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  • Behaviorism first of all is a paradigm in research methodology.
  • In Psychology and Education, behaviorism refers to approaches that study humans by (manipulating) and observing their behavior, usually in well controlled situations.
  • Neo-behaviorism that is more popular in education asserts that thought could be conceptualized with intervening variables (see also: cognitivism).

The early years of behaviourism

The birth of behaviourism intended in a scientific manner can be dated back to 1913, when John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) gave a lecture in which he fought for a drastic revisioning of the aim and method of psychological research. According to him, psychology should become "an experimental branch of natural science" (Wozniak, 1997), oriented towards the study, prediction and control of behaviour.

As a consequence, introspective analysis took second place and behaviour was considered the unique parameter able to express the real psychology of men, independently from the existence of any consciousness. In addition, this new theory equated man and animal, both of which fundamentally would follow the same behavioural scheme, even if man has developed more refined and elaborate forms of life.

After being included in the first chapter of Behaviour: A textbook of Comparative Psychology, Watson’s lecture became to all intents and purposes the “behaviourist manifesto”. Thus, we can consider February 24, 1913 as the day on which "modern behaviourism was born" (Wozniak, 1997) even though this fact has been fairly emphasized by Watson’s followers. They for sure were enraptured by the overwhelming charisma demonstrated by Watson “the behaviourist” (on that occasion Watson solemnly spoke about himself in the third person).

Moreover, Watson himself contributed to the wide circulation of his theory in different ways: by exploiting his relevant role as a professor of psychology at Hopkins University; by editing many writings about this subject-matter; and by editing articles in newspapers. The interruption of his academic career in 1920 and the withdrawal from the active debate in the early 1930s did not block the diffusion of his ideas, which briefly drew the academic world’s attention.

Indeed, Watson was not the first person to oppose behaviourism to the concept of introspection; and nor was he the first one to adopt the unitary, objective and experimental method in the observation of behaviour. As many studies on the subject-matter had already been accomplished by the time in which Watson wrote his manifesto, we can say that his contribution was not so innovative and revolutionary as many followers state it was.

Nevertheless, we can't avoid giving Watson credit for semantically and geographically extending the study of behaviourism during the 1920s, above all utilizing as the antagonism towards the mentalism in psychological theory as an attractive element. However, it is necessary to say that many behaviourists conceived theories which differed or went beyond Watson’s, because under the leadership of brilliant professors, many universities (Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, Missouri, Ohio State, Minnesota, etc.) developed their own conceptions about behaviourism, generating many elaborated alterations to Watson’s originary thought.

The union of all these contributions determined the premises for the strengthening of the behaviourist discipline inside American psychology, a discipline that attracted many young interested in objectivism. As a result, “by the mid-1930s American psychology had become the science of behaviour, and behaviourism, methodological and/or theoretical, had become its dominant orientation” (Wozniak, 1997).

Classical and and operant conditioning

This section was entirely reproduced (with minor layout differences) from Standridge (2002) on 14:46, 14 August 2007 (MEST). Its contents are available under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 copyright.

John B. Watson (1878-1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) are the two principal originators of behaviorist approaches 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 behavior rather than speculation about subconscious motives or latent cognitive processes. (Shaffer, 2000). Watson's view of learning was based in part on the studies of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). Pavlov was studying the digestive process and the interaction of salivation and stomach function when he realized that reflexes in the autonomic nervous system closely linked these phenomena. To determine whether external stimuli had an affect on this process, Pavlov rang a bell when he gave food to the experimental dogs. He noticed that the dogs salivated shortly before they were given food. He discovered that when the bell was rung at repeated feedings, the sound of the bell alone (a conditioned stimulus) would cause the dogs to salivate (a conditioned response). Pavlov also found that the conditioned reflex was repressed if the stimulus proved "wrong" too frequently; if the bell rang and no food appeared, the dog eventually ceased to salivate at the sound of the bell.

Classical conditioning
This illustration shows the steps of classical conditioning.
Retrieved 22:38, 13 August 2007 (MEST) from
  1. Food = salivation
  2. Food + Stimulus = salivation (conditioned stimulus)
  3. Bell alone produces salivation (conditioned response)

Expanding on Watson's basic stimulus-response model [and based on prior work of Thorndike], Skinner developed a more comprehensive view of conditioning, known as operant conditioning. His model was based on the premise that satisfying responses are conditioned, while unsatisfying ones are not. Operant conditioning is the rewarding of part of a desired behavior or a random act that approaches it. 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 repeat acts that led to favorable outcomes, and suppress those that produced unfavorable results (Shaffer, 2000). If a rat presses a bar and receives a food pellet, he will be likely to press it again. Skinner defined the bar-pressing response as operant, and the food pellet as a reinforcer. Punishers, on the other hand, are consequences that suppress a response and decrease the likelihood that it will occur in the future. If the rat had been shocked every time it pressed the bar that behavior would cease. Skinner believed the habits that each of us develops result from our unique operant learning experiences (Shaffer, 2000).

Operant conditioning
This illustration illustrates operant conditioning. The mouse pushes the lever and receives a food reward. Therefore, he will push the lever repeatedly in order to get the treat.
Retrieved 22:38, 13 August 2007 (MEST) from

Behaviorist educational psychology

Behaviorist psychology considers the human brain as a blackbox that can't be accessed. Learning is considered as process of stimulus-response that one can observe and manipulate. In other words “Behavioral psychology states that behavior can change as a result of extrinsic motivators such as incentives, rewards, and punishments. Behaviorists advocate influencing behavior through the systematic adjustments of stimulus-response reinforcements.” (Conner, 2002).

