An Examination of the Concept of Learning

Learning occurs during every stage of life yet it is not something that one is continually aware of. In order to understand learning, one must first be able to describe and define it which will be accomplished in this examination. This article will continue exploring the concept of learning by discussing the differences between learning and performance. In addition, the conceptual approaches to the study of learning will be compared and contrasted.

The Concept of Learning

Learning is an activity that occurs in many ways, in many situations, and under many conditions; this makes defining it simplistically a difficult task as the learning process can be intricate. “Learning is a very complex and many-sided mater including ‘any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change and which is not solely due to biological maturation or ageing'” (Illeris, 2007, p. 5). Simply put, learning is a process that leads to a permanent change in a living creature. Additionally, this change results in observable behavior. Learning is an internal process; only though viewing the behavior, can one determine that learning has occurred.

Proof that learning has occurred is sometimes not evident until a later time. In other words, the behavior that proves that learning has occurred might not present itself until the circumstances warrant it. For example, an individual may take a First Aid class and learn the warning signs for heat stroke. It is not until several months after taking the class that this individual recognized those warning signs in another person. He responds to the emergency by calling the ambulance and treating the person with heat stroke while they wait for emergency services to arrive. Although the initial learning occurred during the First Aid class; learning could not be demonstrated until the circumstances warranted it. “Thus, the definition [of learning] also specifies that learning includes the potential for a change in behavior to be demonstrated when testing conditions prompt the display of this new knowledge” (Terry, 2009, p. 7).

Learning and Performance

Learning and performance are relative. While a behavior may deduce that learning has occurred, the behavior itself is what dictates performance. We may measure the behavior as poor, good, or excellent; all of which are considered a measurement of performance. According to Terry (2009), “performance does not accurately assess the underlying learning that is present” (p. 10).

An individual’s performance may be affected by circumstance. For example, a student may have learned a subject well enough to excel on an exam but be unable to pass as a result of cognitive fatigue. Ackerman and Kanfer (2009), suggest that extant models of cognitive fatigue denote that performance will decline if there is an inability to replenish oneself either through sleep, or taking a break from the task at hand (p. 167). Circumstance may dictate performance regardless of the learner’s ability.

Conceptual Approaches to the Study of Learning

The Functional Approach

The Functional Approach to the study of learning revolves around the utilization of learning and memory in order to aid survival. Animal adaptability is a good example of the Functional Approach as animals have the ability to learn through conditioning. “Animals with a common evolutionary history would likely share certain kinds of learning or memory abilities” (Terry, 2009, p. 19). For example, elephants being bitten by mosquitoes may learn through association that covering their skin in mud prevents the bugs from biting thus preventing disease and aiding in their survivability.

This approach is very similar to the following approach as both the Functional Approach and the Behavioral Approach utilize behavioral conditioning. The only difference being that the Functional Approach uses it solely for the purpose of survival.

The Behavioral Approach

Like the Functional Approach, the Behavioral Approach to learning can best be understood through examining animal behavior. This approach focuses on the relationship between a behavior, a stimuli and the consequence that follow.

A study done on monkeys showed that their learning performance improved when reward was given. Smith, Coutinho, and Couchman (2010) suggest that, “Stimulus features, feature combinations, or whole stimuli might come to trigger correct responses more often through the catalysis of positive reinforcement signals” (p. 23). The monkey’s behavior was reinforced by the reward which in turn increased the likelihood that the behavior would be repeated. This behavior would be further engrained if the reward benefited the organism’s survival as in the Functional Approach.

The Cognitive Approach

The Cognitive Approach to learning suggests that there is an internal process for the way one stores and retrieves information. “This internal representation, as well as the cognitive processes of storing it, transforming it, retrieving it, and so forth, are all inferred on the basis of behavior, much as in the approach of behaviorists” (Terry, 2009, p. 20). In other words, the Cognitive Approach focuses on the actual process of learning. An example of this could be the utilization of a mnemonic to remember information; ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) for the colors that make up a rainbow is one.

The Neuroscience Approach

The Neuroscience Approach to learning focuses on the biology behind the learning process. This approach seeks to discover the “changes that occur in the nervous system during learning” (Terry, 2009, p. 21). This approach may combine all of the previous learning approaches to discover the biological processes that are occurring during learning. An example of the Neuroscience Approach would be watching the brain waves of a child learning how to speak using different teaching techniques.

Learning occurs in many ways; utilizing many approaches, however, we are not always aware of the changes occurring. Each of the learning approaches, while different; appear to work in unison to solidify learning.


Ackerman, P., and Kanfer, R. (2009). Cognitive Fatigue: An Empirical Examination of Effects on Performance and Test-Taker Reactions. American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/a0015719

Illeris, K. (2007). How We Learn: Learning and Non-Learning in School and Beyond. Retrieved from

Smith, J., Coutinho, V., and Couchman, J. (2010). The Learning of Exclusive-Or Categories by Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) and Humans (Homo sapiens). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 2011, 37:1, 20-29.

Terry, W. (2009). Learning and Memory: Basic Principles, Processes, and Procedures (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.