Conceptual Approaches to Learning Beverly Nation PSY 6290 Dr ...
Running head: LEARNING 1
Conceptual Approaches to Learning
June 13, 2010
University of the Rockies
This manuscript presents an overview of three broad approaches to learning, which are the
behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscience approaches. Fundamental characteristics of the theories
are discussed along with similarities and differences of the concepts. An example is given for
the cognitive approach to learning.
Conceptual Approaches to Learning
The brain and the central nervous system are the biological infrastructure that supports
learning. Specifically, the limbic system, which includes the hippocampus, limbic cortex,
amygdala, and cerebellum are engaged in learning and memory (Carlson, 2010). While the brain
has been referred to as a computer, it is actually much more sophisticated. The neural
connections of the brain, which number in the trillions, could be likened to a flexible web that is
self-organizing, ever changing, and overlapping. Thus, the brain is far superior to a linear
computer. As people use their brains, they strengthen connections and create patterns for
learning and memory. Mental concentration and learning activities alter the physical
composition of the brain. With the foundation of neuroscience, which studies the physiological
components of learning, other broad learning theories have emerged including the cognitive and
behavioral approaches. This manuscript will expand upon the conceptual similarities and
differences between the cognitive, behavioral, and neuroscience learning concepts.
A definition of learning, in the context of psychology, must include verbal knowledge, habits,
skills, attitudes, and behavior outside conscious awareness. Therefore, learning may be defined
as a permanent change in behavior that occurs pursuant to experience (Terry, 2009). Learning is
a process that happens in the nervous system and may be validated by an organism’s behavior.
The behavioral approach attempts to describe the relationships between stimuli, responses,
and consequences. This theory explores what stimuli preceded the behavior, the behavior
response, and the results after the behavior had occurred. Sub-classifications of behavioral
learning are classical, operant, and instrumental conditioning (Carlson, 2010).
The cognitive approach could be likened to a computer that stores information for retrieval.
The brain takes in knowledge where it is encoded, transformed, stored, and retrieved (Terry,
2009). Learning takes place through the sensory modalities.
The neuroscience approach takes into consideration the biological changes happening in the
brain during the learning process. Levels of neural activity are measured with PET or MRI
scans. Areas of involvement are the central nervous system and the limbic system, as previously
Similarities in the Approaches
The cognitive and neuroscience approaches overlap within the premise that learning is
internalized. The cognitive theory purports that learning occurs through human sensory
modalities of audition, gustation, olfaction, vision, and cutaneous senses (Carlson, 2010). These
modalities are intricately linked to the neurophysiology of the brain. Cognition, learning, and
memory are processes of the limbic system. Cognitive learning is happening consciously and
subconsciously and is dependent upon a healthy central nervous system.
Researchers in Switzerland tested 18 children with various forms of dysfunction in the
central nervous system including lesions of the basal ganglia. They found the children showed
deficits in cognitive and procedural learning (Mayor-Dubois, Maeder, Zesiger, & Roulet-Perez,
2010). In fact, brain damage will impair both cognitive and behavioral learning. Studies have
found damage in the hippocampus affects behavioral learning and amygdala dysfunction affects
cognitive learning (Terry, 2009).
Another similarity is that behavioral and cognitive learning both affect the brain by creating
new neural pathways. Learning is a process where experiences change the central nervous
system leading to modifications of behavior. These experiences occur through the senses or
conditioning and alter neural circuits that control perceiving, performing, thinking, and planning
A third kinship of concepts is that behavioral and cognitive learning approaches cannot take
place outside of awareness. They require cognitive resources, and can be affected by verbal
instructions, rules, and deductive reasoning processes (Boakes, 2009). Sensory modalities along
with these resources are the catalysts that launch the learning process.
Differences in the Approaches
One difference between the behavioral and cognitive theories is that cognitive learning may
be passive through the senses while behavioral learning requires action or a response. The
behaviorist seeks to find the correlation between a stimulus, the action taken, and the result.
Often, associations are made between past experiences and present responses. In contrast,
cognitive learning is fluid, ongoing, and present. Information is gathered and stored in the
central nervous system as memories but often does not elicit any response or action. An
individual may cognitively learn something through observation but not display the knowledge
until a reward or punishment is presented.
Another difference between the theories of behavioral and cognitive learning is that
behaviorists emphasize the need for a conscious effort on the part of the learner for the
educational process to begin. The subject must make an association between two events being
related to each other. In contrast, the cognitive theory does not demand reasoning, critical
thinking, or decision-making. Information is gathered through sensory modalities, processed,
and stored for future use.
Example of Cognitive Learning
One compelling example of cognitive learning is the educational process that takes place in a
newborn. Upon birth, infants start learning through their senses as they explore their new
environment. They can focus and follow moving objects with their eyes, distinguish pitch and
volume of sound, see colors and distinguish hue and brightness. Babies start anticipating events
such as sucking at the sight of a nipple. The rapid cognitive development of infants has amazed
parents and researchers alike.
Recent advances in neuroscience have provided a plethora of knowledge regarding the brain
mechanisms involved in learning. These findings allude to a more complex multi-layer theory of
learning rather than a simplistic behavioral or cognitive approach. Evidence of human learning
supports a view of multiple learning systems working in congruence. It is apparent that the
behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscience approaches are intersecting and harmonious within the
Boakes, R. (2009). Learning without thinking. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(2), 202-203.
Retrieved from Research Library. doi:1684870981
Carlson, N. (2010). Physiology of behavior (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Mayor-Dubois C., Maeder P., Zesiger P., Roulet-Perez E.( 2010). Visuo-motor and cognitive
procedural learning in children with basal ganglia pathology. Neuropsychologia, 48(7), 2009-
2017. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20362601
Terry, W.S. (2009). Learning & memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. (4th ed.)
Boston: Pearson Higher Education.