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Cognitive Learning Theory

Definition: Edward Tolman has contributed significantly to the Cognitive Learning Theory. According to him, individuals not only responds to stimuli but also act on beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, feelings and strive towards goals.

In other words, An individual creates a cognitive map in his mind, i.e. an image of the external environment, preserves and organizes information gathered, as a result of the consequences of events encountered during the learning process. Thus, the organism learns about the event and objects on the basis of a meaning assigned to stimuli.

Tolman was the first behaviorist who challenged the conditional theory on the belief that stimulus-response theory is unacceptable, as reinforcement was not necessary for the learning to happen and asserted that behavior was mainly cognitive. He believed that the environment offers several experiences or cues which are used to develop the mental image i.e. cognitive map.

Thus, cognitive learning theory is based on the cognitive model of human behavior, i.e. it emphasizes on the free will and positive aspects of human behavior. Cognition refers to the individual’s thoughts, feelings, ideas, knowledge and understanding about himself and the environment. Thus, an organism applies this cognition in learning which results in not merely the response to a stimulus, but the application of internal image of the external environment, so as to accomplish the goal.

Tolman has conducted an experiment to elucidate the cognitive learning theory. He trained a rat to turn right in the ‘T’ maze in order to obtain food. One day, he started a rat from the opposite part of the maze, according to the operant conditioning theory, the rat should have turned right due to the past conditioning, but instead, it turned towards where the food was kept.

Thus, Tolman concluded that rat formed a cognitive map in its mind to figure out where the food has been placed, and reinforcement was not a precondition for learning to take place.

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