The Psychology of Learning and Behavior

Purpose of Course  showclose

This course introduces learners to the principles of learning and behavior by surveying relevant theoretical and empirical approaches within psychology.  The overall emphasis is on the theoretical foundations of psychology as they relate to human learning and behavior.   The following topics will be reviewed: historical perspectives of early learning theories, prevailing theories of human development, classical and operant conditioning, effects stimuli have on learning and behavior, social learning, motivation, cognitive developmental theory in the context of learning stages and processes, memory and human information processing models, and problem-solving methods.  Understanding these human processes is an integral part of psychology and other domains of human behavior, such as marketing, sports, health, education and relationships.

Learning theories are an outgrowth from philosophies of thought.  The philosophical approaches of rationalism and empiricism, and the works of Plato and Descarte form the underpinnings of learning theory.  However, developments in psychology added an interest in objectivity and scientific research to demarcate the psychological approach to learning.  From this impulse stemmed the classical conditioning of Pavlov and the operant conditioning of Skinner.  These early theorists formed the foundation from which we view learning theory today.  Although the early work of the behaviorists demonstrates a strong emphasis on objective measurement of behaviors during the learning process, these observations cannot always fully explain human learning.  In other words, human learning cannot be fully captured by assessment of observable behaviors.  Thus, the integration of internal cognitive processes and external social contexts provide a more accurate depiction of the full learning process.  Learning theory captures the integration of all these perspectives and a full understanding of human learning necessitates a review of all these domains, which we will seek to do in this course.

Course Information  showclose

Course Designer: Nick Affrunti and Trista Huckleberry

Primary Resources:, YouTube, Shippensberg University, Animal

Requirements for Completion: Passage of Final Exam at 70%.

Time Commitment: 93 hours

Tips/Suggestions: This course draws on a wide and diverse set of resources.  As such, the ability to integrate diverse sources of information will be key.  As always, good note taking and highlighting are strongly encouraged.

Learning Outcomes  showclose

Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Identify major historical timelines and perspectives associated with learning theory.
  • Explain foundational concepts associated with learning theory.
  • Integrate common principles of learning theory into larger domains of psychology.
  • Align major theorists with specific contributions to psychology of learning and behavior.
  • Analyze and describe empirical research as it relates to effectiveness of learning and behavior management techniques.
  • Identify the utilization of psychology of learning and behavior in domains outside the field of psychology. 

Course Requirements  showclose

In order to take this course, you must:

√    Have access to a computer.

√    Have continuous broadband Internet access.

√    Have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g. Adobe Reader or Flash)

√    Have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer.

√    Have the ability to open Microsoft files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, etc.).

√    Have competency in the English language

    Have read the Saylor Student Handbook.

√    Have completed the following courses from “The Core Program” of the Psychology discipline: PSYCH101 Introduction to Psychology, PSYCH202A Research Methods, and PSYCH202B Research Methods Lab.

Unit Outline show close

  • Unit 1: Basic Concepts  

    Most of us think of learning in terms of traditional schooling and education.  While learning theory includes educational learning, “learning” as psychologists know it is much broader in scope. For them, learning refers to the way in which an individual’s interaction with his or her environment results in specific behaviors.  For psychologists, “learning” references the knowledge of human interaction with the environment to cause human behavior. 
    This unit will introduce you to the basic concepts and theoretical underpinnings of learning theory and behaviorism.  In particular, rationalism and empiricism are philosophical approaches to knowledge development and provided the launching pad for future dialogue on learning and thought.

    Unit 1 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 1 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 1.1 Rationalism and Empiricism  
    • Reading: Garth Kemerling’s Philosophy Pages: “René Descartes”

      Link: Garth Kemerling’s Philosophy Pages: “René Descartes” (HTML)
      Instructions: Rationalism embodies the idea the knowledge derives from reason alone. Thus, the senses are not primary factors in knowledge development. The rationalist doctrine was espoused by René Descartes during the mid 1600s. His primary methodology included doubt, and he gave us the famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” Review this history of Descartes’ life and discover the foundations of “thinking about thinking.”
      Terms of Use: This resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. It is attributed to Garth Kemerling.

  • 1.2 Natural Selection  
  • 1.3 Learning and Change  
  • Unit 2: Philosophy and Psychology: Thinking about Learning  

    Learning theories may be thought of as a progression from philosophical takes on introspection to specific theories developed to explain the many ways that learning develops in animal and human organisms.  Initially, learning was explained through the philosophical musings of Aristotle and Plato, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, scientists such as John Watson argued that the best way to understand learning was to study observable phenomena, not consciousness or the mind.  From that perspective grew behaviorism, a strict focus on observable behaviors and data gathering.  Although learning theory has greatly expanded from the initial behaviorist perspectives to include areas such as social learning theory and cognitive theory, the initial influence of philosophy must not be overlooked.  In particular, the earlier philosophical approaches are most integrated in the discussion of ethical practices, particularly in the area of research. 

