Learning Theories/Behavioralist Theories

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Behaviorism, as a learning theory, can be traced back to Aristotle, whose essay “Memory” focused on associations being made between events such as lightning and thunder. Other philosophers that followed Aristotle’s thoughts are Hobbes (1650), Hume (1740), Brown (1820), Bain (1855) and Ebbinghause (1885) (Black, 1995). Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner later developed the theory in more detail. Watson is the theorist credited with coining the term "behaviorism"[1].

A key difference in these various forms of associationism is that until Skinner, they were considered to be associations of mental or cognitive events. Skinner departed from this mental associationism and claimed that what associates two things is the environment itself, not the mind of the spectator[2]. This departure has been noted as being part of a substantial number of changes in what was, until then, called Behaviorism - and which Skinner called Radical Behaviorism - that it may be a historical accident that it was called Behaviorism at all [3].

Behaviorism as a learning theory

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Dr. Srinivasan (Sam Houston State University, Huntsville TX) actually created the original Behaviorism Learning Theory blueprints. The school of adult learning theory that adopted these principles has become known as the school of Behaviorism, which saw learning as a complex process of responses to several kinds of distinct stimuli. Skinner always referred to it as a three-term contingency comprised of a discriminative stimuli, or Sd, a response, or R, and a reinforcing stimulus, or Srein. Conditions of deprivation and satiation, and other changes in the environment, have come to be generally acknowledged as a kind of fourth term, and are denoted as Motivating Operations (MO) generally, Abolishing Operations (AO), or Establishing Operations (EO) depending on whether they make a reinforcer less effective (abolishing), more effective (establishing) and so on. Jack Michael has been instrumental in refining and exploring these elements [4].

A reinforcement is defined as a stimulus that strengthen the response, which is to say that it makes it more probable, or alters its frequency. Spillane (2002) states, “the behaviorist perspective, associated with B. F. Skinner, holds that the mind at work cannot be observed, tested, or understood; thus, behaviorists are concerned with actions (behavior) as the sites of knowing, teaching, and learning” (p. 380).

Teaching Machine

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In 1954 B. F. Skinner introduced the "Teaching Machine" which is linked most notably to Skinners work on stimuli and response, a key attribute of behaviorism [5]. Using teaching machines, Skinner explained that spelling, arithmetic, grammar and any other educational material can be introduced to the students to "create vastly improved conditions for effective study." Students use the machine by rotating rudimentary handle on the side. The movement causes a question to appear along with a space for an answer. The student manually writes the answer in the space provided then rotates the handle again to expose the correct answer. B.F. Skinner suggests that there are two reasons the teaching machine is superior to manually graded student work. First "it leads most rapidly to the formation of correct behavior" and "there is also a motivating effect. The student is free of anxiety and uncertainty about his [or her] success or failure."[5] Skinner also maintains that using the teaching machine creates "engaged" students. Although this is evident in his class, it must also be acknowledged that teaching machines were new, novel, and interesting to these students. Students today would find these same machine, probably, old, irrelevant, and boring.

Another advantage of the teaching machine was the ability of students to learn at their own pace. He argues that, in a class taught in-person by a teacher without a teaching machine, the bright students may have to wait until the other students catch up. Whilst the students who may take longer could be anxious they have not finished the assigned work when the rest of the class is ready to move on. Skinner goes on to suggest a student using the teaching machine moves at the rate which is most appropriate for themselves. Ultimately both students are able to learn the material thoroughly.

B.F. Skinner states that the "chunking" of data into smaller sections makes learning easier for students and that 95% of the time students are able to master the material using the teaching machine. Skinner says "that the average high school student can cover twice as much material using the machine as with traditional classroom techniques."[5]

The Technology of Teaching

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Before the 1960s, most educational technology was focused on audio-visual materials, but there was a shift toward designing and implementing more interactive and independent materials that made it possible for students to learn without a teacher.[6] This was called Programmed Instruction, and B.F. Skinner's teaching machine was among the earliest examples. It became the precursor for modern computer-assisted learning. Programmed Instruction was largely based on Behaviorism, including principles of sequencing, cues, and instruction to systematically shape the desired learning outcome.[7] Early studies seemed to show that students who used programmed instruction did just as well or performed superior to students using traditional learning methods; however, later studies indicated that its success was less than previously believed.[8] Since that time, instructional technology has addressed the limitations of Programmed Instruction by incorporating more social elements, a greater variety of feedback, better user appeal, and other improvements.[6]

