Cognitive Science: An Introduction/Kinds of Learning



In various stages of the human life the mind learns new things through a variety of methods. Some require a person to actively approach a problem or change their memory and some types of learning change the human mind in more passive ways; often as a reaction to external forces in the environment. Some are also observational, and derived from studying previous outcomes of situations. In essence, learning is simply changing your memory with the goal of being able to better prepare your mind for future actions, decisions, challenges, etc. Learning is part of the mind’s cognition, and the way in which a person learns is a cognitive function that takes place in their brain. The ability to learn will be different for each person based on their memory and how much their brain can process.

Kinds of Learning




Habituation is when a behavioural response becomes lesser and lesser with increased exposure to a repeated event [1] . It is a type of learning where your mind gradually becomes accustomed to an event, and your reaction (which may be mental or physical) becomes weaker. For example, if you hear a very sudden loud noise, the first time you may flinch or become startled, but upon hearing that noise more and more, you no longer flinch or become startled by it.

Habituation can also be seen at a neural level. Suppose a sensory neuron is connected to a motor neuron. As one fires, and then the other fires, the connection between these two becomes lessened. However, when this same connection is associated with something painful, we get the opposite of habituation: sensitization.



Unlike habituation, sensitization is when your behavioural response is increased amplified by exposure to a repeated event.[2] It is similar in that your reactions to the repeated event are determined automatically by the brain. An example of sensitization is finding a food moderately good tasting at first, but liking it more and more each time they eat it.

At a neural level, when a sensory neuron (sending information about your hand on a stove) is connected to a motor neuron (that, say, is a part of pulling your hand away), in the presence of pain, the cells change so that the connection is strengthened. Afterward, the firing of the sensory neuron makes the firing of the motor neuron more likely than before. Keep in mind that this example is extremely simplified--there are thousands, perhaps millions, of neurons that are involved with perceiving your hand on the stove, the associated pain, and pulling your hand away.

Classical Conditioning


Classical conditioning is a method of learning that involves associating two stimuli previously unrelated to someone to a certain event or outcome. It involves conditioning the mind to expect a certain reflexive response when two other stimulating criteria are met.[3] An example of this is Pavlov’s salivating dogs, a famous experiment wherein dogs were given food preceded by a dinner bell. Once the dogs learned that the sound of the dinner bell meant food would be served to them, they started to instinctively salivate at the sound of the bell alone (where previous to the experiment, that singular stimulus would not trigger any salivating).

Operant Conditioning


There are 4 different types of operant conditioning. This type of learning involves either making a behaviour more or less likely depending on a punishment or reward determined by the behaviour, or taking away a reward or unpleasant form of stimulation.[3] The key concepts of reinforcement and punishment lead to an increase or decrease in a certain behaviour, respectively.

  • Positive Reinforcement occurs when you receive a reward for an action/behaviour. For example, if a student’s parents wanted the student to finish his homework and he does finish it, his parents may let him go out to movies, to enforce the fact that they want him to do his homework regularly and will let him do something fun if he does.
  • Negative Reinforcement involves adapting your behaviour in order to avoid aversive stimuli; something that causes discomfort or an unpleasant feeling. An example of this would be putting on goggles before going swimming in a chlorine pool. By making the behavioural decision to put goggles on and protect your eyes from the chlorine, you avoid the painful stimulus of your eyes being irritated by the chlorine.
  • Positive Punishment involves an aversive or unwanted outcome happening as a result of behaviour that in undesirable or ill-advised. Although it sounds somewhat like a contradiction, the “positive” in positive punishment refers to the addition of an aversive stimulus as a result of the behaviour. The person experiencing that stimulus would not consider it positive. An example would be someone getting arrested for having a weapon in their bags at the airport. As a result of the unwanted behaviour (having the weapon) that person would be put through the aversive experience of being arrested and fined or put in jail.
  • Negative Punishment is similar to positive punishment in that it involves an undesirable outcome linked to undesirable beahviour, but instead of the punishment being the addition of aversive stimuli, with negative punishment it is the removal of something good or desirable in order to try and reduce the frequency of the unwanted behaviour. For example, a child may have their weekly allowance lowered for a week if they misbehave or break a parent’s rule. They already had a fixed allowance, and by lowering it in relation to bad behaviour, the child will learn not to misbehave if they don’t want their allowance to be lowered.



