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Analyze the readings for this unit.  Which type of active learning approach has been successful in your classroom and how do you know it’s successful? Support your explanation with examples. If you are currently not teaching, which approach you would use and why. Reply to three others’ shared approaches by providing guidance and/or feedback on others’ shared approaches.

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Educational Learning Theories: 2nd Edition

Molly Zhou

Dalton State College

David Brown

Dalton State College


Recommended Citation

Zhou, Molly and Brown, David, “Educational Learning Theories: 2nd Edition” (2015). Education Open Textbooks. 1.





Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable and measurable aspects of human behavior. In defining behavior,behaviorist learning theories emphasize changes in behavior that result from stimulus-response associations made by thelearner. John B. Watson (1878-1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) are the two principal originators of behavioristapproaches to learning. Watson believed that human behavior resulted from specific stimuli that elicited certain responses.

Watson’s basic premise was that conclusions about human development should be based on observation of overt behaviorrather than speculation about subconscious motives or latent cognitive processes (Shaffer, 2000). Watson’s view of learningwas based in part on the studies of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). Pavlov was well known for his research on a learning processcalled classical conditioning. Classical conditioning refers to learning that occurs when a neutral stimulus becomesassociated with a stimulus that naturally produces a behavior. Skinner believed that that seemingly spontaneous action isregulated through rewards and punishment. Skinner believed that people don’t shape the world, but instead, the world shapesthem. Skinner also believed that human behavior is predictable, just like a chemical reaction. He is also well known for his”Skinner box,” a tool to demonstrate his theory that rewarded behavior is repeated.




What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable and measurable aspects of human behavior. In defining behavior,behaviorist learning theories emphasize changes in behavior that result from stimulus-response associations made by thelearner. Behavior is directed by stimuli. An individual selects one response instead of another because of prior conditioningand psychological drives existing at the moment of the action (Parkay& Hass, 2000).Behaviorists assert that the only behaviors worthy of study are those that can be directly observed; thus, it is actions, ratherthan thoughts or emotions, which are the legitimate object of study. Behaviorist theory does not explain abnormal behaviorin terms of the brain or its inner workings. Rather, it posits that all behavior is learned habits, and attempts to account forhow these habits are formed.In assuming that human behavior is learned, behaviorists also hold that all behaviors can also be unlearned, and replaced bynew behaviors; that is, when a behavior becomes unacceptable, it can be replaced by an acceptable one. A key element tothis theory of learning is the rewarded response. The desired response must be rewarded in order for learning to take place(Parkay& Hass, 2000).In education, advocates of behaviorism have effectively adopted this system of rewards and punishments in their classroomsby rewarding desired behaviors and punishing inappropriate ones. Rewards vary, but must be important to the learner insome way. For example, if a teacher wishes to teach the behavior of remaining seated during the class period, the successfulstudent’s reward might be checking the teacher’s mailbox, running an errand, or being allowed to go to the library to dohomework at the end of the class period. As with all teaching methods, success depends on each student’s stimulus andresponse, and on associations made by each learner.


Behaviorism Advocates

John B. Watson (1878-1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) are the two principal originators of behaviorist approaches tolearning. Watson believed that human behavior resulted from specific stimuli that elicited certain responses. Watson’s basicpremise was that conclusions about human development should be based on observation of overt behavior rather thanspeculation about subconscious motives or latent cognitive processes (Shaffer, 2000). Watson’s view of learning was basedin part on the studies of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). Pavlov was studying the digestive process and the interaction of salivationand stomach function when he realized that reflexes in the autonomic nervous system closely linked these phenomena. Todetermine whether external stimuli had an affect on this process, Pavlov rang a bell when he gave food to the experimental7dogs. He noticed that the dogs salivated shortly before they were given food. He discovered that when the bell was rung atrepeated feedings, the sound of the bell alone (a conditioned stimulus) would cause the dogs to salivate (a conditionedresponse). Pavlov also found that the conditioned reflex was repressed if the stimulus proved “wrong” too frequently; if thebell rang and no food appeared, the dog eventually ceased to salivate at the sound of the bell (Figure 1.1).


Figure 1.1 Classical Conditioning (Ivan Pavlov: 1849-1936)

Figure 1.1. This illustration shows the steps of Classical Conditioning.

