A theory is a set of generalized statements supported by experimental evidence. Marx (1971) defines theory as a provisional explanatory proposition or set of propositions, concerning some natural phenomena. A theory is based on the preliminary findings of previous researchers. Several theories have therefore evolved about how people learn, while some theories are better than others in explaining types of learning. However, no particular or single theory is sufficient to explain how all learning takes place. Some of these theories are explained below:
Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), was a renowned Russian Psychologist. He propounded the theory of classical conditioning in learning. Classical conditioning theory explains how an organism’s behaviour becomes paired with some stimuli/factors in the environment. This theory, sometimes referred to as “stimulus-substitution”, represents a condition where through contiguity and repetition in a presentation of a stimulus, a learner generalizes an existing stimulus-response connection to some new stimuli.
The theory was based on the fact that unconditioned stimulus would originally produce unconditioned response. For example, Pavlov believed that the food (U S) would naturally produce salivation (U R) in dog. This kind of reaction or response was referred to as unlearnt reflex action. He went further to say that when U S (food) is paired with the sound of bell (C S) i.e. conditioned stimulus, the dog would produce salivation (U R). This is what he called the conditioning stage. At another stage, U S was removed leaving C S alone. After the experiment, the dog produced conditioned response (C R) salivation. This stage of learning could be referred to as manifestation of conditioned response (learnt behaviour). Thus, the experiment is summarized below with these graphic illustrations:
From the above illustrations the following revelations were made:
1. That when U S alone was presented to the dog, the dog only produced U R. i.e. the behaviour of the organism was a reflex or natural one.
2. By the time the U S was associated with C S (bell), the dog started to condition itself to the sound of bell.
3. When C S alone was presented to the dog, it had already conditioned its response to the sound of the bell, hence, conditioned response was emitted.
4. When bell was no longer accompanied with the food, the tendency of the dog to salivate gradually diminishes until it finally stopped (Extinction Stage).
5. To make the dog recover from extinction, it must be presented with U S again.
1. The theory believed that one must be able to practise and master a task effectively before embarking on another one. This means that a student needs to be able to respond to a particular stimulus (information) before he/she can be associated with a new one.
2. Teachers should know how to motivate their students to learn. They should be versatile with various strategies that can enhance effective participation of the students in the teaching-learning activities.
3. Most of the emotional responses can be learned through classical conditioning. A negative or positive response comes through the stimulus being paired with. For example, providing the necessary school material for primary school pupils will develop good feelings about school and learning in them, while, punishment will discourage them from attending the school.
B.F. Skinner Theory of Instrumental or Operant Conditioning
Instrumental conditioning theory of learning was formulated by B.F. Skinner. Who was an American Psychologist. His theory came based on the lapses discovered in the classical conditioning theory. Skinner believed that classical conditioning explained only how behaviour that has already been acquired can occur in the presence of a new stimulus (Iversen, 1992). Operant or instrumental conditioning, however, believed that most learning consist of acquiring new behaviour. He believed that behaviour is an outcome of response that follows the action. The learner will possibly repeat the action or a particular behaviour if it is followed/ rewarded with a pleasant consequence (positive reinforcement). Skinner explained the two types of responses in his theory. One can be elicited only by the stimulus or information an individual acquires at a particular period (reflex response). For example, stepping on a sharp object or touching a hot metal will originally make someone to produce reflex response. The second type is the response that an individual elicits following his/her own decision. This type of response is called operant conditioning. It is based on the fact that behaviour operates upon the environment to generate its own response. This operant behaviour emits voluntary response. Operant conditioning believes that behavioural responses become connected to environmental stimuli largely as a result of what happens after the response occurs. To establish his claims, Skinner performed many experiments with pigeons and white rats in the laboratory. He constructed a box (Skinner box) with a small lever inside it. The lever releases food to the animals whenever the lever is pressed. In one of the experiments, an hungry rat is placed in the box and if the rat presses the lever, the food would drop for it. The lever in this box is mechanically connected to a device that automatically records every attempt the rat made.
In the box the rat moved around tirelessly and each time the lever is pressed, the food falls for the rat. The rat becomes persistent in pressing the lever so that the food could fall. The food that comes down for the rat reinforces its action, this lever pressing becomes a conditioned response for the rat. In contrast, if the food is not accompanied with the pressing of lever, the number of presses would fall gradually to the lowest point. In this type of theory, it is the result or consequence of a behaviour that makes that behaviour more likely to be repeated on learned. If the result of behaviour is gratifying, one is likely to respond the same way the next time one encounters that stimulus. In the above experiment, the pressing of lever becomes instrument (instrumental).
