What do you do when studying for an exam? Do you read your class notes and textbook (hopefully not for the very first time)? Do you try to find a quiet place without distraction? Do you use flash cards to test your knowledge? The choices you make reveal your theory of learning, but there is no reason for you to limit yourself to your own intuitions. There is a vast and vibrant science of learning, in which researchers from psychology, education, and neuroscience study basic principles of learning and memory.
When you study for a test, you incorporate your past knowledge into learning this new knowledge. That is, depending on your previous experiences, you will “learn” the material in different ways. [Image: UBC Learning Commons, https://goo.gl/eT0jvd, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/BRvSA7]
In fact, learning is a much broader domain than you might think. Consider: Is listening to music a form of learning? More often, it seems listening to music is a way of avoiding learning. But we know that your brain’s response to auditory information changes with your experience with that information, a form of learning called auditory perceptual learning (Polley, Steinberg, & Merzenich, 2006). Each time we listen to a song, we hear it differently because of our experience. When we exhibit changes in behavior without having intended to learn something, that is called implicit learning (Seger, 1994), and when we exhibit changes in our behavior that reveal the influence of past experience even though we are not attempting to use that experience, that is called implicit memory (Richardson-Klavehn & Bjork, 1988).
Other well-studied forms of learning include the types of learning that are general across species. We can’t ask a slug to learn a poem or a lemur to learn to bat left-handed, but we can assess learning in other ways. For example, we can look for a change in our responses to things when we are repeatedly stimulated. If you live in a house with a grandfather clock, you know that what was once an annoying and intrusive sound is now probably barely audible to you. Similarly, poking an earthworm again and again is likely to lead to a reduction in its retraction from your touch. These phenomena are forms of nonassociative learning, in which single repeated exposure leads to a change in behavior (Pinsker, Kupfermann, Castelluci, & Kandel, 1970). When our response lessens with exposure, it is called habituation, and when it increases (like it might with a particularly annoying laugh), it is called sensitization. Animals can also learn about relationships between things, such as when an alley cat learns that the sound of janitors working in a restaurant precedes the dumping of delicious new garbage (an example of stimulus-stimulus learning called classical conditioning), or when a dog learns to roll over to get a treat (a form of stimulus-response learning called operant conditioning). These forms of learning will be covered in the module on Conditioning and Learning (http://noba.to/ajxhcqdr).
Here, we’ll review some of the conditions that affect learning, with an eye toward the type of explicit learning we do when trying to learn something. Jenkins (1979) classified experiments on learning and memory into four groups of factors (renamed here): learners, encoding activities, materials, and retrieval. In this module, we’ll focus on the first two categories; the module on Memory (http://noba.to/bdc4uger) will consider other factors more generally.