Epistemology: Defining the Concept of Learning


Epistemology is the study of how humans acquire knowledge.  Human learning is best defined as a relatively permanent modification of behavior that comes about as the result of experience.

Learning Involves a Change in Behavior

With the acquisition of knowledge often comes an observable change in behavior.  The ability to observe behavioral changes in an organism serves as objective evidence of the basic learning process.  Although the processes involved in learning and memory are neural processes that, as yet, cannot be directly observed, the outcropping of those processes can be seen in the form of an organism’s behavioral patterns.  For example, the ability of a rat to run a maze indicates that it has learned the path.  Another example is when a human recalls a particular event that has happened.  This recollection behavior indicates memory – a type of learning.

The Potential Component

Not all learning is immediately evident in behavioral changes, however.  For example, learning the material from a textbook on psychology may not be instantly observable through behavior.  Thus the process of learning must also include the potential for change when situations call for one’s knowledge to be tested like we see at final examination time.

This difference between instantaneous behavioral change and potential behavior change was demonstrated by studies on aggression performed by Albert Bandura and his colleagues in 1965.  In these groundbreaking studies, children were shown a video of an adult acting aggressively towards an inflatable clown called a BoBo doll.  The video portrayed an adult model punching, kicking, and throwing the clown.  At a later date, researchers allowed the children to play with the doll.  They found that many of the children emulated specific aggressive behavior based on what they had learned in the previously watched video.  This experiment shows that people learn and then act on potential – sometimes at a much later date.

Learning Permanency

The notion that learning is somewhat permanent may seem contrary to everyday life.  People regularly forget names, faces, appointments, etc.  But research suggests that people learn and remember much more than was formerly realized.  In studies performed on senior citizens, it has been found that most remember about 70% of their high school classmates.   Similarly, college professors were able to match names to faces of students that they had taught many years earlier.  In other studies, it was found that adults who had taken Spanish in high school remembered substantial amounts of what they learned even several decades later.

In summary, learning can be loosely defined as a change in behavior or behavioral patterning that occurs as a result of experience.   Since learning occurs in the mind – a realm that is yet to be directly observable – behavior changes serve as evidence that learning has occurred.  However, not all learning is quickly evidenced through behavior suggesting that humans possess latent potential for learning which is only brought to light when the organism is motivated to express behavioral changes.


Bandura, A.(1965). “Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1 (6): 589–595

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Cognitive psychology (2nd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Post Navigation