learning

Social learning theory integrates the operant and cognitive approaches to learning. It emphasises that people acquire new behaviours by observing and imitating others in the social setting. Learning is not a result of the environment (operant view) or of the individual (cognitive view) but of both. For example, when A observes that B is rewarded for superior performance, A learns the positive relationship between performance and rewards. In addition to observing or imitating others, human beings can learn through self-control. They can improve their behaviour by simply thinking about their behaviour. Social learníng plays a crucial role in altering behaviour in work organisations.