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Learning Theory: Behaviorism - Connection to Teaching and Learning

Behaviorism can be as used an approach in developing assessments and activities by using direct observation with positive and negative reinforcement techniques. The instructor then takes on the role of “owning” the reinforcement used in the curriculum. This responsibility expands to ensuring that that students experience positive emotional reactions to learning. Correct responses should result in some type of affirmation, such as earning points or receiving praise. Incorrect responses would elicit negative reinforcement, such as losing points or corrective feedback.

These behavioristic principles can be applied effectively to course design if used correctly, such as in a quiz, exam, or other type of assessment. The questions would then become the stimulus and the answer, the response (“Behaviorism: GSI Teaching & Resource Center”, n.d.). By providing scores, prizes, and feedback to students intended to influence behaviors, the instructor is using positive or negative reinforcement techniques.

Activities and materials that require memorization and immediate right/wrong feedback are especially suited to Behaviorism teaching methods. Repetitions or drills provide an opportunity to elicit specific responses to a given stimuli. Gamification, which is often used in elearning (online learning), creates a game-like experience with leaderboards, prizes, and percentage bars, reinforcing and influencing learner responses (“4 Ways To Apply Behaviorism Principles to Your ELearning Materials – Your eLearning World”, 2020).

From a behavioristic learning development viewpoint, it is of critical importance to remember that feedback is absolutely necessary to shape learner responses. If the student receives no feedback at all either from the activity itself (right or wrong) or from the instructor (praise or correction), the student will not “learn” the material. The idea is to shape specific behaviors based on reward or punishment. The learner must be able to see the relationship between the experience of the activity and its immediate and direct feedback.

However, a student’s responses are not simply part of the curriculum; a student may bring his own behavioristic experiences to the class. For example, a student may have had difficulty previously with math, bringing his “hatred” of math to the classroom. Or, the student may have been bullied and this translates to his fear of school or difficulty relating to other students. This can be particularly problematic in the classroom, as learned behaviors may need correction or redirection. The instructor may find that he must “unteach” some concept or perception before beginning to teach the correct or desired response option.

While Behaviorism is not the only way that students learn, it is an important learning theory that instructors can use in developing activities to support learning. Effective use of behavioristic techniques and feedback can significantly enhance the learning process.

This blog post is part of my Learning Theories Series, in which I explore various ideas and concepts used in developing learning materials.