Classroom Exercise: Defining Learning


Thomas Rocklin has developed a useful classroom exercise to introduce and define learning. On the day you begin your discussion of Chapter 7, distribute a copy of Handout 7–2 (See Below)  to each student. Ask the students to decide as a class which events are examples of learning and which are not. The specific events are likely to elicit varying degrees of disagreement. Ask students to defend their position by proposing their own definition of learning. Finally, present Hilgard and Bower’s definition of learning, which expands that presented in the text: Learning refers to the relatively permanent change in a subject’s behavior to a given situation brought about by his (or her) repeated experiences in that
situation, provided that the behavior change cannot be explained on the basis of native response tendencies, maturation, or temporary states of the subject (e.g., fatigue, drugs, etc.).

Rocklin reports that applying the definition yields fairly clear-cut answers for the 10 events except for item (8), the computer program. Students generally contend that a computer cannot “learn” because it “does only what it is programmed to do.” If time allows and you have computers readily available, you may want to address the question of computer learning with another exercise suggested by Thomas Rocklin. See his article for additional information.

Rocklin, T. (1987). Defining learning: Two classroom activities. Teaching of Psychology, 14, 228–229.