Behaviorist Learning Theory




  • Principles of learning should apply equally to different behaviors and to different species of animals,” otherwise known as “equipotentiality.”
  • Learning can be studied most objectively when the focus of study is on stimuli and responses.”
  • “Internal processes are largely excluded from scientific study.”
  • “Learning involves a behavior change.”
  • “Organisms are born as blank slates.”
  • “Learning is largely the result of environmental events” (conditioning). “Learning happens to an organism in a way that is often beyond the organism’s control.”
  • “The most useful theories tend to be parsimonious ones” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 33-35).  This refers to behaviorists’ belief that all behaviors should be explained by as few learning principles as possible.  This is very similar to Occam’s Razor otherwise known as the Principle of Parsimony or Law of Simplicity, which posits that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably more likely unless or until new evidence suggests a more complex theory (Carroll, 2010).


Theorists and related timelines

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING – Behavior occurs as a result of pairing neutral stimuli with behavior at the time of/in conjunction with the behavior (association)

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Discovered early classical conditioning while studying the digestive process, salivation and reflexes in the autonomic nervous system of dogs.

Classical Conditioning

Figure 1. This illustration shows the steps of classical conditioning.

1. Food= salivation

2. Food + Stimulus = salivation (conditioned stimulus)

3. Bell alone produces salivation (conditioned response)” (Standridge, 2002, p. 1).


John B. Watson (1878-1958)

Through observations of Pavlov’s experiments, Watson “believed that human behavior resulted from specific stimuli that elicited certain responses” (Standridge, 2002, p. 1).


The Stimulus-Response Model.

Three key assumptions:

  1. “Observable behavior, rather than internal thought processes are the focus of study. In particular, learning is manifested by a change in behaviour.
  2. The environment shapes one’s behaviour; what one learns is determined by the elements in the environment, not by the individual learner.
  3. The principles of contiguity (how close in time two events must be for a bond to be formed) and reinforcement (any means of increasing the likelihood that an event will be repeated) are central to explaining the learning process” (Smith, 1999, p. 1).


INSTRUMENTAL CONDITIONING – Behavior recurrence is tied directly to positive/negative reinforcement “after” behavior occurs

Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949)

Built upon Watson’s theoretical foundations and, and developed a S-R (Stimulus-Response) Theory Of Learning also known as Connectionism (not Siemens Connectivism).

Thorndike noted that that “responses (or behaviours) were strengthened or weakened by the consequences of behaviour” (Smith, 1999, p. 1).  In 1935 Thorndike developed a Revised Law of Effect in which he de-emphasized the role of punishment, proposing the possibility of an indirect effect on learning.  Over time, Thorndike’s theory regarding positive rewards strengthening behaviors continues to be a strong tenet of Behaviorism; however, there have been many criticisms regarding whether or not punishment or negative stimulus has as strong of an effect on behavior (Ormrod, 2008).


B. F. Skinner (1904-1990)

Skinner further expanded on Watson’s stimulus-response model, developing a “more comprehensive view of conditioning, known as Operant Conditioning.

Operant Conditioning

Figure 2. 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.
Skinner’s “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” (Standridge, 2002, p. 1).


James Hartley (1998)

James Hartley emphasized four key principles of behaviorism as relates to learning:

1.  “Activity is important. Learning is better when the learner is active rather than passive.

2.  Repetition, generalization and discrimination are important notions. Frequent practice – and practice in varied contexts – is necessary for learning to take place.

3.  Reinforcement is the cardinal motivator. Positive reinforcers like rewards and successes are preferable to negative events like punishments and failures.

4.  Learning is helped when objectives are clear” (Smith, 1999, p. 1)


How Does Learning Occur?

Objectivistic meaning “the world is real, external to the learner” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 62).

Knowledge exists externally and is acquired by the passive learner.

Learning is the direct result of external stimuli producing a specific response (Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Standridge, 2002).

“Black box-observable behavior main focus” (Davis, Edmunds & Kelly-Bateman, 2008, p.1)


What Factors Influence Learning?


“Practice is important; Students should encounter academic subject matter in a positive climate and associate it with positive emotions; To break a bad habit, a learner must replace one S-R connection with another one (Exhaustion Method, Threshold Method, Incompatibility Method); and, Assessing learning involves looking for behavior changes” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 46-47).



Associative Bias – some stimuli are inherently more pairable (associated) with particular behavior (Ormrod, 2008).


Initially contiguity (pairing at approximately same time) was believed to enhance Classical Conditioning; however, more recent (1980’s) researchers have determined contingency (potential stimulus must occur when the unanticipated stimulus is likely to follow, thereby serving as a type of signal of what is to come (Ormrod, 2008).


Extinction – presenting the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus results in weaker associations, and eventual extinction. (Ormrod, 2008).


Spontaneous Recovery – the recurrence of a previously conditioned behavior after the behavior has been extinguished. (Ormrod, 2008).


Other factors include generalization, stimulus discrimination, higher-order conditioning and sensory preconditioning (Ormrod, 2008).



Stimuli, response, consequences (Ertmer & Newby, 1993)

“Nature of reward, punishment, stimuli” (Davis et al., 2008, p. 1)

Consequences occur immediately after a behavior. Consequences may be positive or negative, expected or unexpected, immediate or long-term, extrinsic or intrinsic, material or symbolic (a failing grade), emotional/interpersonal or even unconscious” (Standridge, 2002).


Reinforcement is the presentation of a stimulus that increases the probability or frequency of a response/behavior (Standridge, 2002, p. 1).

