What is Learning? Definition, Significance, Theories

What is Learning?

Learning is a continuous process wherein an individual acquires new skills, values, and knowledge. In other words, learning is a relatively permanent change (including cognitive, emotional, psychological, and environmental changes) in the behavior of an individual as a result of direct or indirect experience.

The two main elements in this definition are:

  • The change that happens in learning should be relatively permanent. This implies that there should be a change in the behavior of the individual after going through the learning process. The change can be either positive or negative. For example, a newly appointed individual in an organization learns how to perform his/ her job. After learning, the individual is able to perform his/her job effectively.

  • The change in individual behavior should be a result of an experience or practice and not due to biological maturation (which means the learning an individual acquires with the increase in his/her age, for example, learning to eat or drink). For example, a new manager of an organization learns to manage the available resources effectively to get desired results.

Thus, learning can be defined as a change in the behavior of an individual through experience. Here, note that learning is not a visible or observable process; it is only an observable change brought in the behavior of an individual.

Effective learning occurs only when whatever is learned is retained in the memory of the learner and is carried to the workplace. For example, an MBA-Finance student learns how to calculate profit and loss.

He/she should be able to retain the calculation process and be successfully able to apply the same in the later stages when he/she starts working in an organization.

Learning Definition

According to Stephen P. Robbins, “Learning is any relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a result of experience.”

As per Munn N.l, “Learning is the process of having one’s behaviour modified, more or less permanently, by what he does and the consequences of his action, or by what he observes.”

According to steers and Porter, “Learning can be defined as relatively permanent change in behaviour potentially that results from reinforced practice or experience.”

Significance of Learning

Some of the quotes and facts about the importance of learning:

  • As per the National Adult Learning Survey, DfEE, 1998, “95% of people think that learning about new things boosts your confidence. In addition, 92% of people think that learning about new things is enjoyable.”

  • According to Attitudes to Learning, Campaign for Learning/ MORI, 1996, “Seven in ten adults (71%) think that learning can lead to a better quality of life.”

  • According to Campaign for Learning Website, “93% of us believe that it’s never too late to learn. 83% of us believe that learning will become more important in the next millennium.72% of us think we should devote more time to personal development.”

Mira and Sonia work for an advertising firm, Noontide Pvt. Ltd. Both of them have been chosen to represent a product, a vacuum cleaner, for a number of clients. Noontide assumes that both employees are familiar with the product because it is a common household gadget in today’s world.

However, while Mira is a regular user of a vacuum cleaner, Sonia has never used one at home. As a result, Mira’s presentation provides useful information and highlights the desired features of the product. Sonia, on the other hand, is only able to focus on shallow information, thus, her clients reject the product.

The scenario shows how, in today’s dynamic world, it becomes important for an individual to learn new concepts continuously in their personal as well as professional life. Today, changes are occurring at a rapid speed whether it is technology, lifestyle, or organizational culture.

To survive in such an environment, it is essential for individuals to learn new techniques and ways of performing a job. Organizations having employees with a learning attitude are able to meet the changing business requirements because such employees are ready to change their working style and pattern.

In addition, an organization facilitates the process of learning among employees and promotes the exchange of information among them to develop a knowledgeable workforce. Such an organization becomes flexible and encourages people to accept and adapt to new ideas and changes. It also lets them know their goals and objectives clearly.

Organizational learning helps employees to change their behavior, hence bringing efficiency to their work. Thus, an organization as a whole must adopt a habit of constant learning. The main objective of organizational learning is to instill a desire among all the members of the organization to find new ways to improve their effectiveness.

Theories of Learning

How does the process of learning take place? Various psychologists have arrived at different theories to explain the process of learning.

Let us discuss the learning theories in detail in the following sections.

Classical Conditioning Theory

The classical conditioning theory was provided by Ivan Pavlov. In this theory, Pavlov studied the relationship between stimulus and response. He wanted to study the reflex response of a particular stimulus that characterises the behaviour of an individual or an animal. For this purpose, he conducted an experiment with a dog to check its reflexes when it sawbones.

As shown in Figure, when Pavlov observed dogs before conditioning them, he found that they salivated whenever they saw bones. Pavlov’s aim was to find out if he could make dogs salivate without their even seeing the bones.

That is, he wanted to generate the response of the dogs without the actual stimulus. For this, Pavlov tried to understand the events that could be linked to making dogs salivate without even seeing the bones, with the help of an experiment.

To conduct this experiment, Pavlov, while presenting a dog to the bone, also rang a bell. He kept repeating this stimulus. Initially, the dog would not salivate when presented with only the bell. However, after some time, Pavlov observed that the dog started salivating when only the bell was rung.

The dog had formed a relationship between the presence of the bell and the bone, which produced the conditioned response of salivation. The dog learned to relate the ringing of the bell with food. Thus, Pavlov found the reason for generating a response, even when the actual stimulus was not present.

He also concluded that an individual or an animal can learn reflex behavior. A reflex is an involuntary reaction, which is not in the conscious control of an individual. For example, if an individual has dust in his/her eyes, he/she will blink his/her eyes automatically. However, classical conditioning is not found applicable in the organizational setting, because individuals in an organization do not have involuntary reactions to any situation.

Operant or Instrumental Conditioning Theory

Operant or Instrumental Conditioning TheoryThe operant conditioning theory was provided by B.F. Skinner. He defined operant conditioning as a process through which individuals learn voluntary behavior. It can also be defined as the behaviour of an individual or an animal in an environment. It uses the consequences of a particular behavior to modify that behavior. Operant conditioning is different from classical conditioning because it deals with the modification of voluntary behavior.

