Description of Theory

The basis to the theory of behaviorism states that the learner responds to environmental stimuli. Theorists and proponents of behaviorism focus on the objectively observable behaviors of learners. As a result, behaviorism is relatively simple to understand because the changes and behaviors of learners are typically very apparent. The observable behaviors of learners are considered the result of conditioning, which is regarded as the universal learning process by behaviorists. Through conditioning, learners take a more passive role in the learning process. There are two main methods of conditioning, classical and operant. Ivan Pavlov discovered the process of classical conditioning and B.F. Skinner researched operant conditioning. The two differ in the sense that classical conditioning focuses mainly on the relationship between environment and stimuli and the reactions of the learns while operant conditioning is more focused on reinforcers as supporting a reaction or a behavior. Also with operant conditioning the learner has more of a free will to control his or her behavior. In addition, unlike constructivism, behaviorism has less of an emphasis on experimenting to learn. Learning, adapting, and responding to one's environment is key to this learning theory.

Many have praised behaviorism for its advances in educating children with mental disorders. It has also helped to lower aggression in many children. In contrast, critics say behaviorism fails to consider thoughts and expectations in its ideology. Therefore it is in contrast with both the social-cognitive theory as well as constructivism. Also, a majority of the studies done to explain the theory of behaviorism were done on animals, then generalized to humans. Some question the validity of research that is generalized to human behavior.


Speaking at Columbia University in 1913, Johns Hopkins professor John Broadus Watson declared,

"Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute.”

This provocative statement and the manifesto that followed seemingly charted a new course for psychological research. In order to be taken seriously, to be considered in Watson's words, “an undisputed natural science,” the field of psychology would not only have to surrender its wish to objectively understand consciousness, it would have to come to see that there was no such thing. Like animals, people simply react to stimuli, and since their behavior is observable, behavior is what researchers should get busy studying. With this knowledge, they can predict and control behavior. Because of his cutting and adamant rhetoric, in addition to his dedicated self-promotion, he would be hailed as the father of Behaviorism. Watson, however, was not the first to fret over the inconsistent, sometimes irreconcilable definitions of consciousness and ways of studying it. Nor was he first to study behavior through empirical observation. There were even those before him who denied consciousness. In the mid and late 19th century those striving to apply the scientific method to the study of the mind, desiring verifiable and repeatable results free from subjectivity and the personal biases, struggled with those who insisted on the need for introspection, or self-study of the mind's workings, however ill-defined their investigations might be. Watson's voice was just one of many trying to resolve the controversy over the nature of consciousness and the validity of its study. It was not until the mid 1930s, in fact, that his rejection of consciousness and introspection in favor of the science of behavior really took hold as a chief concern of psychology (Wozniak, 1997).

Owing much to Pavlov, Watson proposed that habits formed from Stimulus-Response conditioning were the essence of human learning. He put forth two laws explaining the development of these S-R habits:

- the law of frequency states that how often stimulus and response occur, the stronger the habit will end up being
- the law of recency states that how one responds to a stimulus most recently is most likely how one will respond the next time one encounters the same stimulus

In his mind, heredity plays no role at all in determining one's behavior. Environment, what there is to see and respond to around you, is all that matters to your learning (Ormrod, 2008). In his 1925 book Behaviorism, he makes an extreme claim about the all-powerful force of past experience:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and races of his ancestors” (p. 82).

Though such a statement has profound implications for educators, it was others besides Watson who would become more closely associated with Behaviorism's role in the world of education, namely Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, and others like Bandura who would eventually reaffirm the role cognitive processes play in learning.

Major Proponents and Theorists


Ivan Pavlov_

(1849 - 1936) Major contribution was the finding of classical conditioning.
  • Realized, through classical conditioning, that a neutral, environmental stimulus can elicit a response.
  • Humans are biologically "wired" so that different stimuli evoke different responses. This is how Pavlov believed learning occurred.
  • These responses may be reflexive or automatic.
  • Believed that stimulus-response bonds formed the basic building blocks of learning.
  • Discovered that stimulus-response bonds could also trigger emotional, not just physical responses.

