Behaviorism: A Learning Theory


Behaviorism is a learning theory that concentrates mainly on the objectively observable behaviors of an individual. It discounts all other independent contributions made by the mind towards learning. According to behaviorism, learning occurs through the acquisition of new behavior, which is subject to the surrounding environment. In other words, learning is the product of behavior that occurs through reflexive response to a stimulus or based on an individual’s history. A person could be conditioned to behave in a certain way through either reinforcement or punishment. Even though the proponents of this theory do not entirely overlook the role of genetics in determining behavior, they mainly focus on the role of environment in shaping how people behave in life.

Components of Behaviorism

Behavior could be shaped through two ways – classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In classical conditioning, a conditioned stimulus (CS) is associated with an unconditioned stimulus (US) to elicit a behavioral response, which is termed as a conditioned response (CR). In this case, the CR is the learned behavior, and it emerges from a hitherto neutral stimulus. Normally, the US is a biologically significant stimulus, such as pain or fear, and it creates an unconditioned response (UR). Initially, in this case, the CS is generally neutral, and thus it does not produce any particular response until it is conditioned upon which it elicits the CR. One good example of classical conditioning is learners’ fear of public speaking, which is a natural response to stage fright.

Basis of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning came from the famous Pavlov’s dog study, involved observing dogs salivate in the presence of food (Reimann, 2018). While Pavlov initially sought to study the relationship between dog’s saliva and digestion, he realized that every time he entered the room with food, they would start salivating. As such, he concluded that the dogs associated his entering the room with being fed, hence salivation. In a series of experiments, Pavlov introduced the sound of a buzzer together with food, and later removed the food and made observations. The unconditioned response, in this case, was the natural salivation by the dogs after seeing food, while the conditioned stimulus was the sight of the food. The conditioned stimulus was the sound of a buzzer, which initially was not linked with food. Finally, the conditioned response was the salivation of dogs upon hearing the sound of a buzzer even in the absence of food.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning occurs due to the reinforced stimulus. It is a simple feedback mechanism in response to a certain reinforced stimulus, whether positive or negative. This theory was a culmination of the work of B. F. Skinner, a renowned psychologist, who is associated with the concept of operant conditioning. The basis of this concept is that human or animal behavior or response to a stimulus is strengthened in the presence of reinforcement, which is then followed by a desirable consequence. On the other hand, the same behavior is weakened if punished or ignored. As such, people could “learn new behaviors and when to exhibit them and unlearn existing behaviors” (Snowman & McCown, 2014, p. 239). In essence, the term operant conditioning comes from the idea that people or animals could learn how to operate within their environments to get or avoid certain consequences.

Basic Principles of Operant Conditioning

The concept of operant conditioning is hinged on the understanding that all behaviors are normally associated with certain consequences. These outcomes strongly determine the probability of such behaviors being repeated or avoided, and the level of intensity involved. Generally, the consequences of a certain behavior are desirable and pleasant, such as scoring straight As in an examination, or unpleasant and aversive, such as failing with Fs in an exam. On the one hand, in the first case where the outcomes are positive and desirable, they strengthen the associated behavior. On the other hand, distasteful consequences weaken the associated behavior. This understanding forms the basis for the concept of reinforcement. For instance, a reward could be used to motivate students to work hard and pass their exams, which is a form of reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement

Reinforcement could be either positive or negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when an individual is motivated through a certain stimulus, such as a reward, to achieve a certain desirable outcome. For instance, in a class set-up, students could be promised that if they pass their exams, they will be rewarded in a given way. Therefore, such learners will work hard to achieve their set goals and pass well and win the prize.

In this case, positive reinforcement has taken place, as it strengthens the behavior of working hard among students. According to Snowman and McCown (2014), positive reinforcement “involves strengthening a target behavior – that is, increasing and maintaining the probability that a particular behavior will be repeated – by presenting a stimulus (called a positive reinforce) immediately after the behavior has occurred” (p. 240). Positive reinforcers could be anything that motivates, including praise and recognition among other related elements.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement works in a similar manner as positive reinforcement only that, in this case, the desired outcome is to weaken the targeted behavior. Snowman and McCown (2014) argue that in negative reinforcement, “instead of supplying a desired stimulus, one removes an unwanted and aversive stimulus whenever a target behavior is exhibited” (p. 240). Therefore, the desired response or behavior is strengthened by avoiding, removing, or stopping the undesirable outcome. The stimulus applied here normally involves some form of physical or psychological discomfort. In other words, a person takes a certain action in the quest to prevent the occurrence of a certain undesired outcome. For instance, a student might decide to study hard (targeted behavior) in order to avoid failing in examinations (outcome). However, negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishment.

Scheduling Reinforcement

In the context of learning, a teacher could employ different reinforcement strategies to ensure that the desired behavior is established. Initially, a continuous reinforcement schedule is recommended, and it is mainly applicable when seeking to establish a new behavior whereby every desired response is reinforced and the negative one ignored. However, after the behavior has been formed, a teacher could use a fixed interval schedule whereby reinforcement takes place after a certain period. Variable interval schedule could also be used, and it involves reinforcement after random time intervals. In a fixed ration schedule, reinforcement is done after a given number of responses. Another technique is the variable ratio schedule whereby reinforcement occurs after a different number of responses each time (Snowman & McCown, 2014).

