Behaviorism is a learning theory focused on observable and measurable behaviors resulting from responses to stimuli. In the late 19th century, Ivan Pavlov performed “classical conditioning” experiments with dogs. He already knew that dogs would salivate when presented with food. When feeding the dogs, he provided a “neutral stimulus,” specifically a ringing bell. After some time, he found that the dogs salivated even when presented with only the neutral stimulus. J.B. Watson expanded upon Pavlov’s findings with his article “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” (1913), where he posited that behaviorists view psychology as objective, with no difference between humans and animals (158). B.F Skinner later popularized behaviorism in the 1960s and 1970s with his operant conditioning experiments. He used a “Skinner box,” or operant conditioning chamber, to reinforce behaviors using reinforcement (Dumper et al.).
When applying behaviorism in a learning environment, the teacher can use operant conditioning to elicit desired behaviors. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that uses positive and negative reinforcement and punishment to either strengthen or weaken a response. For example, a teacher can give a student a piece of candy (positive reinforcement) after they respond correctly to strengthen that behavior. Alternatively, the teacher could take away a piece of candy (negative punishment) when the student answers incorrectly, thus weakening the negative response. In a behaviorist classroom, the learner is typically passive. They “receive” learning from the instructor. The table below describes each of the reinforcement and punishment scenarios.
|Positive Reinforcement||Add or increase pleasant stimulus||Strengthened behavior||The teacher gives the student a piece of candy when they answer correctly|
|Positive Punishment||Add or increase unpleasant stimulus||Weakened behavior||The teacher plays a jarring buzzer sound when the student answers incorrectly|
|Negative Reinforcement||Remove or reduce unpleasant stimulus||Strengthened behavior||The teacher allows a student to stop doing math facts when they answer 10 in a row correctly|
|Negative Punishment||Remove or reduce pleasant stimulus||Weakened behavior||The teacher takes away a piece of candy when the student answers incorrectly|
Since the learning should be quantifiable, behaviorism allows teachers to use quizzes and tests to measure whether a student has learned the material. Behaviorism works well for objective lessons, with clear “right” and “wrong” answers, such as math facts, state capitals, and important dates in history. However, subjective lessons, such as painting a portrait, writing an essay, and composing a song, are not well-suited for behaviorist techniques because the teacher cannot measure their results. Furthermore, behaviorism does not encourage critical thinking and analysis. Students learn to seek reinforcement or avoid punishment but do not learn the “why” behind the behavior.
While punishment can weaken a behavior, the underlying behavior still exists in the brain or memory system. The behavior could return under certain conditions (Bouton, 2014). Using punishment to teach a lesson might result in correct answers when the punishment is applied, but a student could revert to producing incorrect answers when the punishment is no longer present.
Gamification is an excellent application for behaviorism in instructional design. Instructional designers can create engaging content that rewards points and badges (positive reinforcement) for correct answers (desired behaviors). They can also include negative punishment to weaken undesired behavior, or incorrect answers, by taking away those rewards. Because outcomes are measurable, instructional designers can also implement multiple choice and true/false assessments in their learning experiences.
Behaviorism. GSI Teaching Resource Center. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://gsi.berkeley.edu/gsi-guide-contents/learning-theory-research/behaviorism/.
Bouton, M. E. (2014, November). Why behavior change is difficult to sustain. Preventive medicine. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4287360/.
Dumper, K., Jenkins, W., Lacombe, A., Perimutter, M., & Lovett, M. (n.d.). Introductory Psychology. Introductory psychology. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://opentext.wsu.edu/psych105/chapter/6-2-a-short-history-of-learning-and-behaviorism/.
Mcleod, S. (2018). What is operant conditioning and how does it work? Simply Psychology. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html.
Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158–177. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0074428.