The Theory of Behaviorism:

Major theorists include: Thorndike, Hull, and Skinner.

Behaviorism is based on the idea that learning is a change in overt behavior and that changes in overt behavior occur as a response to external stimuli. Responses to stimuli produce consequences. When the consequences are positive the behavior change is reinforced. With consistent reinforcement, the behavior pattern becomes conditioned. Motivation to experience stimuli comes through deprivation of something desired.

"Skinner Box" showing mouse being "conditioned" by food rewardsAn example might involve teaching a child to say please. If the child is hungry and sitting at the dinner table, the parent might have the child say, "please" when offered food. If "please" is not given, the food is withheld. When "please" is finally given up by the child, the food is served. Over the course of many meals, the childís response of to the stimulus becomes conditioned and a life long pattern of saying "please" when offered food becomes ingrained.

In the larger context, behaviorist theory holds that free will is non-existent and that all of our actions are shaped by response to the external environment. Behaviorist theory also holds that since thinking cannot be observed, the theory of cognizant learning is invalid. Behaviorists only accept as learning, those things that can be observed such as performance. Most modern learning scientists discount much of the behaviorist theories, although there are situations where behaviorist ideals do work and work well.

Behaviorism is the key to the success of programmed learning. In programmed learning, students are given small bits of information and are tested on it. Success in testing is rewarded by affirmations of the studentís progress and encouragement to continue. Children using computer programs to learn color associations are rewarded with sounds and pictures if they click on the sky as a representation of the color blue or an apple for red. Adults are rewarded with a word of encouragement and the ability to move on in a lesson of some topical interest. Behaviorist learning situations work best when the goal is clear and there are discrete steps to achieving it.

Behaviorism in Practice:

Behaviorism can be used in the classroom in different ways. As in the examples above, self-paced learning modules can be designed to take advantage of behaviorist principles. A learning module that gives frequent feedback while the student learns the material in small, bite-sized pieces would be more successful than a learning module that simply consisted of extensive reading with an end of module test as the only form of assessment. To further increase the likelihood of student success, the module content can be arranged in such a manner as to "steer" the student toward a correct response during an in-module quiz. Early success adds to the studentís motivation to continue. While some may find this kind of method to be overly helpful or think of it as too much hand holding, the end result is that the student has accomplished the goal of learning, and that is our purpose.

In addition to using behaviorist methods in certain teaching situations, the methods can also be effective in establishing classroom behaviors. In a classroom environment, the instructor would identify the behaviors that are desired and the behaviors that need to be discouraged. It is a somewhat natural impulse to develop punishments for those behaviors that need to be discouraged, yet research has indicated that positive reinforcements have a stronger and longer lasting effect. Therefore, instead of devising a punishment for undesired behavior, develop a reward for the preferred behavior. Thus, when the correct thing is done, the student is rewarded and when the incorrect thing is done, the reward is withheld. The most important element in establishing rewards is that they must be relevant to the student and be equally available to everyone in the classroom.