In addition to B.F. Skinner's Programmed Instruction, there have been several major Behaviorist innovations for improving learning, including Fred Keller's Personalized System of Instruction (PSI)[9], Ogden Lindsley's Precision Teaching[10], and others. Technology of teaching must go hand in hand with that of learning. First the teacher must SURVEY the content of teaching. Then,QUESTION the topic to be teached. Followed by READING the topic and RECALL them. REVIEW in subsequent lesson-chapters.

B.F. Skinner also wrote a book on major problems in popular teaching theories called The Technology of Teaching which attacked educational problems which were then current. The descriptions of educational problems, not surprisingly, seems like it was written today: truancy, vandalism, violence in the classroom and more.

One of the keys to effective teaching is discovering the best consequence to shape the behavior. Consequences can be positive or negative – rewarding or punishing. Consequences transpire after the desired behavior occurs and can involve either positive or negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves a stimulus that increases the likelihood of a particular response, such as a child receiving a gold star for doing a chore. Negative reinforcement also increases the probability of the desired response and involves removing an undesirable stimulus upon completion of the desired response. An example might be entering the correct password to turn off a loud alarm. Punishment is often confused with negative reinforcement; however, punishment is used to erase undesirable behaviors by presenting a distressing stimulus when the behavior occurs. Paying a fine for bouncing a check is a form of punishment. “Extinction” occurs when there is no consequence at all – for example if you knock at the door and no one answers, pretty soon you simply stop knocking (Zemke, 2002).

Behaviorists view learning as a permanent change in behavior even after reinforcements are reduced or eliminated. Therefore, the schedule of reinforcement is an important component in behaviorism that must be considered. The schedule of reinforcement refers to the frequency of the reinforcers in relation to the behaviors and the interval of time in-between the reinforcers and the behavior.

Fixed Ratio: Behaviorist reinforces the desired behavior after a certain (fixed) number of occurrences.

Variable Ratio: Behaviorist reinforces the desired behavior after a variable number of occurrences.

Fixed Interval: Behaviorist reinforces the desired behavior after a certain (fixed) period of time.

Variable Interval: Behaviorist reinforces the desired behavior after a variable period of time.

Term Example
Fixed Ratio The Behaviorist gives a food pellet to the pigeon (reinforcement), every time the pigeon pushes the lever three times (behavior)
Variable Ratio The Behaviorist gives a food pellet to the pigeon (reinforcement), after the pigeon pushes the lever three times, then two times, then six times (behavior)
Fixed Interval The Behaviorist always waits two minutes after the pigeon pushes the lever to dispense the food pellet
Variable Interval The Behaviorist varies the time after the pigeon pushes the lever to dispense the food pellet

Verbal Behavior

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The seminal work of Pavlov demonstrated that the application of neutral stimuli could be used to elicit a response from animals in the same way that an unconditioned stimulus could [11]. From these initial studies other psychologists such as John Watson demonstrated that these principles could be applied to humans (Cheetham & Chivers, 2001)[12]. Skinner invented the term operant to describe his attempt to better account for volitional behavior we usually call free [13]. In Skinner's original work it was confined solely to animals, particularly the white rat. However, it wasn't long before operant behavior was observed in humans. Skinner's attempt to account for the operant behavior of humans, including complex language functions, resulted in his seminal work, Verbal Behavior (1951) which accounted for ways in which human operants differed for non-human ones. This was extended with the conception of rule governed behavior [14].

The Illusion of Free Will

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One of the assumptions of many behaviorists is that free will is illusory, and that all behavior is determined by a combination of forces. These forces comprise genetic factors as well as the environment either through association or reinforcement. The "illusion of free will" concept is deeply embroiled in the nature vs. nurture controversy. Asking the question, "Are individuals shaped by genetics or by existentialism?" is the essence of this debate. Behaviorists believe that the environment is the primary influence that determines who individuals will be and the behavior they will develop. Hence, the reason why free will is only an illusion or imaginary deduction.

