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May 29, 2020

Teaching & Education

What is the behavioral learning theory?

Teacher kneeling next to students in desks

Every teacher knows that they will usually have a student in class who is difficult to manage and work with. Their behavior is usually hard to control and it can be extra work to get them to pay attention and stop distracting others. If you’re studying to become a teacher, your courses will help you learn classroom management techniques that will prepare you for difficult students. Additionally, it’s extremely valuable to learn about learning theories and recognize that there are different methods and thoughts about how people learn. 

Behaviorism or the behavioral learning theory is a popular concept that focuses on how students learn. Behaviorism focuses on the idea that all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment. This learning theory states that behaviors are learned from the environment, and says that innate or inherited factors have very little influence on behavior.

A common example of behaviorism is positive reinforcement. A student gets a small treat if they get 100% on their spelling test. In the future, students work hard and study for their test in order to get the reward. 

Behaviorism is key for educators because it impacts how students react and behave in the classroom, and suggests that teachers can directly influence how their students behave. It also helps teachers understand that a student’s home environment and lifestyle can be impacting their behavior, helping them see it objectively and work to assist with improvement.

History of behaviorism.

Behaviorism started as a reaction against introspective psychology in the 19th century, which relied heavily on first-person accounts. J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner rejected introspective methods as being subjective and unquantifiable. These psychologists wanted to focus on observable, quantifiable events and behaviors. They said that science should take into account only observable indicators. They helped bring psychology into higher relevance by showing that it could be accurately measured and understood, and it wasn’t just based off opinions.

Watson and Skinner believed that if they were given a group of infants, the way they were raised and the environment they put them in would be the ultimate determining factor for how they acted, not their parents or their genetics.

Pavlov’s Dogs is a popular behaviorism experiment. A group of dogs would hear a bell ring and then they would be given food. After enough time, when the bell would ring the dogs would salivate, expecting the food before they even saw it. This is exactly what behaviorism argues—that the things we experience and our environment are the drivers of how we act. 

The stimulus-response sequence is a key element of understanding behaviorism. A stimulus is given, for example a bell rings, and the response is what happens next, a dog salivates or a pellet of food is given. Behavioral learning theory argues that even complex actions can be broken down into the stimulus-response. 

Behaviorism learning theory.

In the classroom, the behavioral learning theory is key in understanding how to motivate and help students. Information is transferred from teachers to learners from a response to the right stimulus. Students are a passive participant in behavioral learning—teachers are giving them the information as an element of stimulus-response. Teachers use behaviorism to show students how they should react and respond to certain stimuli. This needs to be done in a repetitive way, to regularly remind students what behavior a teacher is looking for. 

Positive reinforcement is key in the behavioral learning theory. Without positive reinforcement, students will quickly abandon their responses because they don’t appear to be working. For example, if students are supposed to get a sticker every time they get an A on a test, and then teachers stop giving that positive reinforcement, less students may get A’s on their tests, because the behavior isn’t connected to a reward for them. 

Repetition and positive reinforcement go hand-in-hand with the behavioral learning theory. Teachers often work to strike the right balance of repeating the situation and having the positive reinforcement come to show students why they should continue that behavior. 

Motivation plays an important role in behavioral learning. Positive and negative reinforcement can be motivators for students. For example, a student who receives praise for a good test score is much more likely to learn the answers effectively than a student who receives no praise for a good test score. The student who receives no praise is experiencing negative reinforcement—their brain tells them that though they got a good grade, it didn’t really matter, so the material of the test becomes unimportant to them. Conversely students who receive positive reinforcement see a direct correlation to continuing excellence, completely based on that response to a positive stimulus.  

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Behaviorism and social learning theory.

The behavioral learning theory and the social learning theory stem from similar ideas. The social learning theory agrees with the behavioral learning theory about outside influences on behavior. However, the social learning theory goes a step further and suggests that internal psychological processes are also an influence on behavior. Students or individuals may see things being done, but the social learning theory says that internal thoughts impact what behavior response comes out. 

Behaviorism doesn’t study or feature internal thought processes as an element of actions. Social learning argues that behavior is much more complicated than the simple stimulus and response of behaviorism. It suggests that students learn through observation, and then they consciously decide to imitate behavior. There are underlying emotions like peer pressure and a desire to fit in that impact behavior.

Behaviorist teaching strategies.

Teachers can implement behavioral learning strategy techniques in their classroom in many ways, including:

  • Drills. Teachers may practice skills using drill patterns to help students see the repetition and reinforcement that behavioral learning theory uses.

  • Question and answer. Teachers can use a question as a stimulus and answer as a response, gradually getting harder with questions to help students.

  • Guided practice. Teachers can be directly involved in helping students go through problems to give them the reinforcement and behavior demonstration you want them to follow.

  • Regular review. Reviews are important to behavioral learning theory. Going back over material and giving positive reinforcement will help students retain information much better.

  • Positive reinforcement. Behaviorist classrooms utilize positive reinforcement regularly. This can be in the form of verbal reinforcement and praise, reward systems, added privileges, and more. 

Behaviorism criticisms.

While behaviorism is a great option for many teachers, there are some criticisms of this theory. Behaviorism is best for certain learning outcomes, like foreign languages and math, but aren’t as effective for analytical and comprehensive learning. 

Other critics of behavioral learning say that the theory doesn’t encompass enough of human learning and behavior, and that it’s not fully developed. Other theories have come forward that take behaviorism further, implying that there are many additional factors to consider when evaluating behavior.

If you are hoping to one day become a teacher, it’s important to get the right degree and credentials to help you be prepared for success. It’s also important to understand learning theories to be ready to take on students and the classroom. When you understand more about psychology and how students learn, you’re much more likely to be successful as an educator. 

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