Theories of Learning: Three Major Paradigms sample essay

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Theories of Learning: Three Major Paradigms sample essay

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What is learning? According to Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), learning is defined as ” a relatively permanent change in behavior or behavioral potentiality that comes from experience and cannot be attributed to temporary body states such as those induced by illness, fatigue, or drugs” (p. 8). The study of learning is important because it gives us a greater comprehension of how behavior is learned. By understanding the learning process we can manipulate the environment to encourage normal behavior that is adaptive and avoid maladaptive and abnormal behavior. Understanding the principles of learning can also produce more effective results in both psychotherapy and educational practices.

The study of learning has yielded various learning theories that are categorized into different paradigms. Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), define a paradigm as “a viewpoint shared by several scientists that provides a general framework for empirical research, and is usually more than just one theory” (p. 24). Two of the major paradigms are the functionalistic and associationistic paradigms.


Within the functionalistic paradigm, theorists influenced by Darwin, attempt to explain learning by discovering and researching how mental and behavioral processes are related to an organism’s adaptation to the environment (Hergenhahn and Olson, 2005). There are three main theorists whose theories are predominately functionalistic. These theorists include Edward Thorndike, Burrhus Frederick Skinner and Clark Leonard Hull. The first theorist, Edward Thorndike proposed the theory of connectionism which linked sensory events to behavior and described the bond between stimuli and response as a connection.

By conducting research with animals, Thorndike concluded that learning is achieved through a process of trial-and-error and that learning is incremental. He also concluded that learning is a direct process that does not require thought and reason. He believed that all mammals learn in the same manner. Thorndike also proposed the theory of transfer of training. According to Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), Thorndike is a functionalistic theorist because his ideas put much emphasis on the functional aspects of behavior and his ideas were influenced by Darwinism.

The second theorist, Burrhus Fredrick Skinner, believed in the philosophy of radical behaviorism. According to Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), radical behaviorism rejects mentalisitic events that cannot be observed for more observable and measurable aspects of the environment, behavior and the effects of behavior. Like Thorndike, Skinner was also influenced by the writings of Darwin. He believed that adaptive behavior is learned when it is reinforced by the environment. This idea led to his theory of operant conditioning.

Hergenhahn and Olson explain that in operant conditioning, “any response that is followed by a reinforcing stimulus tends to be repeated and that a reinforcing stimulus is anything that increases the rate with which an operant response occurs” (p. 80). Skinner believed that by using operant conditioning, we can modify and control behavior by controlling the reinforcement in the environment. Skinner described two types of reinforcement, positive and negative and made a clear distinction between negative reinforcement and punishment. Through research he concluded that punishment is ineffective and should not be used to control behavior.

The final functionalistic theorist is Clark Leonard Hull. Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) consider Hull a functionalistic theorist because he was not only influenced by Darwin, but the purpose of his theory was to, “explain adaptive behavior and understand the variables affecting it” (p. 131). Hull’s theory is very complex and includes seventeen major postulates and 133 theorems. Hull suggested that there are several variables that affect behavior. These variables are either independent, intervening or dependant variables. To summarize Hull’s theory, there must be an innate drive to learn, the organism must act on that drive and respond to it, the appropriate response must satisfy the need and the response must be reinforced to encourage the reoccurrence of that behavior.

In the associationistic paradigm, theorists attempt to explain the process of learning by the laws of association which follow the principles of similarity, contrast, contiguity and frequency. The three theorists whose ideas are primarily associationistic are Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Edwin Ray Guthrie, and William Kay Estes. Ivan Pavlov’s major theoretical concept of classical conditioning emphasized contiguity. Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) describe classical conditioning as “an experimental arrangement whereby a stimulus is made to elicit a response that was not previously associated with that stimulus” (p.465). Pavlov’s analysis of classical conditioning concluded that when a conditioned stimulus precedes an unconditioned stimulus it will eventually elicit the conditioned response. Pavlov also noted that the uncontrolled stimulus must be present in order to avoid extinction.

The second associationistic theorist is Edwin Ray Guthrie. A few of Guthrie’s major theoretical concepts include the law of contiguity, one-trial learning, and the recency principle. According to Hergenhahn and Olson (2005), Guthrie’s law of contiguity is primarily associationistic and states that, “when a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement” (p. 212). In his principle of one-trial learning, when a stimulus is paired with a response, the association between the two is complete on the first trial. Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) summarize Guthrie’s’ recency principle as “whatever we did last under given circumstances will be what we will tend to do again if those circumstances are reencountered” (p. 213).

The third predominately associanistic theorist is William Kay Estes. Este attempted to explain how stimuli are combined with responses through his theory of stimulus sampling. The major theoretical concepts of Estes include generalization, spontaneous recovery and probability matching. In generalization, Hergenhahn and Olson (2005) explain that ” the tendency for an organism to respond not only to the specific stimulus it was trained on but also to other related stimuli depends on the commonality between the two” (p. 470).

Este’s concept of spontaneous recovery suggests that the extinction process was not complete is a conditioned response reoccurs. In his theory of probability matching, Estes explains how subjects guessing the probability of how many times an event occur with how many times the event actually occurs and how they correlate. All of Este’s theories are associationistic because they follow the law of continuity.


Even though theories are place into different paradigms based on their main emphasis, many of the theories contain ideas from other paradigms. I believe that the most beneficial theory to come out of the research on learning is Skinners’ theory of operant conditioning. By understanding how learning is achieved with use of operant conditioning through the use of positive and negative reinforcement, we can modify and control behavior. Psychologists, parents and teachers can benefit from this knowledge.


Hergenhahn, B.R., & Olson, M. (2005). An Introduction to Theories of Learning. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

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