After reading this article you will learn about the process of learning by cognition.
Cognitive theorists claim that the associationistic or connection model of learning holds in interpreting animal learning to a certain extent, but does not seem to do full justice in explaining human learning. Connection theorists seem to be intentionally or otherwise blind towards concepts like reasoning, insight, etc. which are more true to human learning.
The cognitive model of learning brings forth the idea that animal, and especially human learning, is something more than mere connections of stimulus and response. Among the psychologists who contributed to this view of learning are E.C. Tolman and W. Kohler.
Tolman’s Sign-Learning Theory:
According to Tolman, animals and human beings do not learn a response by repetition alone or because it has been rewarded. Learning, claims Tolman, takes place by cognition. Cognition includes concepts like knowledge, thinking, planning, inference, purpose and intentions.
Behaviour is generally goal-seeking in nature and because of this goal-seeking nature, it has a molar character or a totality and defies analysis into specific and elemental units. Behaviour, therefore, is not a combination of specific elements but is characterised by totality and purposefulness and the latter brings about the former.
The associationistic theories state that the organism learns a series of movements in a correct sequence. These movements are released under appropriate conditions of drive and environmental stimulation. This learning is obviously mechanical, guided by reinforcement and repetition.
Tolman disagreed with this concept and argued that the organism follows certain signs and clues to reach a goal; it learns its way by following a sort of map and it does not learn only some of the movements but also their significance and meaning. Hence this theory is called sign-significant or sign-learning theory. According to this theory learning is guided not by reinforcement or repetition, but by active cognitive process.
Tolman argued that many learning situations do not permit a clear distinction between the possibility of learning by connections and by cognition. If there is a single path with food at the end and the organism runs faster at each opportunity there is no way of telling whether its responses being ‘stamped’ in by reinforcement or guided by purpose and cognition because stimulus-response and sign-learning often predict the same behavioural outcome.
So he designed some similar experimental situations with the same subjects (rats and cats) to support the process of cognitive learning, thus, posing a challenge to the connection theories. The three experiments on which the sign-learning theory is based are reward expectancy, place learning and latent learning. Though these experiments were simple and not very sophisticated they emerged as strong blows to connection theories, leading to modification of the latter.
In this experiment a monkey was watching a banana being placed under one of two containers but was not allowed immediate access to the same. A few minutes later, it was permitted to choose between the containers and it invariably demonstrated its memory by choosing correctly. Later, when the monkey was out of view, the experimenter placed a lettuce leaf (a less preferred food) under one of the containers.
On finding the lettuce leaf instead of the preferred banana, the monkey showed signs of surprise and frustration, rejected the lettuce leaf and engaged in definite searching behaviour as if looking for the expected banana. Similar behaviour was found when the food in the goal-box of a maze experiment was changed from barn-mash to sunflower seeds.
This shows that animals channelize their activities depending on certain cognition which is already formulated. They expect a specific reward and strive to reach that particular goal. Behavioural disruptions, like surprise and frustration in this case, show that the animal did expect a specific reward and aimed at achieving it. Thus, activity is neither random nor blind but goal-oriented and goal-directed.
Experiments on place learning were designed to show that the learner does not move from start to goal according to a fixed sequence of movements which are connected to each other as predicted by the connection and reinforcement theories. Movements can be adjusted and changed to suit the conditions.
To prove that the organism does not learn a movement sequence but an over-all path, the cognitive theorists in their experiments tried to disrupt the movements of the organism. In one experiment, the maze, in which the rat learned to run correctly, was flooded with water but still the animal swam through the correct path and reached its goal.
In another experiment, a rat which learned to trace the path correctly from the starting point, was left somewhere in the middle but the rat still completed the path and reached its goal. Similarly, in another experiment rats that had learned to run straight through a maze were surgically operated to produce a cerebral damage.
Once their cerebrum was damaged they could not run straight but ran in circles. When these rats were left in the maze they were still able to run without errors. Obviously, this shows that the organism does not learn mere movement sequences but the correct path among the paths in the maze as a whole.
Experiments on latent learning emphasise that the animals learn just by exploring the maze without reward or food. Cognitive theorists claim that if reward or reinforcement makes the organism learn, then the performance of the rewarded organisms should be better compared to the performance of the ones which are exposed to the same learning situation without reward. In order to test this hypothesis Tolman planned an experiment.
In this experiment, he allowed rats to wander through the maze for ten trials without food. He then divided these rats into two groups, only one of which was fed each day in the maze. This group showed a clear reduction in errors and time taken to reach the goal compared to the non-fed group.
But when food was introduced for the latter group also, errors and the amount of time taken rapidly decreased and the performance of both the groups became immediately comparable. Thus, the non-fed group had apparently profited as much by the earlier trials as the fed group.
The obvious implication of this experiment being that learning was taking place during the trials when the rats were left to wander without reward. However, this learning was revealed in their performance only after the introduction of the incentive or reward. Tolman referred to this unobservable learning as latent learning.
He argued that learning involves the formation of cognitive maps. By repetition the organism develops an awareness of objects and their positions and relations through cognitive processes. However, while these cognitive maps are being formed all the time, they cannot influence behaviour until they acquire significance.
The various turns in the maze become significant or local signs when they are attached to rewarding or punishing circumstances. Thus, Tolman with his simple experiments challenged the connection theories. He was the first one to call attention to new problems regarding learning. As a result, one can see that his theory tries to make an attempt to explain human learning unlike the connection theories which only tried to explain learning on the basis of mechanical connection.
It is usually stated by the connection theorists that learning involves a gradual and continuous strengthening of association between stimulus and response and this becomes stronger and stronger due to reinforcement. This assumption is challenged by the concept of insight postulated by Wolfgang Kohler, a famous gestalt psychologist.
He provided a classical demonstration of insight learning in apes. A hungry ape, confined in a cage, reached through the bars of his cage and obtained a banana. The banana was moved out of reach and the ape was given a stick. After some perceptible trial-and-error behaviour, the ape soon learned to reach with the stick and pull the banana close enough to grab it.
Then the banana was moved twice as far away and the ape was given two separate sticks that could be joined to form one stick long enough to reach the banana. Kohler observed that under this condition, the ape spent some time grunting and pacing. Then, without engaging in any practice, the ape spontaneously joined the sticks and obtained his banana.
The ape tried repeatedly to reach the banana first with one stick and then with the other. When it failed to reach the banana, with either sticks, the ape gave up the effort and started playing with the sticks. In the process of playing, by chance, one stick slide into the other and became one large stick. Immediately, the ape took the combined stick and pulled the banana.
The two sticks, which were earlier perceived as two sticks, now came to be perceived as a long stick – a change in cognition and insight, and this occurred suddenly, spontaneously and without any connection with the previous attitudes. Presumably the ape was running through the possible solutions covertly and acted upon the one that seemed most likely to work.
Conceptually gestalt psychology conceives the process of insight as an organisation of events such that the structural relationships in the phenomenal field change in accordance with the particular phenomenon. The result of such a process is, at times, a sudden familiarity, clarity, understanding and success of the relationships. It may be in the form of a sudden idea or a solution popularly termed as an ‘Aha’ experience or insight.
Some of the characteristics of insight are given below:
1. Cognitive in nature.
2. Structuring and restructuring takes place at the cognitive level.
3. Learning is not mechanical.
4. Occurrence is sudden and spontaneous.
5. Learning is sudden.
6. Learning is permanent and there is no need for repetition.