The Key to Successful Learning

Learning is the process through which individuals acquire new knowledge or build on previously learned information. Every day learning takes place in the boardroom, classroom, on athletic fields, and in the home. Behavior plays a significant role in learning and is the way people act or conduct themselves, especially while interacting with others. It makes sense that behaviors that are followed by pleasant outcomes tend to be repeated and behaviors followed by unpleasant outcomes tend to be eliminated. When people work hard, and their work is rewarded they will try harder. However, if work and effort aren’t appreciated individuals tend to think, why bother? Often, these differing emotions are felt by children and teens.

As parents, educators, and academic therapists we attempt to analyze kids’ behavior and how learning happens. We observe behavior to better understand students from the outside, where the visible causes of behavior are found. Watching a student’s behavior and exploring how they learn is a good starting place, but there’s more to understanding how learning occurs. Associationism is key to understanding how learning takes place. It claims that any two things, including ideas, become mentally associated with each other if they are repeatedly experienced closely together. For example, when lightning flashes and thunder is heard the two become associated as one experience. In a learning environment associationism is an extremely important component of the process. People learn and are motivated for two reasons: to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. These fundamental motivations explain why rewards and punishments shape behavior.

Students spend several hours a day in school; an environment designed to stimulate learning. Among professionals the idea of learning varies; many believe that knowledge comes from experience and others feel that learning focuses on behavior not knowledge. The behavioral idea of traditional learning identifies three key types of learning: habituation, classical conditioning, and operant conditioning. Habituation is one of the most common forms of learning and is an example of non-associative learning because there is no reward or punishment associated with the learning process. This simple form of learning allows people to tune out non-essential stimuli and focus on the things that demand their attention. In other words, the more we encounter something, the less likely we are to react. Even the impact of important life events can lessen over time. Keeping students engaged in the classroom and at home requires parents and educators to involve kids in associative learning. Associative learning can be a powerful teaching tool. It can help students engage and connect with information more deeply and recall that information with greater accuracy.

Classical conditioning is a learning process that was discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. This process occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus. The association between two stimuli results in a learned response. Events become associated not merely because they occurred, but because the meaning of one event changed the meaning of an associated event. In the classroom teachers can apply classical conditioning by creating a positive learning environment for students by eliminating anxiety and frustrations. Clear communication about expectations and assignment deadlines will lessen feelings of anxiety for students. Pleasant surroundings and accurate messaging will help students learn new associations prompting them to stay relaxed and calm because they understand curriculum expectations.

Operant conditioning is the type of learning that occurs from experience. It involves the use of rewards for positive behavior and punishments for negative behaviors, and reinforces the importance of accountability for individual choices. Controlling a behavior by using rewards and punishments is commonly used by parents and educators. Rewards are used to help kids start new behaviors, maintain positive behavior and prevent negative behaviors. Parents use praise and allowance, and teachers use gold stars and treats; the outcome is to reinforce certain positive behavioral patterns.

Punishments can also be effective, but only when used correctly. Timing and consistency are key when issuing punishment to alter a behavior. Avoid sending mixed messages because this may create a counterproductive result. Many believe that punishment is the only way to curb negative behavior, but they are wrong. Rewards can also be used to alter a negative response. For example, reward a child for reading instead of punishing him for watching television. The bottom line is that rewards and punishments are effective techniques for behavioral control however, consistency is extremely important when it comes to distributing punishments and rewards at home and in the classroom.