Skinner argued that the assumption of lawfulness in human behavior was an unprovable prerequisite to the scientific investigation of human behavior[15]. Without the assumption of lawfulness, that is the lack of freewill, such a science could not exist.

Skinner has continued this argument by noting in his controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity that the historically beneficial forces that have arisen to defend Freedom and Dignity may be violently opposing the scientific conception of man.


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This theory has latterly been criticized as overly simplistic. Nevertheless, its influence can be seen in educators’ insistence that feedback is critical to learning. The stimulus-response method is used frequently in adult learning situations in which the students must learn a time sensitive response to a stimulus. Aircraft emergency procedures, for example, are divided into two parts. The first, the time sensitive portion, must be immediately performed by rote memory upon recognition of a stimulus – a warning light, horn, buzzer, bell, or the like. These procedures are taught and reinforced with rote drills and successfully passing the tests is the reinforcement. The second portion of the procedure, which may be viewed as diagnostic action is performed with mandatory reference to checklists and other reference material and depends on what may be viewed as higher level learning and understanding of aircraft systems and performance characteristics.

Behaviorist Theory maintains a focus on the change in observable behaviors as the manifestations of learning. The theory emphasizes changes in behaviors due to the influence and control of the external environment, rather than the internal thought process of the subject (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Simply put, people will learn desired behaviors due to stimuli from their external environment that recognize and reinforce the behavior in a positive manner. Undesired behaviors can be controlled or eliminated by an absence of attention to or recognition of such.

Behaviorism is comprised of several individual theories that have a common theme functioning within them. This common theme is found in the ways the theorists define what learning is, and how it is accomplished. The common assumptions of these theorists are threefold, as explained by Merriam and Caffarella (1999). The first common assumption is the emphasis on observable behavior rather than internal thought processes create learning. Second, ultimately it is the environment that creates learning and it determines what is learned, not the individual learner. Lastly it is the ability to understand the overall process, and the ability to repeat or reinforce that process that is a common thread (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999). This theory is most commonly seen in adult learning when organizations take repeatable training steps and systematize them into manageable tasks.

The hypothesis behind behavioralist learning theories is that all learning occurs when behavior is influenced and changed by external factors (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Behavioralism disregards any notion that there may be an internal component to man’s learning. Grippin and Peters (1984) emphasize that “contiguity…and reinforcement are central to explaining the learning process” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 251) in regard to an individual’s subjugation to external stimulus as a determinant of response (i.e., behavior). Contiguity is understood as the timing of events that is necessary to bring about behavioral change, while reinforcement refers to the probability that repeated positive or negative events will produce an anticipated change in behavior (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

Behavioral theory is a key component of animal training and skill training in humans. Teaching animals to sit for a kibble is very similar to clapping and hugging your child for their first steps or bike ride. Slot machines are based on intermittent reinforcement, which in turn leads gamblers to put more quarters in the machine to be reinforced by the ching ching of winning. As students, we are reinforced by the 100 points or A we receive on the test or paper, or by the removal of the F on the grade card. Source [4]

Behavioral theories have also been studied and applied in organizational leadership. Dating back to the 1940's, studies were conducted at Ohio State University (OSU) and the University of Michigan (UM) (Robbins 1998). What the researchers found in the OSU and UM studies can be classified into two categories: relationships and results. In the OSU studies, researchers compiled behaviors into two dimensions: initiating structure (results) and consideration (relationships). UM researchers compiled their leader behavior under two similar dimensions: employee oriented and production oriented. From this research, Blake and Mouton developed the Managerial Grid, later to be called the Leadership Grid. This grid assists leaders in assessing possible outcomes to their behavior within an organization. Robbins states, "The grid does not show results produced but, rather, the dominating factors in a leader's thinking in regard to getting results" (p. 351). Behavioral leading and learning is based on organizational and cultural conditioning. This can be observed in the tough-handed, "hatchet wielding" approach of Jack Welch and in the benevolent "lend-a-hand" approach of Herb Kelleher. Behavioral theories within leadership have had "modest success in identifying consistent relationships between patterns of leadership behavior and group performance. What seems to be missing is consideration of the situational factors that influence success or failure" (p. 353).