  1. Food = salivation
  2. Food + Stimulus = salivation (conditioned stimulus)
  3. Bell alone produces salivation (conditioned response)

Expanding on Watson’s basic stimulus-response model, Skinner developed a more comprehensive view of conditioning,known as operant conditioning. His model was based on the premise that satisfying responses are conditioned, whileunsatisfying ones are not. Operant conditioning is the rewarding of part of a desired behavior or a random act that approachesit (Figure 1.2). Skinner remarked that “the things we call pleasant have an energizing or strengthening effect on our behavior”(Skinner, 1972, p. 74). Through Skinner’s research on animals, he concluded that both animals and humans would repeatacts that led to favorable outcomes, and suppress those that produced unfavorable results (Shaffer, 2000). If a rat presses abar and receives a food pellet, he will be likely to press it again. Skinner defined the bar-pressing response as operant, andthe food pellet as a reinforcer. Punishers, on the other hand, are consequences that suppress a response and decrease thelikelihood that it will occur in the future. If the rat had been shocked every time, it pressed the bar that behavior wouldcease. Skinner believed the habits that each of us develops result from our unique operant learning experiences (Shaffer,2000).

Figure 1.2 Operant Conditioning (B. F. Skinner: 1904-1990)

Figure 1.2. This illustration illustrates Operant Conditioning. The mouse pushes the lever and receives a foodreward. Therefore, he will push the lever repeatedly in order to get the treat.Behaviorist techniques have long been employed in education to promote behavior that is desirable and discourage thatwhich is not. Among the methods derived from behaviorist theory for practical classroom application are contracts,consequences, reinforcement, extinction, and behavior modification.8Contracts, Consequences, Reinforcement, and ExtinctionSimple contracts can be effective in helping children focus on behavior change. The relevant behavior should be identified,and the child and counselor should decide the terms of the contract. Behavioral contracts can be used in school as well as athome. It is helpful if teachers and parents work together with the student to ensure that the contract is being fulfilled. Twoexamples of behavior contracts are listed below:A student is not completing homework assignments. The teacher and the student design a contract providingthat the student will stay for extra help, ask parents for help, and complete assigned work on time. The teacherwill be available after school, and during free periods for additional assistance. A student is misbehaving in class. The teacher and student devise a behavioral contract to minimize distractions.Provisions include that the student will be punctual, will sit in front of the teacher, will raise hand withquestions/comments, and will not leave his seat without permission.Consequences occur immediately after a behavior (Figure 1.3). Consequences may be positive or negative, expected orunexpected, immediate or long-term, extrinsic or intrinsic, material or symbolic (a failing grade), emotional/interpersonalor even unconscious. Consequences occur after the “target” behavior occurs, when either positive or negative reinforcementmay be given. Positive reinforcement is presentation of a stimulus that increases the probability of a response. This type ofreinforcement occurs frequently in the classroom. Teachers may provide positive reinforcement by:

 Smiling at students after a correct response;

 Commending students for their work;

 Selecting them for a special project; and

 Praising students’ ability to parents.

Negative reinforcement increases the probability of a response that removes or prevents an adverse condition. Manyclassroom teachers mistakenly believe that negative reinforcement is punishment administered to suppress behavior;however, negative reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior, as does positive reinforcement. Negative impliesremoving a consequence that a student finds unpleasant. Negative reinforcement might include:

 Obtaining a score of 80% or higher makes the final exam optional;

 Submitting all assignments on time results in the lowest grade being dropped; and

 Perfect attendance is rewarded with a “homework pass.”

Punishment involves presenting a strong stimulus that decreases the frequency of a particular response. Punishment iseffective in quickly eliminating undesirable behaviors. Examples of punishment include:

 Students who fight are immediately referred to the principal;

 Late assignments are given a grade of “0;”

 Three tardies to class results in a call to the parents; and

 Failure to do homework results in after-school detention (privilege of going home is removed).


Figure 1.3 Reinforcement and Punishment Comparison

REINFORCEMENT (Behavior Increases) REINFORCEMENT (Behavior Increases)

POSITIVE(Something isadded.)

Positive Reinforcement. Something is added to increase desiredbehavior.Ex: Smile and compliment student on goodperformance.

Positive Punishment. Something is added to decrease undesiredbehavior.Ex: Give student detention for failing to followthe class rules.

NEGATIVE(Something isremoved.)

Negative Reinforcement. Something is removed to increase desiredbehavior.Ex: Give a free homework pass for turning inall assignments.

Negative Punishment. Something is removed to decrease undesiredbehavior.Ex: Make student miss their time in recess fornot following the class rules.9

Extinction decreases the probability of a response by contingent withdrawal of a previously reinforced stimulus. Examplesof extinction are:

 A student has developed the habit of saying the punctuation marks when reading aloud. Classmates reinforcethe behavior by laughing when he does so. The teacher tells the students not to laugh, thus extinguishing thebehavior.

 A teacher gives partial credit for late assignments; other teachers think this is unfair; the teacher decides to thengive zeros for the late work.

 Students are frequently late for class, and the teacher does not require a late pass, contrary to school policy. Therule is subsequently enforced, and the students arrive on time.

Modeling, Shaping, and Cueing

Modeling is also known as observational learning. Albert Bandura has suggested that modeling is the basis for a variety ofchild behavior. Children acquire many favorable and unfavorable responses by observing those around them. A child whokicks another child after seeing this on the playground, or a student who is always late for class because his friends are lateis displaying the results of observational learning.