  • See also the article on learning type, e.g. levels of learning, that includes some discussion of behaviorist research, e.g. Bloom's taxonomy that still provides a major conceptual foundation for the design of learning activities.

(needs to be written)

Behaviorist Pedagogy

Behaviorist pedagogy aims to promote and modify observable behavior. It considers learning to be a behavior that shows acquisition of knowledge or skills.

According to Standridge (2002), among the methods derived from behaviorist theory for practical classroom application are the "classic" Skinnerian behaviorist rules:

  • Positive reinforcement (reward): A stimulus presented that will increase behavior, e.g. giving praise to a student
  • Negative reinforcement (withdrawal of negative effects): A response that removes something that students find displeasant. E.g. students who regularly turn in homework can skip a graded quiz.
  • Positive Punishment: E.g. require a student to stay after class
  • Negative Punishment: E.g. remove access to computer after misbehaving
  • Extinction (non-enforcement): In particular behavior that was always reinforced through positive stimili will decrease when it is no longer enforced.

In addition she also lists:

  • Modeling, i.e. observational learning by which children learn favorable and unfavorable responses by observing those around them
  • Cueing: Providing a child with a verbal or non-verbal (beforehand) cue as to the appropriateness of a behavior.
  • Contracts: teacher and student agrees on (new) behavior patterns
  • Consequences: are enacted immediately after a behavior occurs (i.e. a combination of
  • Re-conditioning by extinction: Remove a previously introduced stimulus that didn't prove to be successful. E.g. instead of taking off 1/2 for late homework, don't grade these at all.

Built on top of these reinforcement, punishment and extinction bricks there are more complex strategies like:

  • Shaping: the process of gradually changing the quality of a response.
  • Behavior modification.

Already Skinner observed that particular reinforcement/punishment patterns were more successful. The principle of intermittent reinforcement states that always reinforced behavior increases rapidly in frequency, but also will extinguish rapidly when rewards cease. “In contrast, behavior that is rewarded intermittently increases in frequency more slowly, but is more long lasting or resistant to extinction.” (Alessi, 2001:18)

Most behaviorist pedagogy, i.e. related instructional design models are actually neo-behavorist, i.e. include cognitivist ideas on mental processes (treated as hypothetical intermediary variables)



Non-observable aspects of learning, i.e. human information processing can also be targeted by instructional strategies and methods. A pure behaviorist design will just ignore phenomena like reflection, motivation, or cognitive load.

It is difficult to measure precisely complex learning outcomes, i.e. application of knowlege to real world situations, or construction of complex knowledge (e.g. as in project-oriented learning). “Limiting the working knowledge of a subject to a finite number of tasks or facts, however, seems misguided in many cases.” (Conner, 2002).

In modern instructional theory, behaviorism seems to influence on certain components of a design (i.e. presenting information, basic skills training, various inforcement methods related to more constructionist learner activities, etc.). In other words, behaviorist learning theory as a holistic approach isn't dominant as it was in the early stages of instructional design and educational technology. As an example, this trend is nicely demonstrated by the evolution of Reigeluth's readers (1983 vs. 1999 edition).

Behaviorism has become quite unpopular in adult education programs (as opposed to short workplace training). Cited by Conner (2002), Stephen Brookfield (1989), a leading adult education theorist, wrote in Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning:

[Behaviorism] is seen most prominently in contexts where the objectives to be attained are unambiguous, where their attainment can be judged according to commonly agreed upon criteria of successful performance, and where a clear imbalance exists between teachers' and learners' areas of expertise. Examples might be learning to give an injection, learning a computer program, learning accountancy procedures, learning to swim, or learning to operate a sophisticated machine. Although no learning is without elements of reflection or emotive dimensions, these examples are all located primarily in the domain of task-oriented, instrumental learning, and it is this domain that fits most easily with the behaviorist approach.




  • Alessi, Stephen. M. & Trollop, Stanley. R., (2001) Multimedia for Learning (3rd Edition), Pearson Allyn & Bacon, ISBN 0-205-27691-1.
  • Brookfield, S. D. (1989). Facilitating Adult Learning. In, S.B. Merriam and P. Cunningham (Eds.), Handbook of Adult Education in the United States. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (Note: This may not be the reference cited by Conner).
  • Conner, Marcia (2002) L. A Primer on Educational Psychology, HTML, retrieved 14:46, 14 August 2007 (MEST).
  • Garland, L., Martin, L., Xiong, M. (2002). Scenarios for Using Behaviorism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. HTML. Retrieved 14:46, 14 August 2007 (MEST), from
  • Mergel Brenda (1998), Instructional Design and Learning Theory, University of Saskatchewan, Term Paper HTML, retrieved 14:46, 14 August 2007 (MEST)
  • Peggy A. Ertmer and Timothy J. Newby (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6 (4), pp. 50-72.
  • Reigeluth (ed.) (1983). Instructional Design Theories and Models: An Overview of Their Current Status. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0898592755
  • Reigeluth (ed.) (1999). Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, Vol. 2 (Instructional Design Theories & Models), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0805828591
  • Skinner, B.F. (1938), The behavior of organisms, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Skinner, B. (1972). Utopia through the control of human behavior. In John Martin Rich, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Skinner, B.F. (1969). The technology of teaching, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Thorndike, E.L. (1913). Eduational Psychology: The Psychologiy of Learning (Vol 2.), New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Wozniak, R. (1997). Behaviourism: the early years. Retrieved Sunday 3, 2006 from [1]



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