Pavlov's major contributing study: Pavlov's dog.
Pavlov kept his dogs in an experimental chamber where he hand his researchers would present the dogs with meat powder in order to collect saliva. He soon discovered that the dogs began salivating before the presence of the meat powder. Pavlov theorized it was the presence of his research assistant that caused the salivation. To test this theory, Pavlov began pairing the meat powder with a bell, which he would ring each time the meat powder was presented. Eventually, the dogs would begin salivating with just the sound of the bell and no meat powder. Conditioning the dogs to salivate with the sound of the bell, Pavlov realized that the bell and the behavior of the dogs was a stimulus-response bond. Essentially, the dogs had learned to salivate when hearing the sound of a bell. Original footage from this experiment is shown in the video below.

John B. Watson_

(1878 - 1958) American psychologist who supported Pavlov's discovery of classical conditioning.
  • Took the theories of Pavlov and tested them on humans-mostly infants.
  • Realized conditioning, such as classical or operant conditioning, could produce virtually any behavior.
  • Classical conditioning could cause phobias amongst humans.

Watson's major contributing study: Baby Albert
One of Watson's most noted studies was his study of classical conditioning on 11-month old Albert in 1921. Watson wanted to test if he could condition Albert to fear a white rat. He paired the white rat with an extremely loud noise. At the beginning of the study, Albert did not appear to be afraid of the white rat. After repeatedly presenting Albert the white rat with the loud noise, Albert began to develop a fear of rats. This fear remained, even without the presence of the loud noise. Watson concluded that humans could be conditioned to have phobias and fears.

B.F. Skinner_

(1904 - 1990) Major contribution was discovering operant conditioning and the idea of reinforcement. Also, believed responses to stimuli could be controlled by organism-human.
  • Learning is a function of change in one's behavior and a learner will learn to operate in his or her environment.
  • Behavior changes as a result of an individual's response to a stimulus in the environment.
  • Responses to stimuli create positive and negative consequences which reinforce certain behaviors.
  • Believed in free will and social control.
  • Using operant conditioning, Skinner was able to train pigeons to dance.

Skinner's major contributing idea: Reinforcement
Reinforcement provides the basis for Skinner's theory about behaviorism. He claimed reinforcement was a stimulus-response bond which strengthened desirable behaviors. Reinforcers could be positive verbal praise, high grades, or a feeling of satisfaction. Conversely, adversive stimuli, or punishments, reduce the frequency that undesirable behaviors occur. Skinner also found the schedule with which reinforcers or adversive stimuli were administered was critical for establishing and maintaining certain behaviors. Skinner also claimed motivation was the result of deprivation and reinforcement schedules.

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E.L. Thorndike

(1874 - 1949) Major contribution was reinforcing the idea of the stimulus-response bond.
  • Learning is the result of the formation of associations between stimuli and responses. Thorndike called these associations habits.
  • Stressed the idea of trial and error learning.
  • Believed learning could be sufficiently explained through only observable behaviors.
  • Transfer of learning is always specific, never general.
  • Applied his findings to education, but more specifically math, spelling, reading, measuring intelligence, and adult learning.

Thorndike's major contributing theory: Primary laws of learning
Thorndike's behaviorist theory possesses three laws which result in learning
  1. Law of Effect: Behaviors and responses that are rewarded will become strengthened and habitual.
  2. Law of Readiness: It is possible to link together a series of responses which will ultimately satisfy an end goal. If a link in the series is interrupted, the individual will experience a sense of annoyance.
  3. Law of Exercise: Responses to stimuli become strengthened through practice and weakened when not practiced.

Related Theories

Albert Bandura_

(1925 - present) Developed the social learning theory which became the bridge between behaviorism and cognitive learning.
  • The social learning theory claims humans learn from each other as a result of observation, imitation, and modeling of behaviors.
  • Bandura's theory deals with attention, memory, and motivation.
  • Believed that one's environment caused one's behavior, like many behaviorists.
  • Also believed behavior could influence the environment.

Bandura's study: Aggression
Bandura first believed that one's environment influenced behavior. Yet, when studying aggression in adolescence, he realized that this idea was too simple. Bandura then claimed that behavior could also influence one's environment.

Classical Conditioning
  • Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson
  • Classical conditioning is associated learning. It is based that someone will learn a reflex behavior based on a positive stimulus.

