Definition of Learning

Learning can be defined as any relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs because of experience.

Organizations competitive advantage depends on its people’s skills and knowledge and considering that, a better understanding of learning is inevitable.


Theories of Learning.

  • Three theories have been advanced to explain the process by which we acquire patterns of behavior. These are :-
    • Classical Conditioning.
    • Operant/Instrumental Conditioning.
    • Social Learning/Social modeling theory


 Classical Conditioning.

  • The theory of classical conditioning grew out of experiments carried out by a Russian Psychologist, Ivan Pavlov.
  • He carried out a simple experiment with dogs which established that a certain response can be acquired through conditioned stimulus
  • In classical conditioning, learning occurs by mental associations which occur mechanically through stimulus-Response relations.
  • In Pavlov’s experiment the dogs learnt to associate food with other stimuli that were present at the same time as the food i.e. bell ringing.
  • The dog would therefore respond (salivate) when this stimulus was elicited, even without the presence of food.
  • ` Classical conditioning can be used to explain only a few of human behaviors, e.g. it can explain nostalgic emotions such as the euphoria and excitement associated with Christmas. It also explains development of phobias.


 Operant /Instrumental Theory

  •  This theory argues that behavior is a function of its consequences.
  • People learn to behave in a certain way in order to get something they want or to avoid something they do not want.
  • In contrast to Classical behavior which is reflex operant behavior is voluntary and learned and is reinforced by agreeable consequences.


Social Learning Theory/Social Modeling

  • According to social learning theory, individuals learn by observing, and through direct personal experience. Much of what we have learned comes from watching models who include; parents, teachers, peers, celebrities, managers etc.
  • Just like Operant theory, the social learning theory assumes that behavior is function of consequences,
  • Influence of models is central to the social learning viewpoint. Human beings tend to be most influenced by models who are attractive, repeatedly available, important to us and even similar to us.
  • Researchers have identified four processes which determine the influence that a model will have on an individual. They are;


  • Attention Processes. (See it!).

People learn from a model only when they recognize and pay attention to its critical features

  • Retention Processes. (Remember it!).

         A model’s influence will depend on how well the individual remembers the models actions after the model is gone.

  • Motor Reproduction Processes. (Do it!).

         After a person has seen a new behavior by observing the model, the watching must be converted to doing. This process then demonstrates that the individual can perform the modeled activities.

  • Reinforcement Processes. (Rewarded for it!).

Individuals will be motivated to exhibit the modeled behavior if positive incentives or rewards are provided.

Behaviors that are positively reinforced will be given more attentions, learned better and performed more often.


  1. how can managers teach employees to behave in ways that most benefit the organization?

ANSWER: Through shaping behavior.


  • Behavior is shaped by systematically reinforcing each successive step that moves the individual closer to the desired response. Example: If an employee who has chronically been coming to work half an hour late comes in only ten minutes late, we can reinforce that improvement.


Methods of Shaping Behaviour.

There are three ways through which behavior is shaped.

    • Positive reinforcement.
    • Negative reinforcement.
    • Extinction.


  1. Positive Reinforcement.

A response (behavior) is followed with something pleasant.

Example:  Manager praises employees for a job well done.

Continue praising the behavior till its permanent.


     2)   Negative Reinforcement.

– A response (behavior) is followed by something unpleasant.

– Example: Canceling results after a class cheats in the exam.

– Class learns to stop cheating.

     3)   Extinction.

– Occurs by eliminating anything that is reinforcing maintaining a certain unpleasant behavior.

– When behavior is not reinforced, it tends to extinguish gradually.

– Example: Withdrawal of overtime to discourage laziness during working hours.

N/B: The speed with which learning takes place and the permanence of its effects will be determined by timing of reinforcement. Reinforcement should be applied intermittently in order to have the desired effect. Too much positive reinforcement can be counterproductive because it can create a sense of entitlement. Too much negative reinforcement can harden employees

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