Cognitive Process in Learning

Cognition and Learning

The behaviorist orientation was known as SR (stimulus-response psychology) because behaviourists opposed explanations of learning that went beyond observable stimuli and responses, believing that the bonds formed between stimuli and responses were automatic, and that behavior could be explained without referring to such mentalistic concepts as thought and feelings.

However, some learning theorists argued that another factor needed to be considered between the stimulus (S) and response (R): the organism’s (O) mental representation of the world. This came to be known as SOR, or the cognitive model of learning.

Insight and Cognitive Maps

German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler challenged the behaviorist assumption that animals learn to perform tasks only by trial-and-error learning. Exposing chimps to novel learning tasks, he concluded that they were able to learn by insight: the sudden perception of a useful relationship that helps to solve a problem.

Behaviorists argued that such “insight” was merely a combination of previously reinforced and shaped responses. American Edward Tolman studied rats in mazes and argued that reinforcement theory could not explain certain behaviors. He argued that rats had developed a cognitive map – a mental representation of the maze’s layout. Kohler’s early research on animal insights and Tolman’s pioneering research on cognitive maps indicated that cognitive factors play a role in learning. Tolman emphasized that learning is based on knowledge and an expectation of “what leads to what.”

Cognition in Classical and Operant Conditioning

Cognitive interpretations of classical conditioning propose that what is learned is not how often the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the unconditioned stimulus (US) are paired, but, rather, an expectancy that the CS will be followed by the UCS. They focus on how well the CS predicts (i.e., signals) the appearance of the UCS.

Cognitive theorists view operant conditioning as the development of an expectation that certain behaviors will produce certain consequences under certain conditions. From a cognitive perspective, the concept of “awareness” implies that the best predictor of behaviour is the perceived contingency, not the actual one (which helps explain why some people believe in superstitions). Tolman’s research on latent learning (learning that occurs but is not demonstrated until there is an incentive to perform) indicates “knowledge” and “performance are conceptually distinct, and that learning can occur without reinforcement. In humans, internal self-evaluations (e.g. pride and shame) can function as reinforcers and punishers.

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