Application of Behaviorism in Lessons and Activities

The application of behaviorism in lessons and activities in a learning environment is hinged on Skinner’s four prescriptions based on his laboratory research on operant conditioning. According to Snowman and McCown, (2014), teachers should

  1. Be clear about what to teach,
  2. Teach first things first,
  3. Present subsequent materials in small logical steps,
  4. Allow students to learn at their own rate” (p. 245).

These techniques form the basis of the widely used approaches and procedures that teachers apply to help students to learn suitable classroom behaviors, which are commonly referred to as behavior modification. The ultimate purpose of applying operant conditioning in the classroom is to ensure that students develop desirable behavior associated with positive outcomes, such as increased performance, participation in physical exercises and games, or completing assignments among other related aspects.


Teachers could use the technique of shaping in classrooms to reinforce desirable behaviors. In this case, actions that promote the achievement of the desired outcome are reinforced, while those that move an individual away from such terminal behavior are ignored. The progression in shaping should be gradual by ensuring that the involved students are aware of the importance of each step in the sequence. Snowman and McCown (2014) give several steps that could be followed in shaping desirable behaviors. The first step is to identify the target behavior followed by obtaining reliable baseline data. In the third step, the teacher selects potential and suitable reinforcers before using the same to reinforce, in small successive steps, the desired behavior. In the sixth step, the new behavior is reinforced every time it happens. Finally, the target behavior is reinforced on a suitable reinforcement schedule.

Token Economy

Another technique that teachers could use is the token economy, “which was introduced with people who had been hospitalized for emotional disturbances and then with students in special education classes” (Snowman & McCown, 2014, p. 249). The idea behind this concept is straightforward based on the understanding that a token is something without inherent value, but it could be used to acquire valuable things. In a classroom set-up, a teacher could allow students to accumulate points based on happy faces or gold stars, and redeem them later for any available reinforcers. For instance, a teacher could give tokens to students as a way of reducing disruptive behavior in the classroom, such as fighting or being off-task. They could also be used for improved academic performance.

Contingency Contracting

Teachers could also use contingency contracting to strengthen desirable behavior. In this case, a teacher and a student might enter into a contract, whether written or verbal. The student agrees to behave in a certain manner as specified in the contract, while the teacher agrees to offer a given reinforcement after the student meets the stipulated goals. For instance, a student might agree to remain in his seat without movement for 20 minutes and tackle arithmetic, and if he manages to achieve this goal, the teacher reinforces the behavior by awarding a token or any other form of appreciation. When such behavior is repeated, positive outcomes are realized ultimately as the student learns to stay in his desk for a stipulated time and engage in productive work.

Impact on Classroom Management

Operant conditioning, whether positive or negative, affects classroom management in various ways because it is based on easy-to-understand guidelines and cause-and-effect relationships. Ultimately, it affects students’ performance and influences classroom behavior by facilitating the achievement of learning goals. By preventing disruptive student behaviors that could negatively affect the smooth delivery of learning content, behaviorism facilitates classroom management.

For instance, if students are rewarded and motivated to remain seated in their desks for a certain period, the teacher has the opportunity to deliver instruction without being interrupted or compromised. In the end, the students learn effectively as teachers have an enabling environment to teach well in a way that the majority could understand. This goal could be achieved through various strategies as explained in the next two slides.

Incorporating Behaviorism into Course Design

One of the ways that teachers could achieve the best results from behaviorism is by incorporating it into course design. This technique might involve using weighted grades for class participation, exams, or assignments. For instance, a teacher could assign more points to certain activities that are applicable in reinforcing a certain behavior. As such, students will put more effort into these activities, which ultimately leads to the desired outcomes. For example, if a teacher wants students to learn the importance of teamwork, he could assign more points to group work as compared to individual assignments. Consequently, the students will participate in the group work assignment and in the process learn about the importance of teamwork and team spirit. This way, classroom management is promoted to achieve set learning goals.

Creating a Classroom Reward System

As discussed earlier, teachers have a wide variety of reward systems to choose from based on the underlying student needs and targeted learning outcomes. It is important to select the best-suited reward system that could be applied easily and resonate with the learners. For instance, signing contracts with first graders might not be applicable in many situations. However, using the token economy would produce the desired results. The objective here is to choose a reward system that creates optimal outcomes based on the underlying circumstances. Having chosen the right reward system, class management becomes easy because students are focused and motivated to achieve the set goals. In the end, learning becomes fun, and in the process, academic goals are achievable.


Behaviorism is a learning theory that focuses on the observable behaviors of an individual. It works on the premise that learning takes place through the acquisition of new behaviors under the influence of the surrounding environment. Behavior is mainly shaped through classical conditioning or operant conditioning. Reinforcements, whether positive or negative, play a major role in the establishment of the desired behaviors. In a classroom environment, teachers could use various scheduling reinforcements to achieve certain outcomes. Some of the techniques that could be applied include shaping, token economies, and contingency contracting. Ultimately, behaviorism affects class management positively by instilling desired behaviors in students for favorable outcomes.


Snowman, J., & McCown, R. (2014). Psychology applied to teaching (14th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Reimann, A. (2018). Behaviorist learning theory. The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, 1-6. Web.

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