Simplistic or fundamental?

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Some might view this theory as being a very elementary learning process. It suggests, by and large, that any learning is result oriented, and, therefore, learned by repetitive actions based on punishments or rewards. Merriam and Caffarella (1999) refer to Thorndike's work which used animals in controlled experiments to determine learning behavior based on the stimulus presented. This process, while presenting a possible outcome for comparison, is unrealistic when compared to the intelligence capabilities of humans. It could be argued that this theory tends to diminish the possibilities in human learning. In some circumstances, however, this method of learning is necessary; particularly when dealing with individuals with lower reasoning abilities or lower intelligence.

Pattison (1999) suggested that American adult education’s roots in liberal arts education and then progressive education quoting (Elias & Merriam, 1995, p. 205). This progressive education focused upon the broad populace, not just social elites which liberal education intended to do according to Pattison. This progressive education began taking hold in the 1920’s in public education settings. Into this social setting Behaviorism came. Pattison suggests that early behaviorists like John Watson focused on job skills and behavior adaptation that would “secure the survival of humans, societies, and individuals.” Behaviorism coupled with progressive education would help “control human behavior and viewed education as a tool for bringing about societal change” (p. 6).

Behaviorist theory presents learning in short manageable blocks that build on previously learned behaviors. Kearsley (1994) identified three fundamental principles common in behaviorist learning:

  1. Positive reinforcement of the desired behavior will most likely prompt the same behavior.
  2. Learning should be presented in small manageable blocks.
  3. Stimulus generalization of learning can produce secondary conditioning.

The goal of this learning method is to transform the learner’s behavior to a “desired” behavior. The learner is rewarded often for exhibiting the desired behavior when they accomplish a learning block. This method is heavily used in the federal government to quickly train employees on the latest policies and procedures (i.e. government credit card use, anti-terrorism, and sexual harassment). In addition, this method is ideal for short lessons (no more than 20 minutes) which can be accomplished over the internet from the employee's desktop computer. Within the 20 minute timeframe, the employee will normally retain key points of the lesson. However, when the lesson goes beyond the 20 minute window, there is a potential for the employee to lose focus and hurry through it in order to fulfill the requirement and get back to work. As a result, the employee retains very little and the organization has very little success in achieving the desired behavior.

While it is true behaviorist theories can be simplistic in their concept, their application to the human has allowed for much to be discovered about learning, memory and even neuroscience. Since the late 1800s, psychologists using behavioral principles have established hundreds of tests to identify both how learning and memory occur in varying complexities of brain structures. Across many species, for example, it has been shown that when the reinforcing agent is "painless" then learning occurs in the cerebellum. However if there is an emotional connection (particularly negative such as fear) to the reinforcer then learning and memory occur in the amygdala (Kolb & Whishaw, 2005).

Training of individuals centers on the concept that all learning is the result of the environment acting upon behaviors. The environment of an individual reinforces behaviors either positively or negatively and all of learning takes place through environmental influences. Adult learning can be seen strictly through this focus, but a more centrist approach is neobehaviorism. Neobehaviorism suggests that not only does the environment reinforce behavior, but there is an interaction between the individual and the environment. This is an important concept as it relates to adult learning because of the relative importance of choices to motivation in the learning process (Ross, 2002).

While Behaviorist Theory was founded in the early decades of the twentieth century, there still exist many examples of support for the theory. It is not uncommon for organizations to articulate the desired behaviors they expect will lead to positive business results. Organizations then reinforce those behaviors through performance management and by adjusting the environment to reward or recognize the desired behaviors. For example, many companies measure employee performance on two dimensions: business results and desired behaviors. As well, organizations encourage, through recognition, such positive behaviors as perfect attendance, employee suggestions for improvements, raising quality issues that would adversely impact a customer, and good safety behaviors.