    Unit 2 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 2 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 2.1 Experimental Studies  
  • 2.2 Ethics in Research  
  • Unit 3: E.L. Thorndike: The Original Connectionism  

    E.L. Thorndike is an important figure in learning theory.  Thorndike had many original contributions and was seen as a pioneer among pioneers.  A few of his many notable contributions include The Law of Effect, psychological connectionism and intellectual measurement.  The Law of Effect demonstrated that satisfaction after responses strengthened the likelihood of response.  Additionally, Thorndike’s psychological connectionism was a highly influential perspective.   The emphasis was on the internal neural transactions or connections were formed between perceived stimuli and emitted responses.  Indeed, how effectively an organism could develop these connections was the foundation of intellect.  This emphasis on connections was also externalized.  He did not believe that intelligence could be measured independently of culture.  We can find the threads of much of thinking within many contemporary areas of learning and general psychology.

    Unit 3 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 3 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 3.1 Thorndike: Life and Contributions  
  • 3.2 The Law of Effect  
    • Web Media: YouTube: jenningh’s “Thorndike’s Puzzle Box”

      Link: YouTube: jenningh’s "Thorndike’s Puzzle Box" (YouTube)
      Instructions: Please watch this brief 2-minute video on Thorndike’s research with cat training.  It helps to clarify the Law of Effect based on animal research.  It also explains his rejection of insight as a foundation of learning and his emphasis on trial and error and reward.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the page above.

  • Unit 4: Pavlov Classical Conditioning  

    Conditioning refers to learning that takes place over a number of trials.  In this unit, we will learn about Pavlovian conditioning (also known as Classical conditioning), a specific type of conditioning that the psychologist Ivan Pavlov proved during a set of experiments.  We will learn how Pavlovian conditioning takes place and how it is maintained, reviewing ways in which this type of conditioning applies to human behavior. 

    Unit 4 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 4 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 4.1 Ivan Pavlov  
    • Web Media: Ken Tagen’s “Ivan Pavlov”

      Link: Ken Tagen’s “Ivan Pavlov” (HTML)
      Instructions: Please read this entire webpage for an introduction on Pavlov.  This page has a great link to a video (YouTube) on Ivan Pavlov.  Please review this reading and also watch the video for additional information on this seminal researcher’s background.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the page above.

  • 4.2 Basic Tenets of Classical Conditioning  
  • 4.3 Classical Conditioning and Everyday Life  
    • Activity: The Saylor Foundation’s “Classical Conditioning”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Classical Conditioning”
      Instructions: Please click on the link above to download the activity.  Please read through the instructions and participate in this example of classical conditioning.

      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

      The Saylor Foundation does not yet have materials for this portion of the course. If you are interested in contributing your content to fill this gap or aware of a resource that could be used here, please submit it here.

      Submit Materials

  • 4.4 Classical Conditioning: Additional Concepts  
  • Unit 5: Behaviorism: Basic Concepts and Processes  

    Behaviorism, a specific subfield of psychology, has much to contribute to learning theory.  Behaviorism’s emphasis on data collection and observable behaviors has led to a deeper understanding of how humans process information, particularly reinforcers and punishments.

    Unit 5 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 5 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 5.1 Reinforcement and Shaping  
    • Reading: Judith K. Blackshaw’s “Learning Theory: Shaping”

      Link: Judith K. Blackshaw’s "Learning Theory: Shaping" (HTML)
      Instructions: The author of this brief work points out a vital component of providing reinforcement—the timing of the behavior and the reinforcement. A former professor of mine pointed out often the principle of “catch them when they are good” but also “catch them when they are bad.”  If your dog messes the carpet and four hours later you return from work, reprimanding the dog and rubbing the dog’s nose in the mess, you have effectively punished the dog for greeting you at the door!
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

    • Web Media: YouTube: Vancouver Island Assistance Dog’s “Shaping Explained”

      Link: YouTube: Vancouver Island Assistance Dog’s "Shaping Explained" (YouTube)
      Instructions: This is another interesting and informative video on the subject.  The video explains how to teach a dog to turn off a light switch.  Please watch the brief 4-minute video in its entirety.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

  • 5.2 Punishment and Extinction  
  • 5.3 Corporal Punishment  
  • Unit 6: Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning  

    Although learning theory has expanded far beyond classical conditioning and operant conditioning, they are still the foundational hallmarks of learning theory.  Together they form the basis of understanding how most learning occurs.  Therefore, we will now closely examine these two types of conditioning: classical (Pavlovian) and operant conditioning.  Because operant conditioning is more complex than Pavlovian conditioning, we will learn about different aspects of it over the course of the next few units.  This unit will focus on the basics of both classical conditioning, which focuses on the relation between stimuli and responses and then, operant reinforcement, where an animal encounters a specific consequence after performing a behavior and is therefore either more or less likely to perform that behavior in the future.  

