AP Psychology Unit 4 Notes: Learning

February 12, 2024
AP Psychology Study Notes Unit 4

Use these AP Psychology unit 4 study notes to review what you’ve learned in class and prepare for the AP exam. Read on for an overview of what happens in unit 4 of AP Psychology, including some of the key terms and people you should review ahead of test day. These AP Psychology study notes should be used to supplement what you’re learning in your AP Psych class. More study strategies and expert tips can be found in our latest AP Psychology Test Prep Book.

[ READ NEXT: AP Psychology Unit 5 Notes: Cognitive Psychology ]

AP Psychology: Unit 4 Summary

This unit focuses on content from one chapter in the textbook you use in your AP Psychology class: Learning. The title of this unit might confuse you at first because the content of the unit might not be what you think of when you see the word “learning.” To psychologists, research into learning means research into how organisms are conditioned to perform different behaviors. Operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and cognitive learning research will help you explain different examples of human behaviors.


Psychologists differentiate between many different types of learning, a number of which we will discuss in this chapter. Learning is commonly defined as a long-lasting change in behavior resulting from experience. Although learning is not the same as behavior, most psychologists accept that learning can best be measured through changes in behavior. Brief changes are not thought to be indicative of learning. Consider, for example, the effects of running a marathon. For a short time afterward, one’s behavior might differ radically, but we would not want to attribute this change to the effects of learning. In addition, learning must result from experience rather than from any kind of innate or biological change. Thus, changes in one’s behavior as a result of puberty or menopause are not considered to be due to learning.

AP Psychology: Unit 4 Key Terms & People

Below, we describe some of the Unit 4 key terms and people you should review ahead of the AP Psychology exam.

  • Ivan Pavlov: Around the turn of the twentieth century, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov inadvertently discovered a kind of learning while studying digestion in dogs. Pavlov found that the dogs learned to pair the sounds in the environment where they were fed with the food that was given to them and began to salivate simply upon hearing the sounds. As a result, Pavlov deduced the basic principle of classical conditioning.
  • Classical conditioning: People and animals can learn to associate neutral stimuli (e.g., sounds) with stimuli that produce reflexive, involuntary responses (e.g., food) and will learn to respond similarly to the new stimulus as they did to the old one (e.g., salivate).
  • Operant conditioning: Whereas classical conditioning is a type of learning based on association of stimuli, operant conditioning is a kind of learning based on the association of consequences with one’s behaviors.
  • Edward Thorndike: One of the first people to research operant conditioning. Thorndike conducted a series of famous experiments using a cat in a puzzle box. The hungry cat was locked in a cage next to a dish of food. The cat had to get out of the cage in order to get the food. Thorndike found that the amount of time required for the cat to get out of the box decreased over a series of trials. This amount of time decreased gradually; the cat did not seem to understand, suddenly, how to get out of the cage. This finding led Thorndike to assert that the cat learned the new behavior without mental activity but rather simply connected a stimulus and a response.
  • B. F. Skinner: B. F. Skinner, who coined the term operant conditioning, is the best-known psychologist to research this form of learning. Skinner invented a special contraption, aptly named a Skinner box, to use in his research of animal learning. A Skinner box usually has a way to deliver food to an animal and a lever to press or disk to peck in order to get the food. The food is called a reinforcer, and the process of giving the food is called reinforcement. 
  • Reinforcement: Reinforcement is defined by its consequences; anything that makes a behavior more likely to occur is a reinforcer. Two kinds of reinforcement exist. Positive reinforcement refers to the addition of something pleasant. Negative reinforcement refers to the removal of something unpleasant. For instance, if we give a rat in a Skinner box food when it presses a lever, we are using positive reinforcement. However, if we terminate a loud noise or shock in response to a press of the lever, we are using negative reinforcement.
  • Punishment: Affecting behavior by using unpleasant consequences is also possible. Such an approach is known as punishment. By definition, punishment is anything that makes a behavior less likely. The two types of punishment are known as positive punishment (usually referred to simply as “punishment”), which is the addition of something unpleasant, and omission training or negative punishment, the removal of something pleasant.
  • Continuous reinforcement: When you are first teaching a new behavior, rewarding the behavior each time is best. This process is known as continuous reinforcement. However, once the behavior is learned, higher response rates can be obtained using certain partial-reinforcement schedules.
  • Contiguity model: The Pavlovian model of classical conditioning is known as the contiguity model because it postulates that the more times two things are paired, the greater the learning that will take place. Contiguity (togetherness) determines the strength of the response.
  • Latent learning: Latent learning was studied extensively by Edward Tolman. Latent means hidden, and latent learning is learning that becomes obvious only once a reinforcement is given for demonstrating it. Behaviorists had asserted that learning is evidenced by gradual changes in behavior, but Tolman conducted a famous experiment illustrating that sometimes learning occurs but is not immediately evidenced.
  • Abstract learning: Abstract learning involves understanding concepts such as “tree” or “same” rather than learning simply to press a bar or peck a disk in order to secure a reward. Some researchers have shown that animals in Skinner boxes seem to be able to understand such concepts.
  • Insight learning: Wolfgang Köhler is well known for his studies of insight learning in chimpanzees. Insight learning occurs when one suddenly realizes how to solve a problem. You have probably had the experience of skipping over a problem on a test only to realize later, in an instant (we hope before you handed the test in), how to solve it.

Next, test your AP Psychology Unit 4 knowledge using our free Key Terms Worksheets!