Various approaches to promote behavioralist theory in Organizational Learning are many times predicated on the belief that organizational members prefer, if not altogether require, specific standard operational procedures (SOP). In other words, creative problem solving does not come naturally with most group members. Following such rationale, Foil and Lyle (1985) note that this theory is counter to cognitive reasoning which would look at what is happening environmentally and determine whether SOP is the most appropriate response to each various event.

Case studies & workplace examples

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Attendance point system

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One example of behavioral learning in the workplace is through an attendance point system. Often times, this type of system offers both positive and negative reinforcement. For example, most companies using a point system have a written policy stating that employees may accrue a maximum number of points during a 12-month revolving period. An employee is then given a partial point, or more, towards an accrual of the maximum allowable any time there is an infraction of the policy – especially an attendance infraction. The negative reinforcement is the notification of accrued points and disciplinary action taken per level of point accrual – sometimes culminating in termination of the employee. Positive reinforcement can occur when there is periodic recognition of employees with “perfect” attendance or zero points. There is one possible fallacy in the system, however. It occurs when an employee appears to be no longer controlled by the point system, but rather controls the system by knowing just how many points can be accrued without soliciting discipline. It is in this last scenario that one understands why most theorists have come to believe that learning is not solely comprised of external influence but that it also includes an internal component as well.

Continental Airlines

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Continental Airlines applied this behavioral learning approach in a very successful effort to reduce absenteeism and increase performance during the turnaround engineered by Gordon Bethune. Taking over after the disastrous reign of Frank Lorenzo when employee morale and commitment declined to the point that Continental employees would frequently remove the company logos from their uniforms, Bethune realized that rewarding employees for what was really important would drive important behavioral changes. Bethune realized that what was important was rebuilding passenger confidence and preference by providing service that met customer needs. To this end, the company implemented quarterly bonuses for all employees based on achieving targeted levels of performance in the FAA quarterly ratings of airlines based on lost baggage claims, on time departures, and customer complaints. In addition, employees with perfect attendance each quarter were entered into drawings for Ford Explorers. Both programs resulted in marked changes in behavior and contributed to the turnaround from the edge of bankruptcy (Bethune and Thuler, 1998).

Time clock

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Another example that is elementary yet worth mentioning is The Salvation Army, Canton Corps' use of a time clock. The initial purpose of the clock in that environment was uncertain. We found that most people who use the time clock were not using it as intended. Many did not remember to clock in or out, or they would not use the clock at all. Not until pressure was exerted on each employee by ruling that they would not get paid if their cards were not adequately punched, did employees begin to use the time clock appropriately. In a few short weeks of reminders and a few short paychecks, the time clock was being used properly.


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  1. Watson, John Broadus, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, 1913 [[1]]
  2. Skinner, B.F. About Behaviorism p.43
  3. Chiesa, Mecca. (1994) Radical Behaviorism: the Philosophy and the Science.
  4. for example Michael, J. Motivating operations. In J. O. Cooper, T. E. Heron, & W. L. Heward, Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall/Merrill.
  5. a b c https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTH3ob1IRFo
  6. a b Molenda, M. (2008). The Programmed Instruction Era: When effectiveness mattered. TechTrends, 52(2), 52-58.
  7. Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71.
  8. McDonald, J.K., Yanchar, S.C. & Osguthorpe, R.T. Learning from programmed instruction: Examining implications for modern instructional technology. ETR&D 53, 84–98 (2005).
  9. Keller, F. (1968) Goodbye Teacher in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis [[2]]
  10. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogden_Lindsley for a list of his titles and a description of his work
  11. See Yerkes, 1909 for example http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Yerkes/pavlov.htm.
  12. See also Watson's (in)famous Little Albert extensions to infant humans
  13. Skinner, B.F. (1938) The Behavior of Organisms
  14. for example Galizio, M. (1979)Contingency-shaped and rule-governed behavior: instructional control of human loss avoidance, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 31, 53–70. [[3]]
  15. see Skinner, B.F. About Behaviorism and other sources

Constructivist Theories

Learning Theories · Constructivist Theories
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Theories : Behavioralist · Constructivist · Post-Modern · Adult Learning
Organizational Learning : Contributions by Discipline · Triggers · Influencing Factors · Agents · Processes · Interorganizational · Practice
Knowldege Management : Challenges · Processes · Leadership · Change