    Unit 6 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 6 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 6.1 The Stimulus and Response Relation in Classical Conditioning  
  • 6.2 Avoidance and Extinction in Classical Conditioning  
  • Unit 7: J.B. Watson: The Original Behaviorist  

    The work of John Watson is fraught with controversy due to his questionable methods. Prior to the work of Watson, most research on learning had been conducted with animals with an assumption that learning was similar in humans.  This translation was easy to assume due the early emphasis on observable behaviors as the only relevant data.  Watson, with his controversial “Little Albert” research, made the significant leap into human research.  Although many have called his methodology unethical and inhumane, his research launched an entirely new way to approach research and yielded significant findings, particularly in human learning. 

    Unit 7 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 7 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 7.1 John Watson, Controversial Researcher  
  • 7.2 Fear and the Little Albert Experiment  
    • Reading: University of Wisconsin’s “Classical Conditioning Part 3: Little Albert and the White Rat”

      Link: University of Wisconsin’s "Classical Conditioning Part 3: Little Albert and the White Rat" (HTML)
      Instructions: Please read the brief study overview.  This essay gives an excellent overview of one of Watson’s most controversial experiments, in which he induced fear of a white rat to an infant.  The study was done to demonstrate the process of conditioning, by pairing a white rat with a loud noise.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the page above.

    • Reading: Vassar College: Ben Harris’ “Whatever Happened to Little Albert?”

      Link: Vassar College: Ben Harris’ “Whatever Happened to Little Albert?(HTML)
      Instructions: Please read this entire article.  The Little Albert study was the first to examine the establishment of conditioned responses using a human participant.  While it represents one of the most famous (and many would claim as the most important) contributions to psychology, it is also widely acknowledged as one of the most unethical studies ever conducted.  As an aside, Watson was subsequently expelled from the American Psychological Association (APA) and shunned by his former colleagues.  He later entered the field of advertising on Madison Avenue and experienced great success using classical conditioning principles.  One such success involved selling Camel cigarettes by pairing friendly Joe the Camel with the “pleasures” of smoking.  He also coined the term: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel!”
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

  • Unit 8: B.F. Skinner's Operant Conditioning  

    We will now turn to a deeper look at a second type of conditioning: operant conditioning.    This unit will focus on the work of B. F. Skinner and his brand of operant conditioning, where an organism encounters a specific consequence after performing a behavior and is therefore either more or less likely to perform that behavior in the future.   B. F. Skinners work and research was largely focused on humans and translated well into interventions designed for classrooms and parenting. 

    Unit 8 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 8 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 8.1 Punishment and Reinforcement  
    • Reading: University of Northern Illinois’ “Operant Conditioning”

      Link: University of Northern Illinois’ "Operant Conditioning" (HTML)
      Instructions: This article provides a nice overview of the differences between reinforcement and punishment. There are a number of great real-world examples. In addition, this site has a nice set of references to previously addressed topics.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

  • 8.2 Conditioning and Learning  
  • 8.3 Understanding Discrimination  
  • 8.4 Extinction in Operant Conditioning  
  • Unit 9: Behaviorism and Real World Applications  

    Although a behaviorism approach offers understanding of the psychological connection we make as we are rewarded or punished, it has many implications for behavioral management.  We'll take a closer look at these forms of behavior management in this unit.

    Unit 9 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 9 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 9.1 Animal Learning  
  • 9.2 Real World Applications of Behavioral Learning  
  • 9.3 Behavioral Learning and Special Issues  
  • Unit 10: Social Learning Theory  

    This unit will also introduce you to vicarious learning, or the process of learning that takes place when one observes or hears of another’s learning.  Humans learn a great deal through vicarious learning and are able to apply what they have learned to other situations through generalization or discrimination.  This type of learning is also described as “observational learning” and forms the basis of mentoring and role modeling in contemporary psychology.

    Unit 10 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 10 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 10.1 Bandura’s Social Learning Theory  
  • 10.2 “Bandura’s Bobo Doll and Modeling”  
  • Unit 11: Social Learning Theory and Applications  

    Social learning theory has an emphasis on the contexts of development.  Contexts refer to the direct and indirect systems which affect human individual development.  These are such direct influences as family and peers, or other groups we are members.  However, it also looks at more indirect systems such as communities and culture to understand how we learn from our social environment, both directly and indirectly.  This unit will explore how those contexts of development affect learning.

