Associative learning is a style of learning that happens when two unrelated elements (for example, objects, sights, sounds, ideas, or behaviors) become connected in our brains through a process known as conditioning.

Examples of associative learning include:

  • If someone puts their hand on a hot stove and hurts themselves, they may learn to associate hot stoves with pain and have therefore been conditioned not to put their hands on them.
  • If someone eats a particular food, then develops a headache soon afterward, they may learn to associate that food with headaches (even if the food didn’t cause the headache) and not want to eat it again.
  • Every time a child cleans their room, their parent or carer gives them a treat. As a result, the child starts associating cleaning their room with treats, making them more inclined to clean their space more frequently.
  • When a kitten is misbehaving, its mother will flick its ears. The kitten eventually learns to associate misbehaving with ear flicking (which is painful to them), so it stops.

Associative learning is something that all humans and animals do naturally. By linking elements together and making a web of different connections, we build up our memories and deepen our understanding of the world around us. If we did not do this, we would be unable to recall even the most essential things, such as how to get to the local shops or that we do not like certain foods.

As well as being something that humans and animals do naturally, associative learning is utilized by those who teach. Teachers can better manage their classrooms through associative learning techniques, while parents and carers can encourage their children to behave well and responsibly.

Types of Associative Learning

There are two types of associative learning: classical conditioning and operant or instrumental conditioning.

Classical conditioning is when one neutral element (called the conditioned stimulus) becomes associated with a different element (the unconditioned stimulus) that already generates the desired response (the unconditioned response) until the neutral element stops being neutral and instead causes the same response (the conditioned response).

One famous example of classical conditioning was conducted by Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov, who conditioned dogs to salivate whenever they heard a bell.

To do this, he would ring a bell (the conditioned stimulus), then give the dogs food (the unconditioned stimulus) very soon afterward. The food caused the dogs to salivate (the unconditioned response). Still, after some time doing this bell-ringing/food-giving routine, Pavlov noticed that the dogs would salivate immediately after the bell was rung – even before they saw any food. Pavlov then tried ringing the bell without producing the food, and the dogs still salivated once the bell was rung (the conditioned response). At this point, Pavlov concluded the dogs had been conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell.

Operant conditioning is quite similar to classical conditioning. Still, instead of conditioning an unconscious response, operant conditioning is about preparing an individual’s conscious behavior based on the consequences of that behavior.

One well-known example of operant conditioning comes from psychologist B.F. Skinner, conditioned rats to perform behaviors using positive and negative reinforcements.

In his first experiment, he put a hungry rat into a specially designed Skinner box equipped with a lever mechanism to dispel food when pressed. After exploring the box, the rat pressed the lever, and the food appeared. Skinner repeated this experiment with the same rat several times until the first thing the rat would do upon entering the box would be to press the lever. In this instance, a positive reinforcement (food reward) was used to condition the rat to push the lever.

In his second experiment, Skinner put a different rat in a Skinner box with an uncomfortable electric current running through it. Having experienced the discomfort, the rat moved around the box and accidentally knocked the lever, which immediately stopped the current. Again, Skinner repeated the experiment several times until the rat knew to press the lever immediately to avoid discomfort. Similarly, a negative reinforcement (the possibility of pain from the current) was used to condition the rat to pull the lever.

Associative learning in the classroom

Associative learning is regularly used in classrooms to encourage and discourage certain student behaviors.

Some examples of associative learning being utilized in the classroom include:

  • Awarding students high grades for doing good work.
  • Praising students for their effort and hard work.
  • Using star charts. (When a student does something well, a star is added. After earning a certain number of stars, the student gets a prize.)
  • Removing classroom privileges from students who have been misbehaving in class.
  • Not allowing a misbehaving student to sit with their friends.
  • Giving misbehaving students detention.
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