Thursday, January 21, 2010

Learning Theory: Behaviorism

Background Information

Behavior is a learning theory that was developed in the early twentieth century by John Watson, and was later augmented by the works of B.F. Skinner, among others. In the book Learning in Adulthood, by S.B. Merriam, the authors explain three basic tenants of Behaviorism:

1. Learning results in a change in behavior,
2. Behavior is shaped by the environment, not by the learner,
3. Stimulus and Response are key components.

Three educational theorists provide helpful contributions to this theory. Edward Thorndike developed three laws of learning, which include:

• the Law of Effect (Learners remember responses which trigger positive reinforcement)
• the Law of Exercise (Repetition of meaningful connections improves memory)
• the Law of Readiness (Learning is improved when people are prepared to make meaningful connections, and hindered when they are not)

The second theorist is Ivan Pavlov, who added

• Reinforcement (Strengthening a desired response through repetition)
• Conditioned Stimulus (A Stimulus that triggers a conditioned response)
• Extinction (The elimination of an undesired behavior)

The third theorist was B.F. Skinner who contributed the concept of Operant Conditioning, which is the concept of reinforcing desired behavior, and ignoring undesired behavior.


Behaviorism focuses on a measurable, observable performance as the result of instruction. It typically can be seen in a three-part cycle, which includes Stimulus, Response, and Feedback, where the learner is simply responding to stimulus.

As an example, one could train children to observe traffic light laws by playing the classic game “Red Light, Green Light.” In the game, the instructor stands in the front of the room, while the remaining stand on the other side. The instructor will say “Green Light.” At that point, the children begin walking toward the front of the room. When the instructor says “Red Light”, the children stop in place. If anyone moves after the instructor has called out “Red Light”, they have to go back to the back of the room and start over. Whoever makes it to the front of the room first wins the game. The Stimulus being the words “Red Light”, or “Green Light”, the response being to stop, or move forward, and the feedback being they may continue (Positive reinforcement), or they have to start over (Negative reinforcement).

Instructors Role

The Instructors role is to determine a starting point, based on the learner’s prior knowledge, and then plan out the learning environment by arranging the stimulus and consequences to the learners correct, or incorrect responses. To do this, the instructor must decide which stimuli will be effective in eliciting the desired responses. The instructor must then give the learners the opportunity to practice correct responses (Reinforcement). The instructor must also be sure to put the learners in a similar environment to what they will be working in, to ensure knowledge transfer.

When to use

Behaviorism is best used when the presenting new knowledge and skills which will result in an observable behavioral change. A modern example would be using a flight simulator to train pilots. Through the simulator, you offer various stimuli (rough weather conditions), the learners respond by taking the appropriate actions (the desired observable/measurable behavior), and then receive consequences, either positive or negative depending on whether or not their response was correct. What you are looking for is rapid reflex. Another example is basic training in the military. Soldiers are taught to react to stimuli without hesitation, this is behaviorist training.

Because the learner is simply responding to stimuli, behaviorism does not promote problem solving or innovative skills in the same way a Cognitivist, or Constructivist approach would. With Behaviorism, you are simply seeking a change in the learner’s behavior.


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72.

Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Chapter 11: Traditional Learning Theories. In Learning in Adulthood: A comprehensive Guide (pp. 278 – 280). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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