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The learning approach Define the learning approach Assumption 1
Assumes behaviour is determined by experiences within the environment (nurture) rather than genetically or by the biochemistry of the brain or hormones within the body (nature)
Individuals behaviour is shaped by his or her 'reinforcement history' or past experiences of reward or punishment
The philosopher john Locke used the term 'tabula rasa' to describe a newborn baby, like a 'blank slate, waiting for experience to leave its mark and write the script for future behaviour and interaction
This philosophy was adopted by behaviourists or learning theorists such as john Watson who started the approach in 1913 Assumption 2
More objective and scientific to study observable behaviour and that the idea of mental events and emotions should not be studied as part of psychology
This is an example of empiricism; gathering data that can be directly observed through the senses rather than making inferences about abstract ideas, in an attempts to make general laws or principles which govern behaviour
Systematic desensitisation is an example of the way in which learning theorists have successfully applied the importance of focusing on behaviour rather than cognition and emotion
Here psychologists use the principles of classical conditioning to help people overcome their phobias. This is a highly effective treatment which demonstrates that it is not necessary to focus on cognition or emotion in order to create positive outcomes for people who are suffering
Another example of this is the use of behaviourist principles in the management of children's behaviour, where the focus is explaining what function their behaviour serves (i.e. what is the rewarding consequence which maintains their behaviour) without concentrating on what the child is thinking or feeling
Again, this can be highly successful although many psychologists would argue that ignoring of a child's cognition and his or her interpretation of what is happening to them may not be helpful Terms and definitions Classical conditioning
Also known as associative learning and refers to the way in which an individual can learn new triggers (stimuli) for existing involuntary
behaviours, (reflexes). Pavlov discovered that when dogs anticipate that their food is coming they begin to salivate.
This is a conditioned response as they have learnt to associate certain aspects of their environment (the stimulus, e.g. his lab assistants walking toward the food cupboard) with the coming of food (the unconditioned stimulus).
He tested this idea and was able to elicit salivation (conditioned response) to the sound of a bell (a neutral stimulus which became a conditioned stimulus).
In real life classical conditioning provides a clear explanation of how apparently irrational fears may develop. All the behaviour elicited in classical conditioning are involuntary (reflexes) over which we have no control. For example, when a dentist's drill hits a nerve (UCS) this causes pain and discomfort (UCR). As this happens in a dental clinic which has a distinct smell (NS), this smell becomes associated with the pain (UCS) and in the future the smell alone (CS) may be enough to trigger a bodily response such as the increased heart rate, associated with anxiety (CR). Extinction in classical conditioning
Extinction is one of Pavlov's principles of learning and it means that a conditioned stimulus no longer elicits a conditioned response.
This happens when the individuals has experienced the conditioned stimulus several times without the unconditioned stimulus; gradually the association becomes unlearnt and the conditioned response disappears.
Certain songs often elicit physiological and emotional reactions because at some point they have been played when the person was experiencing those feelings. For example, if a song was played at a funeral, whenever that song is played in the future, the person may suddenly become upset without necessarily even remembering the funeral. Gradually as the person hears the song over and over again in neutral situations, such as on the car radio, the response will become extinct as the song is no longer associated with bereavement, indeed new associations may have been made which have over-written previous learning. Spontaneous recovery in classical conditioning
Spontaneous recovery refers to the way in which a conditioned response which was thought to have become extinct may suddenly reappear.
This can happen 'out of the blue' and could be quite distressing if the response if a negative one since the person may have thought that response had long disappeared.
For example, following a car accident, a person may have suffered from distressing flashbacks and physiological stress reactions wherever they saw stimuli present at the time of the accident, e.g. red traffic lights, similar vehicle etc. As time progressed the reactions may have decreased and the person thinks that they have been cured of their trauma. One day
they experience a panic attack triggered by some minor aspect associated with the original experience.
Spontaneous recovery demonstrates that stimulus-response units may never be broken completely but that the bond between them becomes weaker but not eliminated completely. Stimulus (in classical conditioning)
Some aspect of the environment which triggers a specific response.
Some stimuli are unconditioned meaning that they require no specific learning in order to trigger a response, they are innate. An example of this is the red spot on the beak of a herring gull. In comparative psychology, this is called an 'innate releasing mechanism'; baby herring gulls are born with an innate reflex to peck at red spots (this has survival value as the mother gull will regurgitate food into the chick's mouth and so pecking her beak encourages her to feed her chick).
Some stimuli only trigger responses because they have been presented immediately before an unconditioned stimulus. Learning has to have taken place in order for this aspect of the environment to become a trigger.
