Learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior or behavior potential produced by experience (Feldman, 1999). Kimble (1961) defined learning as a relatively permanent change in behavioral tendency as a result of reinforced practice trials. These two definitions share three important features. First, learning brings about a relatively permanent change. Second, this change is noticed in behavior or behavior potential. Third, learning is produced by experience. Kimble (1961), in addition, emphasizes reinforced practice’ as an essential component of learning. Let us examine each of these features.
1. A Relatively Permanent Change:
To qualify as a learned behavior, the change must be relatively permanent. Temporary changes in behavior cannot be called learning. Reflexive behaviors (for example, an eye blink, a knee jerk) produced by stimulating the nervous system are temporary and therefore, cannot be called as learned behaviors. Temporary changes in behavior as a result of drinking alcohol, or taking drugs, or being fatigued are not called learning. Upon entering a cinema hall, you will find it difficult to immediately locate seats and the known faces. After about five minutes, you would easily locate seats and people as you adapt to the light condition. Such a change in behavior is only temporary and is attributed to adaptation, not learning. Learned changes, however, may not last forever; we forget many of the learned behaviors. The critical aspect is that learning always involves memory for what has been learned, so that on subsequent occasion we can recall or do what we learned before.
2. A Change in Behavior or Behavior Potential:
Learning is not observed directly, but is inferred from changes in observable behavior. The observed behavior is performance. Performance provides an index for learning. But all learning may not always be translated into performance. In other words, performance may not always show everything that has been learned. The term ‘behavior potential’ is very critical to distinguish learning from performance.
Learning may affect your potential for behaving in a particular way in future, if needed. For example, an inspiring lecture may increase your understanding of the History. This understanding is hidden in you in the form of a potentiality. The potentiality will manifest as performance while writing answers in the examination. Until the examination is held, learning is stored as a potentiality for future performance.
3. A Process Produced by Experience:
Learning can take place only through experience. Experience includes taking in information and making responses that affect the environment. Kimble’s (1961) concept of practice is related to experience. Without practice arid experience, the behavior would not qualify as being learned. A change in behavior as a result of illness, or old age or maturation does not include practice or experience. Hence, such changes cannot be attributed to learning.
Some lasting changes in behavior require a combination of experience and maturational readiness. For a child, to be able to crawl, stand, walk and run follows a specific timetable. No amount of training or experience would produce these behaviors before the child has matured. Thus by including the component of ‘practice and experience’, learning is distinguished from behavioral changes effected by maturation.
Thus, learning can be said to have taken place, when the three conditions listed above are met. It is not, however, always obvious to the person or the observer that these conditions are present. Learning of a very complex and broad nature, such as loving one’s country, or respecting a value system, is very difficult to measure. But all such learning have the three components discussed above.
4. The Concept of Reinforcement:
Kimble’s definition has an added feature: the concept of reinforcement. For behaviorists, reinforcement is essential for learning. Whether or not reinforcement is important for learning has taken the shape of a major debate among psychologists.
It must be emphasized that changes produced by learning are not always positive. People are as likely to acquire bad habits as good ones. All the three conditions of learning apply as well to the acquisition of bad habits. Thus, learning does not necessarily result in the modification of behavior. An earlier definition of learning, “learning is the modification of behavior in the light of past experience” is no longer acceptable.