Skinner in this theory identified the two types of reinforcers, they are positive and negative reinforcers. The stimulus that occurs after a response is called a reinforcer. Giving a pleasant or complimentary remark to a student for scoring a good mark in an assignment or homework is a positive reinforcer. By this action, it is likely that such a student will want to continue doing his/her assignment promptly. However, the student who receives punishment for misbehaving in the classroom is not likely to repeat the action for which he/she has received unpleasant/negative reward.
Classroom Implications of Instrumental/Operant Conditioning Theory
The teacher should know that the environment or the conditions in which the students learn are very significant to the learning outcomes, hence, the teacher should provide conducive learning environment and conditions for his/her students.
1. Reinforcement is an essential factor if the students must perform well in a given task. To this end, the teacher should not neglect the use of motivation that can adequately propel the students into actions.
2. If a student engages in a disruptive behaviour, the teacher should not reinforce such a behaviour rather, he/she should endeavour to tell such a student the dare consequence of that action.
3. When there is interference in the transfer of experiences by the learners, the teacher may use explanations and reinforcement to strengthen the desired facts and weaken the undesired one.
Albert Bandura is noted as one of the exponents of theory of social learning and observational learning. Social learning theory explains human behaviour from the point of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioural and environmental influences.
For social learning theory to take place, there are four factors which must be present. These are observers (learners), teacher (model), learners’ attention and proximity or nearness. The process of learning is influenced by the extent of identifications and imitations by the learners to the other three factors (Bandura, 1978). In most cases, an individual will like to emulate a model who is perceived to be competent, powerful, and attractive, as well as someone whose behaviour is relevant to the observer (Bandura, 1986). This means that we learn by observing the behaviour of others (Miller & Dollard, 1941).
In social learning theory, reinforcement is not a prerequisite for a learning to occur, but this increases the chance that what has been learnt will definitely be performed. This theory is therefore rested on the fact that an action or behaviour can be performed if the model is pleasantly rewarded. It is also believed that there is probability that an observer might drop a behaviour if he found out that the model has received a negative reinforcement for practicing such a behaviour.
Classroom Implications of Social Learning Theory
1. The teacher is a model for students in his/her classroom, and he/she has a profound effect on students’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviour (Crowl, Kaminsiky and Podell, 1997). In this case, the teacher should be a good model.
2. The teacher should always make sure that he/she does not condone any irrational behaviour from his/her students. Any offending student should be appropriately dealt with, so as to serve as a deterrent to other members of the classroom.
3. The teacher should not forget to give complimentary remarks such as “well done”, excellent”, “good boy/girl,” “keep it up”, as a way of encouraging other students to imitate a good behaviour.
4. Teacher/parents should discourage their students/children from watching violent films or keeping friends of doubtful characters.
Edward Thorndike was an American psychologist. Who lived between 1884 and 1949. Thorndike titled his theory “Connectionism”. He derived this theory by using cats, puzzle box and food. According to Thorndike, the fundamental of learning is the association between sense impressions and impulses to action (stimuli and responses). These associations become strengthened, or weakened by the nature and frequency of the stimuli-responses pairings. This means that an organism will repeat the behaviour if it obtains a pleasant or satisfying stimulus after first demonstrating it. He therefore postulated that learning in an organism involves the act of selecting the most appropriate response and associating it with specific problems or stimuli. Thorndike then described this type of theory as learning by “trial and error” or “trial and success”.
In arriving at this theory, a cat was put in a puzzle box, with food outside it. The logic was that the cat has to escape before it could get the food. There was a release mechanism inside which the cat would operate before it could get outside. In the process, the cat made a series of effort to get outside. Eventually, it succeeded in operating the mechanism, which paved way for its escape and obtaining the food. On the subsequent attempt, the random movement was reduced, and the cat concentrated much on the direction of the release mechanism until it was able to escape again. The help of the “release mechanism” made it possible for the cat to succeed in its escape, hence this type of learning is also known as “instrumental conditioning”.
- The teacher should know that the students learn better when their needs and interests are considered, hence the teacher should ensure that the learning activities revolve around the students.
- Readiness is a prerequisite for learning; the teacher is therefore advised to consider the mental or cognitive capability of the learners when planning the curriculum or instructional contents.