(1)     Positive Reinforcement “presentation of stimulus after a response” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 56)


Extrinsic reinforcers may be material, social or activity

Intrinsic reinforcers are internal positive feelings within the learner as a result of the behavior

(2)     Negative reinforcement – for example, passing all quizzes with an “A” means not taking the chapter test.


Punishment is the presentation of a stimulus that decreases the probability or frequency of a response/behavior (Standridge, 2002, p. 1).  For example, “Zero Tolerance” policies.  If a student fights in school they are automatically suspended.

(1)     May take many forms: “verbal reprimands, restitution and overcorrection, positive practice overcorrection, time-out, in-house suspension, response cost (withdrawal of previously earned reinforce)” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 62-63).


Extinction is the removal of a previously reinforced stimulus to decreases the frequency or probability of a response/behavior (Standridge, 2002, p. 1).

(1)     For example, a toddler throws a tantrum in the grocery store. The mother usually gives the child a lollipop to stop. Child is reinforced to continue tantrums in the grocery store. Mother stops giving the child a lollipop.  The child stops having tantrums.


What is the Role of Memory?

There is no internal memory. Learned behaviors (habits) continue as long as stimuli are present. If not present, extinguishing occurs (forgetting) due to lack of stimuli (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).

“Memory is hardwiring of repeated experiences – where reward and punishment are most influential” (Davis et al., 2008, p. 1).

“An individual selects one response instead of another because of prior conditioning and psychological drives existing at the moment of the action” (Standridge, 2002, p. 1).


How Does Transfer Occur?

“Transfer refers to the application of learned knowledge in new ways or situations, as well as to how prior learning affects new learning” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 55) and therefore results in generalization.


“Situations involving identical or similar features allow behaviors to transfer across common elements” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 55).


Thorndike original proposed that transfer occurs only to identical elements (referring to original and transfer tasks); however, more current Behaviorist views of transfer include:

(1)     “When stimuli and responses are similar in the two situations, maximal positive transfer will occur.

(2)     When stimuli are different and responses are similar, some positive transfer will occur.

(3)     When stimuli are similar and responses are different, negative transfer will occur” (Ormrod, 2008, p. 396).


(1)     My cats, Kendall and Pandora have “learned” that the can opener sound means they are going to eat.  They have “transferred” this information to mean anytime the can opener is used it means they are going to eat.

(2)     In relation to an earlier example of the child who has a tantrum in the grocery store and receives a lollipop. The child begins to generalize that by having tantrums in public places the mother will give the child a lollipop.

“Stimulus, response” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).


What Types of Learning are Best Explained by this Model?

“Task-based learning” (Davis, et al., 2008, p. 1).

Mastery learning involving fact recollections (math facts or sight words), generalizations, associations, or chaining skills (Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Ormrod, 2008).

According to Ormrod, there are subsets of learners who most benefit from the rigid structural paradigm of behaviorism such as: learners who have previously experienced failure in an academic setting; learners with special need due to developmental delays, learning disabilities, socioemotional issues and/or behavioral issues, as well as for learners for whom nothing else has worked for them (Ormrod, 2008).

It is also paramount to realize the possibilities of creating a Behavioristic learning condition, unwittingly, in the classroom.  Care should be taken not to reinforce inappropriate behaviors by accident.


How is Technology Used for Learning?

Technology has been historically utilized in programmed instruction and computer-assisted instruction, also evolving into programs more complex computer-assisted learning (CAL) with new innovations, realistic activities, “intelligent tutors” that diagnose and address specific problem areas, computer tools and challenging problem and games (Ormrod, 2008).


“Behavioral objectives, criterion referenced assessment; Learner analysis; Sequencing of instructional presentation, mastery learning; Tangible rewards, informative feedback; simple to complex sequencing of practice, use of prompts” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 56).




Carroll, R. (2010). Occam’s razor. Retrieved December 16, 2010, from

Davis, C., Edmunds, E., & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from Retrieved from

Deubel, P. (2003, March). An investigation of behaviorist and cognitive approaches to instructional multimedia design. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 12(1), 63-90. Retrieved December 7, 2010 from multimedia_design.htm

Driscoll, M. (2002). How people learn (and what technology might have to do with it). Retrieved from 2003-3/learn.htm

Emerging theories and online learning environments for adults. (2002). In Theories of Educational Technology. Retrieved November 24l, 2010, from

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 59-71. Retrieved from

Jenkins, J. (2006). Constructivism. Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration. Retrieved from Retrieved November 6, 2010, from

Johnson, L., Levine, A., & Smith, R. (2009). The Horizon Report (2009 ed.). Retrieved from pdf/CSD5612.pdf

Learning (n.d.). Retrieved from LEARNING. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved December 06, 2010, from website:

Ormrod, J. (2008). Human Learning (5th ed.). New Jersey, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2008). Overview. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 1-26). New Jersey, NY: Pearson.

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Cognitive information processing theory. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 48-97). New York: Pearson.

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Cognitive learning processes. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 98-145). New York: Pearson.

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Constructivist theory. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition) (pp. 182-222). New York: Pearson.

Siemens, G. (2005, Jan). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Retrieved from

Smith, M. (1999). The behaviourist orientation to learning. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved December 6, 2010, from

Smith, M. (1999). The cognitive orientation to learning. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved December 6, 2010, from

Smith, M. (1999). The social/situational orientation to learning. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved December 6, 2010, from

Social learning theory: Bandura. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Standridge, M. (2002). Behaviorism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technolog. Retrieved from

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