An example of a neutral stimulus is the bell in Pavlov's study whereby the bell triggered salivation in the dogs but only because it had been previously paired with food being put into their mouths (unconditioned stimulus). Response (in classical conditioning)
A response is a specific behaviour which is displayed as a reaction to a specific stimulus.
Some responses are unconditioned and these are called reflexes; we have no conscious or voluntary control of these behaviours. They are innate and had survival value in our evolutionary environment of adaptation, 35, 0003 million years ago back in the African savannah. An example of an unconditioned reflex is salivation when food enters the mouth. The startle reflex occurs as a reaction to loud and sudden noises which could indicate danger.
Some responses are only triggered when a learning experience has taken place. For example it would not be normal for a baby to show fear when presented with a pet rat, however this is exactly what happened with 10 month old Little Albert who was classically conditioned by Watson and Rayner, (1920). The rabbit had been paired with a loud crash of steel bars behind his head (unconditioned stimulus) which, unsurprisingly created a startle response. After several learning trials the conditioned startle response was elicited on presentation of the rat. Operant conditioning
Also known as trial and error learning, was first explored by American psychologist, Burrhus F Skinner in the 1930s. He revealed that the
behaviour of lab rats could be controlled by altering the consequences of that behaviour.
All behaviours were voluntarily emitted as the rats explored the cage but when the rat accidentally trod on a lever, this was either rewarded with a food pellet or punished with a mild electric shock. When lever pressing was rewarded it became more likely (stamped in), but when it was punished it became less likely (stamped out).
This learning is not confined to rats alone. An example of operant conditioning in everyday life is the use of token economies with small children. Tokens can be given to reward desirable behaviour with the intention of improving the child's behaviour and taken away to punish undesirable behaviour. These tokens (secondary reinforcers) can be exchanged for treats (primary reinforcers) after a set period.
Positive reinforcement (in operant conditioning)
Positive reinforcement means that an individual is given something which he or she finds pleasant following a desired behaviour.
Positive reinforcement results in the preceding behaviour becoming more likely. Rewards need must be presented fairly swiftly in order for operant conditioning or instrumental learning to take place.
An example of positive reinforcement in the laboratory is when Skinner presented his rats with food pellets when they trod on the lever which results in an increase in lever pressing. An example of positive reinforcement in real life might be that when a teacher uses praise and encouragement in response to a student's contribution in class, the student will volunteer to answer more questions. This will only happen however, it the student finds the attention from the teacher positive and desirable. A student who does not like the attention or believes the response to be empty praise may not respond with increased contribution. Something is only an example of reinforcement if the behaviour becomes more likely. Thus the terms reinforcement and reinforcer have a circular element to their definition, which makes their credibility questionable. Negative reinforcement (in operant conditioning)
Following a desired behaviour, negative reinforcement occurs when an individual has something unpleasant removed from them and this is rewarding.
The removal of the aversive stimulus is rewarding and thus negative reinforcement results in an increase in the preceding behaviour.
An example of negative reinforcement in the laboratory was shown in a study by Seligman. Dogs were put into a pen with a mild electric current running through the floor. The desired behaviour was for the dogs to jump over a small wall to escape the electric current. Jumping the wall had the effect of removing the unpleasant feeling and so wall jumping became more likely. Likewise Skinner electrified the floor of the Skinner box and
when the rats pressed the lever the current was switched off temporarily. Likewise this had the effect of increasing lever pressing.
A real life example of negative reinforcement can be observed in parents of young babies. When babies cry this can be unpleasant for the parents. Picking the baby up often stops the crying temporarily. The behaviour which is being reinforced is picking the baby up. If the crying stops, and this increases the likelihood of the parent picking up the baby in the future, then negative reinforcement has occurred and is responsible for the change in the parents' behaviour. Another example is when a prisoner gives in to an interrogator. The interrogator is demanding information and the experience is harrowing for the prisoner. When the prisoner responds the interrogation ceases. If in the future the prisoner gives information more readily in similar situations, then negative reinforcement has occurred. Primary reinforcer (in operant conditioning)
Primary reinforcers are things which meet basic human needs such as food, water and sex and can be used to increase the frequency of certain desired behaviours.
Primary reinforcement occurs when these things are provided in response to the desired behaviour, making that behaviour more likely in the future.
An example of primary reinforcement in the laboratory would be providing rats with food pellets for lever pressing in the Skinner box. A example of primary reinforcement in real life would be the use of praise which meets the basic human need for belonging and esteem (Maslow, 1943) or the use of small pieces of food (cakes, sweets, cake) which are used as rewards with autistic children in the early stages of the picture exchange communications system (PECS). When the children touch the communication pictures they are rewarded and allowed to choose something from the plate of food reinforcers. These are varied and the teacher makes a note of which food the child chooses to ensure that the reinforcers are individualised to that child's preferences in the future, making them more effective as primary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcer (in operant conditioning)
Secondary reinforcers are given as rewards for desired behaviour but do not in themselves meet a basic human need. They are rewarding to the individual because they can be exchanged for primary reinforcers.