- The teacher should recognize the fact that the students will like to repeat the actions for which they received positive regards. Hence, the teacher should always use various motivational strategies to sustain the interest of the students in the classroom.
- The teacher should always present his/her materials in a logical and more coherent way. This is the major way of arresting and sustaining the interest of the learners in pedagogical activities.
- The teacher should consider the use of punishment as a last option in reducing the undesirable behaviour in his /her classroom. This is because the punishment cannot actually address the problem it rather makes the students to be more violent in the classroom.
- The teacher should recognize the important of exercises or practice in the learning process. Learning may not occur unless practice is reinforced (Hull, 1943). This means that the teacher should engage his/her students in assignment or homework, if meaningful learning must be achieved.
The views of many theorists were collected by Gestalt to formulate a cognitive field theory. Notable among them were Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler. Gestalt in German language means “organization or fusion”. This theory rejected the views that consider the learning process in an isolated form rather than in a total or holistic form. The theory does not support associating bits of experiences as postulated in the stimulus-response theories. This theory is of the opinion that parts are configured or organized to make complete or meaningful experiences or impressions. The emphasis here is on the importance of experience, meaning, problem solving and the development of insights (Burns 1995). The Gestalt therefore placed more credence on insightful learning rather than trial and error like that f Thorndike or mechanical conditioning as performed by Ivan Pavlov in his classical conditioning theory.
Insightful learning is hinged on the fact that animals undergo a series of problem-solving approach following a sequence of principles or logic and previous experience before arriving at a solution. In this theory, the cognitive or mental processes of the animals are regarded as the yardstick in the development of insightful learning.
To establish this fact, Gestalt Psychologists performed several experiments using apes as subjects. In one of the experiments, an ape (Sultan) was put in a cage. This sultan was very intelligent. In the cage was a stool and banana, hung on the top of the box. Initially, several unsuccessful attempts were made by the apes to get the banana. Suddenly, sultan decided to pull out the stool and climbed it to pluck the banana from where it was hung. This type of learning is called insightful, because it involves problem-solving approach.
Another experiment was performed with several apes including sultan, put in the box with a banana and a stick lying outside the cage. Several experimental apes stretched their hands to pick the banana from outside but were unsuccessful. The brilliant one among them (sultan) devised a solution by picking the stick outside first and using it to draw the banana closer until its hand touched the banana.
The last experiment performed by Kohler on this insightful learning, was an extension of the second experiment. In this case, the apes were put in the cage; banana and two sticks (long and short) were lying outside. None of these two sticks could get to the banana unless by joining them together. The apes in the box made series of attempts to rake in the banana with the two sticks separately without succeeding. It was sultan who later manipulated and fixed the two sticks together before it could finally collect the banana. All these experiments indicated that learning cannot take place in a segregated way but in a complete form.
- This theory has developed the concept that learners have different needs and concerns at different times, and that they have subjective interpretations in different contexts (Burns, 1995).
- The teacher should realize the importance of instructional aids during teaching–learning activities, hence he/she should make use of teaching aids for a meaningful learning in the classroom.
- The teacher should make his/her teaching more participatory to the students. It is on this basis that the teacher will be able to discover the hidden talents in his/her students.
- If the classroom experiences of the students are related, students will be able to transfer the gained experience into future learning. This will then promote interrelatedness.
- The teacher should not neglect the use of motivational strategies in teaching –learning activities. This reinforcement will stimulate the efforts of the students in the classroom.
Tolman lived between 1886 and 1959. He was an American Psychologist. His theory was made up of unharmonised facts collected from different theorists. Hilgard et al (1971) defined sign learning as an acquired expectation that one stimulus will be followed in a particular context. Tolman made use of rats and mazes in his experiments. The motive of sign learning is the ultimate goal i.e. “What leads to what” (Purposive behaviourism). This may explain why a rat in Tolman’s experiment decided to run through a complex maze to develop a kind of cognitive structure or map that led it to its goal. Tolman’s theory emphasized the association between the stimuli rather than stimulus-response. For Tolman, learning does not depend on reinforcement nor reward, however, these must enter the picture (be infocus) if learning is to be manifested in performance. In explaining this theory, five types of learning are adopted; these are approach, escape, avoidance, choice-point and latent. These learning types are based on the fact that learning is always purposive and goal oriented, involve the use of environmental factors to obtain a goal, and that an organism will prefer to take the shortest or easiest way to achieve a goal.