Practice is a type of learning that involves repetition of a certain task or process. Practice uses reinforcement techniques and punishment techniques to get more proficient at a skill. For example, a basketball player practicing free throws may notice he gets more in when he bends his knees than if he stands up straight. By experiencing the change in free throw proficiency through practicing with both his knees bent and straight, he will learn to bend his knees when taking free throws. Eventually, after enough practice, functions related to motor skills will become instinctive or automatized. So, when the same basketball player later works on his arm movement when shooting free throws, he will instinctively bend his knees after enough practice, because he knows that is part of what gives him a higher success rate.



Imprinting is a type of learning that takes place in an animal that isn’t sensitive to or aware of behavioural outcomes yet (and as such takes place usually right after the animal is born). An example of imprinting is the way that a newborn goose will learn who its mother is within 16 hours of hatching. Since the animal basically automatically comes to the conclusion that what it sees and spends time with right after birth is its mother, if you replace its actual mother with something/someone else you can get the animal to believe through imprinting that something not even of its own species is its mother, in fact, a well-known scientist named Konrad Lorenz was able to train young geese to believe he was their mother using imprinting [4] .

Primary versus Secondary


We have evolved to learn certain kinds of things, such as how to speak, how to walk, and how to recognize faces. Note that these things are not taught in school (unless someone has a particular disability), because people learn it naturally, given a normal social environment. Nobody needs to try to learn to talk--one's first language comes naturally. This is called primary knowledge. Secondary knowledge, in contrast, must be taught, and we have instructional practices to help people learn. It requires time and effort. This is secondary knowledge, such as reading and writing, doing algebra, and so on. [5]

Secondary knowledge is learned through one or more of the other categories in this chapter, such as observational learning or testimony.

Observational Learning


Observational learning is, simply put, learning something by watching it happen and watching the result of it happening [6] . Any time you see someone do something you are observing an action, and trying to repeat that action may add something useful to your memory or give you a new skill. However, observational learning can also be used to shape behaviour based on observing what happens to others as a result of certain behaviours. For example, if you are walking outside and notice someone slip and fall on an icy crosswalk, you may take more care when crossing yourself based on seeing that there is enough ice for someone to fall down. Observational learning is especially prevalent in young children. From a very young age, small children start to mimic words, facial expressions, actions and more based on what they observe their parents and others around them doing. As suggested by famous psychologist Albert Bandura, observational learning is thought to also be important to developing of social skills. By observing the behaviours of others and the outcomes based on those behaviours, people can adapt their own actions to learn to function well in social situations. The likelihood of observed actions being imitated by the observer changes based on various factors, as well. For example, a person is more likely to imitate someone they admire, or more likely to attempt to imitate someone when given a problem they are unfamiliar with to help solve that problem.

Tomasello distinguishes imitation from mere emulation [7]. Emulation is a more brittle kind of observational learning, where imitation incorporates the goals and mindset of the observed. For example, if a child is learning to turn on a light by watching an adult flick a switch with their head, to use emulation would be for the child to use her head even if the adult's hands were free. But if the child understood the goals and mental states of the adult, the child would use their hands to turn on the light if the adult's hands were occupied during the observed action. The child would reason that the adult would have used their hands if they weren't occupied.[8]



Testimony refers to learning by being told something or how to do something. The message to be learned can be either spoken or written. This is a common way that facts are transmitted between people, whether they are spoken in conversation or sent in a letter/email. In addition to simple facts, testimony can also describe procedures or processes or lay out methods through which to perform an action. Testimony can often be added on to other forms of learning. For example, if you were trying to teach someone how to throw a football and they couldn’t quite grasp it based on imitation alone, you might tell them a piece of advice like “make sure your fingers are along the stitches when you throw the ball” to complement the visual action of throwing the ball and help them learn to throw the ball more thoroughly and successfully.


  1. Bouton, M.E. (2007). Learning and Behaviour: A Contemporary Synthesis. MA Sinauer: Sunderland.
  2. Shettleworth, S.J. (2010). Cognition, Evolution and Behaviour (2nd Ed). New York: Oxford.
  3. a b Cherry, Kendra (2014). What is a Conditioned Response?. Invalid <ref> tag; name "cherry" defined multiple times with different content
  4. Brink, T.L. (2008). Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 12: Developmental Psychology". p. 268.
  5. Geary, D. (2008). An evolutionarily informed education science. Educational Psychologist, 43, 179–195.
  6. Kaufmann, Morgan (1997). International Conference (ICML ’97). pp. 12–20.
  7. Tomasello, M., Kruger, A. C., & Ratner, H. H. (1993). Cultural learning. Behavioral and brain sciences, 16(03), 495-511.
  8. Gergely, G., & Csibra, G. (2003). Teleological reasoning in infancy: The naıve theory of rational action. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(7), 287-292.