    Unit 11 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 11 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 11.1 Social Contexts and Individual Success  
  • 11.2 Social Contexts and Families  
    • Reading: National Institute of Health’s “The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation”

      Reading: National Institute of Health’s “The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation”
      Link: National Institute of Health’s "The Role of the Family Context in Development of Emotion Regulation" (PDF)
      Instructions: Please read the entire article. This article examines the associations between familial interactions and the development of children, particularly emotional regulation.  It emphasizes the role of observational learning, modeling and social referencing within the family network.  We can see clearly from the article the influential nature of parental actions and reactions.  This is a journal article that includes statistical references and technical terms, but these terms should be familiar at this point in the course.  However, it may take a few readings to truly understand the all the concepts and related statistical inferences.
      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • Unit 12: Cognitive Theory  

    Cognitive theory emphasis how development affects cognition, or the thinking process.  Naturally, this is an important aspect of learning.  Cognitive theory rose in status as a rebuttal to strict behaviorism.  It was noted that human development took a path such that human brains could not be subtracted from the process of learning to only focus on rewards and behaviors.  Age, mood, affect and personality also interact strongly with the learning process.   Cognitive theory helps us understand the internal processes of thought and behavior.   The seminal theorist, Jean Piaget helped revolutionize how we think about child development by asserting that “Children are not merely small adult thinkers.”

    Unit 12 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 12 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 12.1 Deprivation and Human Behavior  
    • Reading:’s “The Science of Mother’s Day”

      Link:’s “The Science of Mother’s Day” (HTML)
      Instructions: Please read the entire article.  It is a review of how internal motivations affect cognitions and decision-making.  It supports the perspective in cognitive theory that internal moods and affect effect outward behavior.  It explores deprivation as it relates to the deprivation in early orphanages and emphases the importance of the early caregiver relationship and attachment.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

  • 12.2 Drive Reduction Theory  
  • 12.3 Applications of Cognitive Theory  
  • Unit 13: Real World Applications  

    As educated consumers, we should strive to take our education and effectively apply it to the everyday and real world applications.  Psychology, particularly learning theory is incorporated into significant aspects of mass media, formal and informal education and family and relationships systems.  As educated consumers and citizens, we should effectively understand how learning theory is integrated in our lives and cultures.

    Unit 13 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 13 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 13.1 Applications of Pavlovian Conditioning  
  • 13.2 Is Racism Learned?  
  • 13.3 Learning and Body Image Issues  
  • 13.4 Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Among Children  
  • 13.5 What We Can Learn from Animals  
  • 13.6 Verbal Behaviors and the Development of Language  
    • Reading: Northern Illinois University: Amy Bauer and Christine Maricich’s “B.F. Skinner, Behavioralism, & Language Behavior”

      Link: Northern Illinois University: Amy Bauer and Christine Maricich’s "B.F. Skinner, Behavioralism & Language Behavior" (HTML)
      Instructions: Please read this entire article. One of the more controversial issues related to behaviorism was the neglect of this paradigm in explaining mental processes that were not (according to behaviorists) directly observable and, thus, were not amenable to the “scientific” study of psychology.  Skinner attempted to address this issue in his book “Verbal Behavior,” which unfortunately led to more questions than answers.  As the authors note, a growing disdain for behaviorism after the publication of this book as being an insufficient model for explaining complex learning led to the rise of cognitive psychology and neuroscientific models.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

  • 13.7 Problem Solving and Insight: Is this Learning?  
    • Reading:’s “Problem Solving (Insight)”

      Link:’s "Problem Solving (Insight)" (HTML)
      Instructions: Some of you may have heard of “Archimede’s Principle.” This brief paper shows how this discovery came about.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

    • Web Media: YouTube: Dr. Robert Epstein’s “A Pigeon Solves the Classic Box-and-Banana Problem”

      Link: YouTube: Dr. Robert Epstein’s "A Pigeon Solves the Classic Box-and-Banana Problem" (YouTube)
       Instructions: Real laboratory footage showing a pigeon solving Wolfgang Kohler's famous box-and-banana problem, which he studied with chimpanzees in the early 1900s. Dr. Robert Epstein and his colleagues used operant conditioning techniques to get pigeons to solve this problem "spontaneously" in the 1980s.  Depending on their previous experience, pigeons could solve this problem in a human-like fashion in as little as a minute. This pigeon has learned to push boxes and to climb, and it has been rewarded with grain for pecking at a small toy banana. In this situation, the banana is out of reach and the box is not beneath it. At first the pigeon looks confused, then it begins pushing the box - sighting the toy banana as it pushes - and then stops pushing when the box is beneath the banana, then climbs and pecks.
      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use on the page above.

  • 13.8 Superstitions  
  • Final Exam