Concept learning

Concept learning, according to psychologists refers to the development of the ability to respond to general features of categories of objects or events - Concept learning introduction. Concepts are categories of stimuli that have defined features in common. These are the mental categories for objects, events or ideas that have a general set of features. These concepts allow us to distinguish between objects and events. Hence, while learning a concept, one must focus on the relevant features and ignore which are not relevant (Bourne & colleagues, 1986).

Let us look at few examples to demonstrate the above the theory.

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Now look at the above set of shapes. They all belong to one conceptual category – Rectangle. Their features can be listed as: a) four straight lines b) opposite lines are parallel c) lines connect to each other at the end 4) lines form 4 right angles.

What is irrelevant is the fact that they are in different colors and sizes and they have different orientations. The color, size and orientation are not the defining features for a concept.

Hence, if a stimulus is a member of a certain specified conceptual category, it is referred as “positive instance”. And if it is not a member of the conceptual category, it is considered as “negative instance”. Below are few examples of negative instances for rectangle concept.

Every concept has two components:  a) Attributes b) A Rule

What are Attributes: Attributes are the features of a stimulus that one must observe to decide if that stimulus is a positive instance of the concept.

What is a Rule: This is the statement that identifies which attributes must be present or absent for a stimulus to qualify as a positive instance of the concept.

Hence, for the rectangle example, the attributes are the four features discussed above and the rule would be that all the attributes mentioned must be present.

The simpler the rule is, the easier it would refer to the presence or absence of a single attribute. For example, a “vertebrate” animal is defined as the one with a backbone. Now find which of these stimuli are positive instances of Vertebrates.






This rule is called as affirmation. It states that a stimulus must possess a mentioned attribute to qualify as a positive instance of a concept.

 The opposite of affirmation is negation. To qualify as a positive instance of negation, a stimulus must lack the single specified attribute. The following illustrates this.






The animal that lacks backbone is called an invertebrate. These are the positive and negative instances when the negation rule is applied.

More complex of conceptual rules involves two or more defined attributes. For instance, the conjunction rule mentions that a stimulus must show two or more specified attributes to get qualified as a positive instance of the concept. This rule was used to define the concept of a rectangle.

In the general learning process, when a concept is learned, two processes govern how we respond to a stimulus: a) Generalization b) Discrimination

Generalization:  Based on the common attributes, we generalize a certain response to all members of the conceptual class.

Discrimination:  If a stimulus lacks one or more of the defining attributes, then we discriminate them from belonging to the conceptual class.

For example, the below shapes are generalized as “rectangle” as they all possess the defining attributes as mentioned above.

Rectangle          Rectangle            Rectangle

We discriminate between the stimuli and others which are outside the conceptual class, in this case we respond with a different word to the below example:

Rote learning is the opposite of concept learning. Rote learning is learning without understanding the meaning of what is learned. It is like memorizing a term without understanding what it means.

A famous conditioning experiment with chimpanzees (Kelleher, 1958) was conducted to explain the distinction between Rote Learning and Concept Learning. The procedure was a form of discrimination training in which the chimpanzees had to distinguish between + and – instances of a concept. The stimulus involved 9 small windows arranged in 3 rows with 3 windows per row. Each window could be let lit or left dark as in the example given below.

The above array was one of the + instances of the concept as all the three bottom windows were lit. After thirteen positive and thirteen negative stimuli were presented, the chimps understood the strong discrimination and had little or no response during negative stimuli. This shows that the chimps had learned a concept during the conditioning. Whatever the pattern, the chimps only looked at the bottom 3 windows and only if all were lit, they pressed the button. This is a classic example of the advantages of solving the problems conceptually. It illustrates that by just focusing on the relevant attributes one can respond to new situations appropriately.

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