Operant Conditioning Theory
  • Edward Thorndike
  • States that behavior is learned by consequences. Voluntary behavior is either reinforced with praised or punished to achieve a desired result. If the action should be continued, praise should be used. If the action should cease, punishment should be used.

What Teachers Do

According to Behaviorists the main objective of a teacher is to provide the correct stimuli to shape or condition the students into the desired end product. In layman terms the teacher provides the necessary inputs to get the desired output. Teachers are possessors of knowledge and it is their responsibility to impart facts and desired behaviors to students. Teachers control student behavior and learning with stimulus control via evaluation, repetition, and reinforcement techniques.
First a teacher must set a clear quantitative learning objective/goal. In order to reach that goal the teacher must evaluate the students to determine a starting point for instruction. This might take the form of a test to determine what students already know. Once a goal has been set, reaching that goal must be broken down into small steps or stages. Each step or stage should be accompanied by repetition in the form of drill and practice, evaluation and reinforcement. Drill and practice with continuous reinforcement is necessary per the law of exercise, which states the more a stimulus response bond is practiced and feedback is provided the stronger it becomes. Inherent in this law then is the necessity for constant teacher feedback to student behavior and demonstration of acquired knowledge. Reinforcement should serve as a motivational tool. Once a skill is mastered reinforcement should be reduced to a variable schedule (click here to see types of reinforcement schedules). For example once a math skill is mastered instead of covering that skill on every test, it should be thrown into the mix intermittently. The reinforcement in this case is the grade the student receives on the test.
Manifestations of reinforcement take several forms. In the case of the math skill example above if the student studied the new skill and practiced they will hopefully receive a good grade, which reinforces their study habits. The opposite type of reinforcement is punishment. Punishment entails penalizing a student for their behavior by taking away some privilege like recess. Punishment creates a negative association for the student with that behavior thereby reducing the likelihood of its recurrence. A third type of reinforcement is extinction or non-reinforcement, which holds that responses that are not reinforced are not likely to be repeated. In other words, if a student interrupts without raising a hand the teacher should ignore the student's comments or questions until the student follows the correct protocol.

What Students Do

Behaviorism places students in a secondary role in the learning process. Behaviorists portray students as responders rather than actors. The student responds to stimuli and if their response is not the desired response it is the role of the teacher to provide feedback that will discourage such responses in the future or reprogram the students with a different response to the stimuli. Perhaps, one could argue it is the students job to practice skills and behaviors but taking behaviorism at its purest form it is the teacher or parents who ultimately decide whether students will do the practice or work neccessary to learn a new skill or behavior based on the stimuli and reinforcement they provide. If students learn all behaviors from stimuli and consequences, then teachers and parents must provide them with the right reinforcement or consequences to promote or motivate the students to study.

Behaviorist Assumptions about Students:
  • Everything a student does from thinking to feeling to acting should be regarded solely a behavior, the mind plays no role.
  • Behavior can be controlled simply by reinforced teaching of proper behaviors via the Stimulus, Response, Reinforcement (S-R-R) process.

Examples in Action

Behavior for Learning/, a website project of the British Training and Development Agency for Schools, aims at helping new teachers promote positive behavior in their classrooms. It offers a wide selection of videos depicting likely scenarios at school. Many videos include discussion and reflection about teachers' and students' behaviors. In this video, teachers discuss the importance of setting a routine, making rules, and learning about consequences.

Classical Conditioning of animals:
The recipe--
- Neutral Stimulus is $.99 plastic and aluminum clicker you can get at any pet store checkout stand.
- Unconditioned stimulus is food.
- Associate food with clicker
- Neutral stimulus is now conditioned stimulus; you have your dog's attention whenever you need it.

Classical Conditioning of humans: From a couple of education students at Michigan State, here is a clever, playful depiction of how it works on us human beings.

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
Are you wearing your seat belt?
You will be soon enough. Before you know it in fact!