Figure 1.4 Modeling

“Of the many cues that influence behavior, at any point in time, none is more common than the actions of others.”(Bandura, 1986, p. 45)

Figure 1.4. In this picture, the child is modeling the behavior of the adult. Children watch and imitate the adultsaround them; the result may be favorable or unfavorable behavior!

Shaping is the process of gradually changing the quality of a response. The desired behavior is broken down into discrete,concrete units, or positive movements, each of which is reinforced as it progresses towards the overall behavioral goal. Inthe following scenario, the classroom teacher employs shaping to change student behavior: the class enters the room andsits down, but continue to talk after the bell rings. The teacher gives the class one point for improvement, in that all studentsare seated. Subsequently, the students must be seated and quiet to earn points, which may be accumulated and redeemed forrewards.Cueing may be as simple as providing a child with a verbal or non-verbal cue as to the appropriateness of a behavior. Forexample, to teach a child to remember to perform an action at a specific time, the teacher might arrange for him to receivea cue immediately before the action is expected rather than after it has been performed incorrectly. For example, if theteacher is working with a student that habitually answers aloud instead of raising his hand, the teacher should discuss a cuesuch as hand-raising at the end of a question posed to the class.


Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is a method of eliciting better classroom performance from reluctant students. It has six basiccomponents:10

  1. Specification of the desired outcome (What must be changed and how it will be evaluated?) One example of adesired outcome is increased student participation in class discussions.
  2. Development of a positive, nurturing environment (by removing negative stimuli from the learningenvironment). In the above example, this would involve a student-teacher conference with a review of therelevant material, and calling on the student when it is evident that she knows the answer to the questionposed.
  3. Identification and use of appropriate reinforcers (intrinsic and extrinsic rewards). A student receives an intrinsicreinforcer by correctly answering in the presence of peers, thus increasing self-esteem and confidence.
  4. Reinforcement of behavior patterns develop until the student has established a pattern of success in engagingin class discussions.
  5. Reduction in the frequency of rewards-a gradual decrease the amount of one-on-one review with the studentbefore class discussion.
  6. Evaluation and assessment of the effectiveness of the approach based on teacher expectations and studentresults. Compare the frequency of student responses in class discussions to the amount of support provided, anddetermine whether the student is independently engaging in class discussions. (Brewer, Campbell, & Petty,2000)

Further suggestions for modifying behavior can be found at the web site. These include changing theenvironment, using models for learning new behavior, recording behavior, substituting new behavior to break bad habits,developing positive expectations, and increasing intrinsic satisfaction.


Criticisms of Behaviorism

Behaviorism can be critiqued as an overly deterministic view of human behavior by ignoring the internal psychological andmental processes; behaviorism oversimplifies the complexity of human behavior. Some would even argue that the strict

nature of radical behaviorism essentially defines human beings as mechanisms without free will. The behaviorist approachhas also been criticized for its inability to account for learning or changes in behavior that occur in the absence ofenvironmental input; such occurrences signal the presence of an internal psychological or mental process. Finally, researchby ethologists has shown that the principles of conditioning are not universal, countering the behaviorist claim ofequipotentiality across conditioning principles. Behaviorism was developed as a counter to the introspective approach thatrelied primarily, if not entirely, on internal, self-reflection on conscious, mental activity. While radical behaviorism may bequite limited in its explanatory power, it served an important role in allowing psychology to develop a scientific pursuit ofknowledge about human nature and behavior. Nevertheless, the link between stimulus and response is not just a simple,direct, cause and effect relationship. Factors beyond the stimulus are involved in determining the response. Actions occurbased on purpose, and purpose is determined by the mind of the subject. Thus, a more complete understanding of humanbehavior would need to include both the external actions of the body and the inner life of the mind.


Educational Implications

Using behaviorist theory in the classroom can be rewarding for both students and teachers. Behavioral change occurs for areason; students work for things that bring them positive feelings, and for approval from people they admire. They changebehaviors to satisfy the desires they have learned to value. They generally avoid behaviors they associate withunpleasantness and develop habitual behaviors from those that are repeated often (Parkay& Hass, 2000). The entirerationale of behavior modification is that most behavior is learned. If behaviors can be learned, then they can also beunlearned or relearned. A behavior that goes unrewarded will be extinguished. Consistently ignoring an undesirablebehavior will go far toward eliminating it. When the teacher does not respond angrily, the problem is forced back to itssource-the student. Other successful classroom strategies are contracts, consequences, punishment and others that have beendescribed in detail earlier. Behaviorist learning theory is not only important in achieving desired behavior in mainstreameducation. Special education teachers have classroom behavior modification plans to implement for their students. Theseplans assure success for these students in and out of school.


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