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Classical and Operant Conditioning

Learning theories help people understand the complex mechanism behind the process of learning. Learning theories can fall under at least three philosophical frameworks: constructivism, behaviourism and cognitivism. In constructivism, learning is viewed as a process where the learner is actively involved in constructing and building new ideas or concepts. Behaviourism on the other hand is concentrated on aspects of learning that can be observed. Finally, cognitive theories are meant to look beyond behaviour and attempts to explain brain-based learning.

In particular, behaviourism focuses on the activity of the animal and not the internal processing that might be associated with the activity. In the study of behaviourism, learning can thus be interpreted as the acquisition of new behaviour through conditioning wherein the conditioning can be in the form of classical conditioning or operant conditioning. Classical conditioning results in acquisition of a behaviour, which becomes a natural reflex response to stimulus. Operant conditioning is where the behaviour is reinforced by either a reward or a punishment.

Although they have their differences, these two forms of conditioning share many similarities as well. For example, they result in basic phenomena such as acquisition of a certain type of behaviour. Also, organisms undergoing either operant or classical conditioning may experience stimulus generalization. This occurs when a learned response is transferred to different but similar stimuli. Classical and operant conditioning may resort in stimulus discrimination as well. Discrimination is when an organism learns to respond to only one stimulus and inhibit the response to all other stimuli.

Spontaneous recovery is another phenomenon that may be a result of these two forms of conditioning. Spontaneous recovery refers to the reappearance of an extinguished response after the passage of time, without further training. Both forms of conditioning may also result in the extinction of the response. For example, in classical conditioning, extinction will result if there is a decrease in the strength or frequency of an acquired response due to the failure to persist in the pairing of the US and the CS. In operant conditioning, extinction occurs when reinforcement is withdrawn.

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