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Science of Learning - Few Fascinating Facts: Part 1

Understanding how a child learns, the science behind it, and different approaches to improving learning help you support your children as they venture into academics. Preston University’s study showed that positive reinforcement (one of the ways of learning) improved students’ academic performance and behavior. This blog aims to understand the basics of learning, its processes, and the brain regions involved in the learning process.

Learning is a crucial process in human behavior and involves several mental processes. Let us understand this through a few common examples. Sameer goes to the dentist and experiences a painful extraction. This experience is associated with the drilling noise made by the instrument that stays in his memory. After that, he experiences fear and anxiety whenever he hears drilling noise anywhere. From Sameer’s case, we can understand that the experience (fear and anxiety) has created a pathway in his brain, contributing to learning. That is, whenever Sameer comes across any drilling noise, he may experience fear and anxiety.

Let us look at another example, where someone comes up to you from behind and touches your neck with a wet, frosty ice cube. Before you even have a chance to think, you spring into action. The ice cube usually triggers an automatic response called a withdrawal reflex: it happens without a conscious decision. This is in contrast with Sameer’s example wherein new learning results in a behavior change. Children learning how to hold a pencil and write or learning to read are few other examples.

We now know that some of our actions are natural while some are learned. Majorly, learning requires effortful and constant conditioning (behaviors become frequent and predictable after continuous reinforcement). This is explained through a few theories which show how individuals acquire, retain, and recall knowledge through learning.

Broadly, there are three types of learning: Classical conditioning, Operant conditioning, and Observational learning.

Operant and Classical conditioning are types of associative learning. In associative learning, a relationship exists between events that occur together. For example, suppose you take your two-year-old child to an ice-cream parlour whenever you wear a white cap. This conditions your child into thinking that she will visit the ice-cream parlour whenever you wear your white cap. The child gets excited because she has associated your white cap with ice cream. This learning by association is classical conditioning. Observational learning is learning by observing others in your surrounding.

  1. In Classical conditioning, we learn to associate events that regularly happen. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov gave this theory. He conducted experiments involving dogs during which he trained (or conditioned) them to associate the sound of a bell with the presence of food. The conditioning occurs when the bell’s sound makes the dog salivate in anticipation of food.

  1. In Operant conditioning, the learning process occurs when behaviors are reinforced or punished, thus strengthening or reducing a response (behavior). According to Edward Thorndike, learning happens due to continued and repeated associations formed between stimuli and response. Behaviors that are formed by pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated. For instance, rewarding a child every time she completes her homework will make her complete it more diligently.

  1. In Observational learning, learning happens through observing others’ behavior and imitating them. Albert Bandura observed that children often learn through mimicking adults, and he tested his theory using his famous Bobo-doll experiment. Through this experiment, Bandura learned that children attacked the Bobo doll after seeing adults hitting the doll. For example, when a younger child witnesses an older sibling being punished for taking a cookie without asking, he does not take cookies without permission. Thus, the younger child understands certain behavior patterns through observational learning.

Now let us explore how different brain regions are associated with learning.

The decades of research on brain regions involved in learning indicate that the medial temporal lobe (responsible for memory and temporary deposit of information) and structures like the hippocampus (has a major role in learning and memory), the striatum (facilitate voluntary movement, decision making), and the cerebellum (role in motor control, coordination, motor skills) are involved in learning. Also, lower brain regions are responsible for simpler forms of learning.

Let us look at these regions one-by-one!


It is an important structure for processing emotional information and plays a role in learning the emotional components of the experience. For example, recall Sameer’s and his fear with drilling noise (Conditioned fear). The amygdala provokes fear when he comes across any drilling noise.


It is involved in learning new facts and events. For example, learning how to memorize points for a debate competition or even learning dialogues for a play happens due to the hippocampus.


It involves learning skills and habits (which need voluntary movement) like learning to exercise or play musical instruments.


It plays a significant role in learning complex information, for example, riding a bike or swimming.

From the above brain regions, we see that learning doesn’t happen within a single place in our brain. It is distributed all over the brain. Learning helps us adapt to unexpected changes. With learning, we start to reason, interpret logically and also build our attitude accordingly. The more we learn, the more we acquire critical thinking skills. On the same note, it is also important to know its process, which helps us adapt the best methods to learn.

In summary, we have explored:

  • the basic concepts about learning and its characteristics

  • theories of learning types and

  • brain regions associated with learning.

In our next blog, we will go through some of the critical processes and mechanisms of how the learning process occurs to give you a thorough understanding of the underlying learning processes.


  • Richard Gross, Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour 6E, Hachette UK, ISBN 978-1-4441-6436-7.

  • Karban, R. (2015). Plant Learning and Memory. In: Plant Sensing and Communication. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 31–44, [1].

  • Autin, F. & Croizet, J. C. (2012). Improving working memory efficiency by reframing metacognitive interpretation of task difficulty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), 610.

  • Cohen, P. A., Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. L. C. (1982). Educational outcomes of tutoring: A meta-analysis of findings. American Educational Research Journal, 19(2), 237-248.

  • Fiorella, L. & Mayer, R. E. (2013). The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38(4), 281-288.

  • Daniel L. Schacter; Daniel T. Gilbert; Daniel M. Wegner (2011) [2009]. Psychology, 2nd edition. Worth Publishers. p. 264. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2.

  • OECD (2007). Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science. OECD Publishing. p. 165. ISBN 978-92-64-02913-2.Learned helplessness at the Encyclopædia Britannica

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