On the other hand, classical conditioning only explains the relationship between the stimulus and the response. The operant conditioning theory is also called the reinforcement theory, which you will study later in this chapter.

Skinner started experimentation on operant learning theories in the 1930s. He wanted to have better control over the learning process that enabled organisms to operate freely in an environment. For this purpose, he developed a box, which is called the Skinner box or the operant chamber.

In this box, a device delivers food pellets into a tray (or food cup) at random by pressing a lever situated inside the box. For his experiment, Skinner left a hungry rat in the box. The rat performed some random activities to explore the box. During these activities, the rat pressed the lever accidentally, and a pellet of food was delivered to the food cup.

The first time the rat did not learn the connection between the lever and the food pellets. However, with time, it understood and learned that on pressing the lever, a food pellet appeared in the food cup, as shown in Figure:

After his success in training rats, Skinner applied the same experiment to pigeons by replacing the lever with a key. When the pigeonin the Skinner box pecked the key, a food-delivery mechanism activated. When repeated pecking resulted in food, the pigeon learned the process.

The basic principle of operant conditioning is that the probability of occurrence of a particular response depends on its consequence. For example, if the rat presses the lever and does not get food, the response rate will decrease gradually and eventually disappear.

Cognitive Learning Theory

The cognitive learning theory is also known as cognitivism. According to cognitivism, learning occurs when a person’s schema (the perception of an individual about the world) is combined, extended, or altered.

It basically works on two key assumptions:

  • The memory system processes the information in an organized way.
  • Prior knowledge plays an important role in learning.

The framework of cognitivism looks beyond the behavior-based framework and tries to understand how human memory helps in learning.

Main Components of Information Processing

The main components of information processing (shown in Figure ) are discussed as follows:

Sensory Memory

It represents the first stage of information processing by the human brain. The information obtained from different sense organs, such as the ear and eye, is held in the sensory memory briefly till the time it is forwarded for further processing.

All five sense organs have separate sensory memories, which function in the same manner. For example, an employee attends a meeting with his/her client regarding a new project.

The information given by the client is heard as well as written down by the employee in the form of notes. The information so obtained is stored in the sensory memory.

Selection Attention

It is the ability of the individual to select and process a certain part of the information in the sensory memory and ignore irrelevant information.

For example, in the above example, the employee will retain the project-specific information, such as the start and delivery date of the project and requirements of the client, while he/she will ignore the personal information provided by the client such as a party that the client is planning in the future.

Pattern Recognition

It is the process in which an individual tries to connect with the information gathered by relating it with the information he/she already stores in his/her memory.

Again, taking the above example, the employee will try to recall the previous projects he/she has done with the client and the requirements stated in his/her earlier projects and in the new project.

Short-term Memory

It retains information for a short period of time. At this stage, the information is processed further to make information ready for long-term storage and response.

For example, if an employee is given an oral warning for indiscipline, it will remain in his mind for a short period of time, unless action is taken against him/her.

Rehearsal and Chunking

These are the two processes that help in converting short-term memory to long-term memory by encoding information. In rehearsal, the information is repeated again and again, so that it can be stored permanently in the memory.

For example, revising a chapter, again and again, helps in retaining it for a long period of time. On the other hand, chunking is the grouping of ideas or bits of information to make the retention of information easy and storable for a longer time period.

For example, two paragraphs are provided to employees stating the dos and Don’ts at a workplace. Employees make bulleted points from the given content. This helps them remember the dos and Don’ts for a longer period of time.


It is the process of relating new information from short-term memory with the information already existing in long-term memory to make the information more memorable.

For example, a newly joined employee, learning to operate a machine, will try to recall the information given by his/her supervisor at the time of training (information already existing in the long-term memory) to operate the machine.

Long-term Memory

It retains information for a relatively long period of time. It is the permanent storehouse of information. It includes information that has been learned throughout a lifetime.

The information that needs to be retained for a longer period of time is transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory.

For example, a person working on the same process in the same organization for more than three years will have the complete process stored in his/her long-term memory.

Social Learning Theory

People observe and learn through attitudes, behavior, and outcomes of other people around them. According to Bandura, a renowned psychologist who specialized in social cognitive theory, social learning is defined as follows:

“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action”,

The social learning theory encompasses cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences. The necessary factors for effective social learning are shown in Figure:

Factors for Effective Social Learning


It is the interest an individual pays to factors such as distinctiveness, simplicity, prevalence, functional value, and complexity. The attention of an individual is affected by his/her experience, sensory capacities, level of arousal, perceptual set, and perceptual accuracy.


It involves remembering the subject or object to which an individual pays attention. Knowledge retention can take place in various forms such as symbolic coding and mental images.


It involves reproducing or projecting the image through physical capabilities and self-observation. For example, Ronit is a new worker in an organization, while Sujit has been working in the organization for a long time.

Ronit observes Sujit working on a particular machine. When Ronit needs to work on the same machine, he reproduces the image of Sujit working on that machine. This guides Ronit to proceed with his work.


It depicts the positive influence of remembering a positive event leading to a desirable outcome. The event may have been experienced by the individual, or the individual may have observed it with someone else.

However, the positivity of the event ensures a positive effect on the psychological set-up of the individual. For example, an employee observes how his/her manager tackles a difficult situation so efficiently.

This positively impacts the behavior of the employee and he/she also tries to handle such situations efficiently.

Thus, social learning continuously influences an individual throughout his/her life span.


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