Learning psychology

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The learning psychology is concerned with the psychological processes of learning and similar cognitive processes, so in order to purchase such as humans or animals information, process and store. The products of this science are learning theories .

Neighboring disciplines are behavioral research , neurobiology and brain research on the basic side , and educational psychology and didactics on the application side .

While the philosophical theory explained learning purely speculatively for a long time, e.g. B. Plato as a reminder of knowledge before birth, an experimental and scientific-oriented learning theory emerged around the beginning of the 20th century.

Historical overview

Beginnings (around 1900)

At the beginning there was an attempt to research mental processes through experimental self-observation (introspection). In Germany this was first achieved by Wilhelm Wundt (1879) and Hermann Ebbinghaus , whose book about experiments with his own memory skills (with meaningless learning material) appeared in 1885. They formed the basis for Experimental Memory Psychology , which formulated some rules and laws:

Because of the uncertainty of the introspective method, other psychologists began to conduct experiments on animal learning. In the USA, behaviorism arose from criticism of introspection . From a combination of association psychology , reflexology and behaviorism in connectionism , Edward Lee Thorndike developed a learning theory in 1898 that expanded the stimulus-response scheme to include the aspect of “ reinforcement ”: From randomly distributed behavior, that which is learned is contingent (immediate and specific) and sufficient is often reinforced . Thorndike's rules for " instrumental conditioning " and for successful learning are:

Theories in the early 20th century

From his research on the digestive secretions of dogs , the classical reflexology of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov emerged , who from 1905 found the rules for classical conditioning .

In continuation of Thorndike's work, Skinner created the rules for " operant conditioning ". Some concrete pedagogical applications continue to the present day; the programmed instruction (1960s to 1980s) and the (Education) behavior modification .

Gestalt psychology ( Berlin School (psychology) or Gestalt theory ) represented a contrary view : learning as insight and productive thinking ( Karl Duncker , Max Wertheimer , Kurt Koffka , Wolfgang Köhler (psychologist) ). Learning is not done by getting used to the correct (most effective) procedure, in many experiments with purely random variations (behaviorism), but by recognizing the most effective procedure for a problem . The structure of the initial situation, and experience (problem space), intelligence and objectives of the learning system, affect this insight into the correct problem-solving , then engage in certain partial solutions so that the approach is a judicious figure form takes. A solution can thus be found in just one attempt and learned forever. Humans can also add what is missing to “shape” themselves; learning is not just a matter of mapping.

"Cognitive turn" around 1960

The development theory of Jean Piaget (1896–1980, epistemological functionalism) formed a new turning point, emphasizing the cognitive structures and levels developed in the learner as a prerequisite for the learning act and drawing attention to age. Humans do not learn by mapping the outside world, but perceive the outside world differently depending on the stage reached in their cognitive development. The development itself does not take place simply as maturation, but in the interplay between the learner and the environment. This created a broad field for cognitive psychology (e.g. Cognitive Psychology by Ulrich Neisser , 1967) and meaning-generating, generative, discovery learning (in the USA David Paul Ausubel , Jerome Bruner , in Switzerland Hans Aebli , and Germany Manfred Wittrock )

In departure from the black box model of behavioral behavioral psychology, one wants to explain the information processing processes taking place in the learner . So it is a paradigm shift and a development from a behavioristic to a cognitive way of thinking that is still not able to examine the black box, but is aware of it.

Social-cognitive model learning : Older theories that attributed learning only to external imitation or internal identification were expanded to include cognitively oriented model learning, which, based on the aggressive behavior of young people, had a major influence on the Canadian Albert Bandura from 1963 onwards .

The distinction between different types of storage in memory was of great importance for learning psychology : sensory memory, short-term or working memory, and long-term memory (R. C. Atkinson and R. M. Shiffrin, 1968). Up to the present, research shows numerous further developments of this theory, which show the complicated path of cognitive processing to sustainable knowledge and ability.


This gave rise to constructivist learning theories that had a foundation in epistemological constructivism : Didactic constructivism and learning as a construction of knowledge .

The term learning is currently understood much more broadly than in the memorization of early memory research, as can be seen from the multitude of conceivable goals of learning:

  • Learning directed to Can , automating capabilities to mental and motor skills;
  • Learning with the aim of problem solving ;
  • Learning with the aim of retaining and presenting knowledge ;
  • Learning procedures ( learning to learn , learning to work, learning to look up, learning to read critically );
  • Learning to increase skills and strength with the aim of later transfer (formal education: the classic reason for letting people learn Latin );
  • Learning with the aim of building an attitude , value , attitude ;
  • Learning with the aim of gaining a deeper interest in a subject;
  • Learning with the aim of changing behavior (Roth 1963 after Seel 2003).

Learning is different from getting used to it . Learning is a characteristic of intelligent behavior. Learning and thinking take place with the help of (gestural, pictorial, linguistic and symbolic) signs . Thinking creates new knowledge on the basis of what is already there. “The single most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows” (Ausubel 1968 after Seel 2003).

The latest approaches expand the cognitive-constructivist model by also taking motivational , affective and socio-cultural variables into account.

See also


  • Ulrich Neisser : Cognitive Psychology. Stuttgart 1974.
  • George Mandler : A history of modern experimental psychology: From James and Wundt to cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2007.
  • Hans Aebli : Thinking: The ordering of doing. 2 volumes, Stuttgart 1980–81.
  • Robert M. Gagné : The Conditions of Human Learning. Hanover 1980 (in USA 1965).
  • Geoffrey Caine, Renate N. Caine: Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. 1991; revised paperback edition: Dale Seymour Publications 1994.
  • Walter Edelmann: Learning Psychology. 6th edition. Psychologie Verlags Union, Weinheim 2000.
  • Norbert M. Seel : Psychology of learning. 2nd Edition. Ernst Reinardt (UTB), Munich 2003.
  • Guy Lefrançois: Psychology of Learning. 4th expanded edition. Springer, Berlin 2008.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Thorndike operant conditioning. In: Learning Psychology. Retrieved February 29, 2020 .
  2. ^ Lexicon of Gestalt Therapy. www.gestalttherapie-lexikon.de, accessed on February 29, 2020 .
  3. see Max Wertheimer 1957, Productive Thinking (German translation of Productive Thinking by Wolfgang Metzger ), Frankfurt: Waldemar Kramer; Karl Duncker 1935, On the psychology of productive thinking , Berlin: Springer; Ferdinand Herget 2001, Insightful Learning , Berlin: Lit-Verlag.