Dordt College News

Psych students learn how we learn

May 18, 2011

Three gerbils, one dog, and one human are currently the subjects of research for the class Learning: Theories and Applications, taught by Dordt psychology professor Jessica Clevering.

During their class sessions, the students study learning and conditioning theories, and they are given the opportunity to put that knowledge to use in their practical training.

Julia De Koekkoek says she’s grown quite attached to Bernard, her gerbil. She is teaching him to do a variety of simple tasks.“Actually training an animal shows how complicated learning is and how easy it is to mess up,” notes senior Jessica Westra. She and her group members, Bailey Bakker and Gabby Eckardt, have been training a gerbil named Lily. “We have been using operant conditioning,” explains Westra, “using sunflower seeds as reinforcement when Lily goes over hurdles and through the tube.”

Clevering explains that all animals learn differently, so the students need to discover the most effective method of training. “Gerbils’ behavior goes extinct pretty quickly because they are very curious and their learning can easily be undone.”

A group that is “training” a human is also facing unique challenges.

“You can’t just train humans like you would a rodent,” Clevering says. One group of students is attempting to train someone to exercise in the mornings, primarily using verbal praise and positive conversation as reinforcement.

“Actually training a subject shows how complicated learning is and how easy it is to mess up,” says Westra. “The most challenging part is being patient. As with any type of training, it takes time and effort.”

These practical applications have made Westra see how learning theories get applied in everyday life.

“I look at parents and their children and see examples of how they are using operant conditioning even if they don’t realize it,” she says.

Clevering hopes that this practical experience will also help students when they enter the working world.

“In the psychology field, we use many components of learning theories to figure out how to encourage good habits and discourage bad habits,” Clevering says. She anticipates that the principles and theories the students have studied in her class will give them the tools to assess the effectiveness of various programs, such as rehabilitation or therapy.

Although Clevering has this big picture in mind, she enjoys watching her students grow and enjoy their training experience. And students enjoy seeing their hard work pay off.

Westra notes, “It is so exciting when Lily does what we have been teaching her because we can see the principles of learning take place right before our eyes.”


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