The Psychology of Effective Learning

There are tonnes of online tests available to tell us what type of learner we are. But some psychologists believe that an understanding of the psychology of learning would be better served studying external behaviours than internal thoughts and memories. Whether visual, aural, or mechanical thinkers, there is a school of psychology which holds that there are 3 ways in which our brain can be conditioned to learn.

Some of the conclusions that behavioural psychologists arrived at could be very useful when planning your study methods and schedules. Read on for a breakdown of how these can help you.

What is Learning?

There is a consensus among psychologists that learning is a relatively permanent change in behaviour resulting from our experiences. So how is this achieved?

Classical Conditioning

This is the sort of change in behaviour brought on by the famous experiments that Ivan Pavlov conducted on his dogs. By ringing a bell every time the dogs were fed, he was able to cause the dogs to salivate merely by ringing the bell.

Operant Learning

If you want the behaviour to stick, however, you must keep up the stimulus. Operant learning involves continued stimulus which is either positive – rewards – or negative – punishments.

  • Continued reinforcement schedule: This increases the chance of a conditioned behaviour occurring, except for a short time after the stimulus is issued. Psychologist agree this is the best method to use when trying to instil a new behaviour
  • Fixed ratio reinforcement: This method involves issuing a stimulus after a certain number of tasks have been completed and gives a good rate of responding overall
  • Variable ratio reinforcement: This method dishes out stimulus at random, unequal rates. It does produce a high rate of response but it is the same reward system that people get from gambling, so may not best way to instil the new behaviours we’re after.
  • Fixed Interval Reinforcement: Like Fixed ration this method provides regular stimulus. The drawback, however, is that it only provides good responses at the end of the interval just before a stimulus is going to be issued.
  • Variable interval: This method involves providing stimulus at random points in time regardless of output of the subject. Although it does provide response it’s much slower than the other methods.

Observational Learning

Albert Bandura’s ‘social learning theory’ was based on his ‘Bobo Doll’ experiments, in which adults were made to play with Bobo dolls in an increasingly aggressive manner. Those children exposed to the aggressive adult behaviour were more likely to imitate the behaviour.

Now, we’re not suggesting that you take a hammer to your Furbies, but it does show how suggestive we are to the behaviour of others.

The logical conclusion of this is that learning around others will instil the new positive behaviours of your peers more quickly than if you try to learn in isolation. 

What does this mean for your study methods? 

Obviously, you want to learn more quickly and efficiently. That is to elicit permanent behavioural change more quickly. Incorporating this into your study method couldn’t be simpler.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, if you provide yourself a treat – say chocolate, an episode on a Netflix series, or even just a five-minute break – every when you study, you’ll condition a positive behavioural change quicker than without a reward system.  At first these stimulating treats should be continuous; say every time you complete a task on your to-do list. Later, moving on to the fixed ratio reinforcement method – every time you complete, say, 5 tasks on your to do list- will continue to give you the best behavioural response rate.

But remember, stimulus is not kept up your behavioural response will slow down and eventually cease. If you really want to instil new positive learning behaviours for life, continuous learning and reward is required. There’s lots of ways to keep this up during periods of academic inactivity, like Summer programmes, or even just reading widely. But as Bandura notes, you’ll be better served by learning around other that can offer a positive influence.

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