Operant Conditioning:
Positive reinforcement
- Teacher smiles after a good answer
- Teacher praises student for good work
- Teacher chooses student to work on a special project
- Teacher tells parents how well student is doing (Stanbridge, 2002)

Negative Reinforcement
- Teacher makes assignment optional if student reaches specified level of proficiency
- Teacher drops worst assignment score as long as all other assignments are completed satisfactorally
- Teacher allows student to skip homework if student has perfect attendance (Stanbridge, 2002)

-->guidelines for effective punishment
- care should be taken to make sure the consequences of the punishment are not pleasing to the child
- care should be taken to find a balance between punishment that is too light and too heavy--enough to deter but not so much that it breeds ongoing bitterness
- care should be taken to issue threat of punishment before it is actually dispensed because punishment will most often discourage behavior when person is aware that behavior will bring punishment, when the person is made aware of what the punishment will be, and when the person is aware that punishment is in all likelihood going to be happen according to the warning
- care should be taken to define unacceptable, punishable behavior, as clearly as possible and in concrete language whenever possible
- care should be taken to dispense punishment consistently and not only on occasion
- care should be taken to alter learning space so that temptation to misbehave is lessened or removed, i.e., students sitting with some distance between them during an exam
- care should be taken to present and encourage--reinforce--behavior that is more appropriate than problematic behavior
- care should be taken to administer punishment as quickly as possible after problematic behavior occurs; when delayed punishment's effectiveness drops off steeply
- care should be taken to explain why a certain behavior is problematic
- care should be taken to not employ punishments that have been shown to be usually ineffective in the past
- care should be taken to use punishment economically; at some point if used too often rewards diminish and animosity and estrangement set in
(Abbott, 1999)

Examples in Action Using Technology

The behaviorist theory can be seen today in technology by the many different types of computer programs that are available.

Computer-based drilling Programs, such as Math Blaster.
  • They provide instant feedback to if the answer is right or wrong.
  • These programs usually include the opportunity to try the problem again. This gives the student the opportunity to learn a skill correctly.
  • Programs can keep track of the progress the student is making, further motivating the student to learn the skill.
  • Computer-based drilling is helpful because it ingrains a set skill by having the student practice it multiple times.
  • Computer-based drilling can also keep the student's attention because of the fun nature, encouraging the student to play more, therefore increasing the learning time.

This is an example of a straight-forward drilling program that quizzes students on their multiplication tables. This program provides instant feedback but does not allow the user to try the problem again. However, because it is a basic program it does not keep track of progress.

This is in example of a computer-based drilling program based on the popular game Pacman. This programs allows the user to try the problem again if it was wrong, only if enough lives remain.

Personalized Systems of Instruction and Computer Tutors
  • PSI
    • PSI was developed by Fred Keller to improve teaching methods
    • Allows students to learn at their own pace
    • Required mastery of all questions to advance to the next lesson
    • Includes lectures and demonstrations, along with questions
    • Requires teacher-student communication
    • Provides students with instant feedback
  • Computer Tutors
    • Computerized learning systems serves as a good media outlet for PSI
    • Computerized tutors also offer the option to have help at any time during the instructional process
    • It is argued that the use of computerized tutors reduces the prejudice in the classroom, provides an advantage to the disadvantage, and well as allowing the more advanced students to move to higher levels of learning
    • Computerized tutors not only provide instant feedback but it allows for a more individualized control over the curriculum by rearranging the lesson according to the student. It also is able to answer questions and provide feedback on the skills a student needs to work on.


Abbott, L. (1999). Details--Operant Conditioning in Education.

Burton, John K., Moore David M., and Magliaro, S. (1996). Behaviorism and instructional technology. In D. Jonassen (Ed.) The Handbook of Research for Educational Communications Technology, pp.46-73. New York:Simon & Schuster MacMillan..

Ormrod, J.E. Beyond, Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner: other early behaviorist theories. Supplementary reading in the the Companion Website accompanying HUMAN LEARNING 5/E by J.E. Ormrod, 2008, Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill/Prentice Hall. Copyright 2007 by Pearson Education.

Stanbridge, M. (2002). Behaviorism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <September 22, 2010>, from

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Watson, J.B. (1925). Behaviorism. New York: W.W. Norton.

Wozniak, R. (1997). Theoretical Roots of Early Behaviorism: Functionalism, the Critique of Introspection, and the Nature and Evolution of Consciousness.

Life Span Development: A Topical Approach by: Robert S. Feldman ISBN #: 978-0-205-75956-9

//Behavior for Learning//
Classical Conditioning
Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture, and Evolution
Instructional Development Timeline
Instructional Design & Learning Theory
Educational Approach in Constructivism and Behaviorism
The Forerunner: Behaviorism