An example of a secondary reinforcer is real life is money; a person may not enjoy their job or get any sense of intrinsic pleasure form that job, but he or she keeps going back to work because they paid to do so. If the payment stopped they would not continue with this behaviour.
An example of the use of secondary reinforcers in clinical practice is the use of token economies which have been used successfully with eating disordered clients. Clients are rewarded with tokens for putting on weight
and once a specific number of tokens have been awarded they can be exchanged for treats and privileges.
In real life, programmes such as Super Nanny have encouraged the use of sticker charts as a form of behaviour modification for small children, whereby stickers are 'earnt' for desired behaviour and act as secondary reinforcers which can be traded at the end of the day, week or month dependent on the child's needs for primary reinforcers. Punishment (in operant conditioning)
Punishment means that something unpleasant is given following an undesired behaviour or in the absence of the desired behaviour.
This has the effect of decreasing undesired behaviour, potentially allowing more opportunity to engage in the desired behaviour.
Punishment can also take the form of removal of something pleasant and this is called negative punishment.
Punishment is usually not as effective in changing behaviour as reward and some psychologists prefer not to use punishment with humans as it is ethically questionable to inflict something undesirable on another person.
Punishment has also been criticised as it fails to show a person what the desired behaviour is.
Experimental psychologists often use mild electric shocks as punishment in the laboratory, and note that when an animal is punished for its behaviour, that behaviour will decrease.
In real life parents may smack their children as a punishment for dangerous or inappropriate behaviour, in the hope that the behaviour will decrease.
More socially and morally acceptable punishments include withholding pocket money (negative punishment) or removal of the child to a specific place where they are required to sit and are not given attention for a specified amount of time which is often dependent upon the age of the child.
With adults if a person is criticised or humiliated in a meeting for a comment that they have made, this may be punishing and have the effect of making the person less likely to speak up in the future.
However, as with rewards, punishers have to be individualised as some people may not decrease their contributions due to remarks of others and may in fact increase the remarks that they make possibly because they have in fact been positively reinforced in some way. Social learning theory
Albert Bandura devised theory of social learning in the 1960s. He combined ideas from the psychodynamic approach such as 'identification' with that of reinforcement from the Learning approach).
He explained that we have a tendency to observe and imitate those people who we identify with (models) and thus learn new behaviours, via a process he called 'modelling'.
He explained that we are more likely to imitate those models that we see being rewarded for their behaviour. He called this vicarious reinforcement as it also made the behaviour more likely in the observer.
Bandura explained that for modelling to be successful, the observer had to pay attention to the model, retain that knowledge, be able to reproduce the behaviour and be motivated to do so.
One example of social learning in real life is the way that small children observe and imitate the behaviour of adults particularly around the age 23, where they start to imitate behaviour of their parents, for example a child may watch her parent working from home and then pretend to work on her own toy computer. Children also pick up facial expressions and mannerisms from their parents, e.g. talking with their hands (gesture).
An example of observational learning in the animal kingdom was recorded on the island of Koshima; a juvenile Japanese macaque developed the innovation of washing sweet potatoes before eating them. Other macaques observed the behaviour and soon the whole population were potato washers. Now none of the original macaques are alive yet potato washing continues as each generation observes and imitates its elders. Another example of observational learning with primates was shown by Mineka, monkeys who had observed another monkey being frightened by a snake went onto avoid snakes themselves; this is an example of observational learning through vicarious punishment.
Bandura provided his own research example of observational learning; children who had seen a video of a man playing in an aggressive way with an inflatable BoBo doll were more likely than a control group to play aggressively and use similar language to the model when they had an opportunity to play with the same doll. Imitation (in social learning theory)
Imitation means that a behaviour which has been observed is then copied (reproduced) by the observer.
Imitation can only take place if the individual is physically able to carry out the act. Imitation is more likely to happen when the individual is motivated to do so, i.e., if they have observed another individual being rewarded for the behaviour, it will be more likely to be imitated.
A person is more likely to be imitated if the observer identifies with them in some way, i.e. same gender, attractive or powerful.
An example of imitation is when a child dresses up like their parent and enacts their behaviours, i.e. talking on a toy telephone, working on a toy computer.
An example of imitation in the animal kingdom occurred when macaques on the island of Koshima began washing sweet potatoes which was not a natural behaviour but was copied from one innovative juvenile; gradually the behaviour spread throughout the population, as more and more macaques were observed and imitated.
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