Learning and Learning Theories

B. Cognitive Learning Theory

Some psychologists believe that above theories cannot fulfill the total human learnings that takes place. So another theory called cognitive theory can explain the function of learning. Cognition means an individual’s thoughts, knowledge, interpretations, undertakings, ideas or views about his environment. They theory assumes that the learner forms a cognitive structure in memory. It preserves and organizes information about the events that may occur in the learning situation. Tolman and Kohler were the two theorists who worked on cognitive learning.

Tolman, pioneering cognitive theorist, held that learning involved a relationship between cognitive environmental cues and expectations. He evolved and tested this theory through controlled laboratory experiments using rats. He showed that rats learned to run through a complicated maze towards a goal (food). It was observed that the rats developed expectations at every choice point of the maze. Thus, they learned to expect that certain cognitive cues related to the choice point could ultimately lead to food. In situations where rats got the food, the relationship between cues and expectancy was strengthened and learning took place. Thus, Tolman’s approach can be called S-S (stimulus-stimulus) connection.

Tolman’s learning is more S-S learning developed by the association between the cues and expectancies. E.g., the relationship between the cognitive cues such as job procedure and worker expectations and increment for good performance. The essence of this theory is that worker would learn to be more protective by developing an association between taking orders or following direction and expectancies of monetary reward for their effort.

Wolfgang Kohler is another researcher who worked on cognitive learning. He used chimpanzees and presented the problem to obtain the bananas hanging above, which were out of the reach. At the first attempt they jumped for it, but soon they gave up and seized a box that had been placed in another part of room, dragged it under, mounted on it and took down the fruit. This is the more complex learning and he called it ‘‘insight”. This insightful learning marked by Kohler produce a great impact on the early human relations movement.

In organizational behaviour, the cognitive approach has been ap­plied mainly to motivational theories. All purposive behaviour in or­ganization could be defined by cognitive theories such as expectation, attribution and locus of control and goal setting. Although, it has tremendous significant implication in the field of memory and informa­tion processing.

Thus in cognitive learning:

i. Stimulus (S) leads to another stimulus or S-S, rather than classical S-R or the operant R-S explanation,

ii. Learning consists of a relationship between cognitive environment cues and expectations, and behavior is goal directed.


i. This theory is highly rational. Many behaviours which do not fall under either classical or operant conditioning are easily explained by it. The human mind is capable of receiving, processing and storing information which can be used for problem-solving. One need not take the help of stimulants or reinforcers for this kind of learning.

ii. The cognitive approach heavily relies on experiments as its main research method. studies taking the cognitive approach are somewhat scientific and have good internal validity as extraneous variables are controlled.

iii. Cognition is the key to organizational behaviour. Thanks to the development of the audio-visual methodology, many things can be learnt through observation and analysis. Skill can also be acquired in this way. The entire gamut of management functions like planning, organization, direction, motivation, coordination and control is information- and knowledge-oriented. Decision-making and problem-solving are also cognitive processes.


i. Available information may not always be adequate. So behaviour based on it is apt to be misleading like love at first sight’.

ii. Not all people have the skill of information processing which requires a high order of intelligence and judgement.

iii. Further, due to mental, motivational and so many other differences in individuals the same informational input may cause different behaviours in different individuals.

C. Social Learning

Individuals also learn by observing their models whom they admire. These models can be parents, teachers, peers, superiors, T.V. artists, players, bosses etc. Thus social learning theory includes both observation and direct experience.

While social learning theory is an extension of operant conditioning, that is, it assumes that behavior is a function of consequences, it also acknowledges the existence of observational learning and the importance of perception in learning. People respond to how they perceive and define consequences, not to the objective consequences themselves.

The influence of models is important to the social learning viewpoint. Four processes have been found to determine the influence that model will have on an individual.

i. People Processes

People only learn from a model when they recognize and pay attention to its critical features. We tend to be most influences by models that are attractive repeatedly viable, we think are important, or we see a similar to us.

ii. Retention Process

A models influence will depend on how well the individual remembers the model’s action, even after the model is no longer readily available.

iii. Motor reproduction processes

After a person has seen a new behavior observing the model, the watching must be converted to doing. This process then demonstrates that the individual can perform the modelled activities.

iv. Reinforcement processes

Individuals will be motivated to exhibit the model behavior if positive incentives of rewards are provided. Behaviours that are reinforces will be given more attention, learned better and performed better.

Social learning is drawn from the classical and operant learning in the sense that it is assumed that behaviour is determined by a person’s cognitive and social environment. People learn behavior and attitudes at least partly in response to what others expect of them. Social learning theory states that much learning occurs by observing others and then modelling the behavior according to what leads to favorable outcomes or punishing consequences. Here learning through the experience of others is called the vicarious learning or modelling, e.g., person can learn to do a new job by observing others i.e. can learn to avoid the late coming by observing that boss is scolding his co-worker for coming late.


According to Luthans,

Social learning with its very comprehensive, interactive nature, serves as an excellent conceptual framework for developing a meaningful model for organizational behaviour.

It can also provide a model for the continuous, reciprocal interaction between the leader (including his cognitions), the environment (including subordinates, followers and macro-variables) and the behaviour itself. This would seem to be a comprehensive and viable theoretical foundation for understanding leadership.

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