2.5 Behavioral Theories of Learning

What do you think the following have in common?

• A teacher says to a student, "I'm proud of you. Your science fair project was outstanding."

• A teacher asks a question. A student answers. The teacher says, "Good answer."

• A biology teacher gives extra credit for students who bring a newspaper clipping on bioethical issues.

All of these are applications of behavioral theories of learning. Behavioral theories emphasize overt or observable behaviors in order to influence and determine if learning has occurred. First, we will examine some of these behavioral theories, and then identify some principles of behaviorism that can be applied to the classroom.


Conditioning, also referred to as classical conditioning was one of the first theories of behaviorism. You are probably familiar with the famous experiments by the Russian scientist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849 - 1936). He found out that a dog's behavior could be conditioned. Here is what he did. A dog, when presented with a piece of meat salivates. Pavlov called the meat an unconditioned stimulus resulting in an unconditioned response (salivation). To condition the response behavior, Pavlov rang a small bell the same time the meat was presented. After several practice sessions in which the bell and meat were presented simultaneously, the dog eventually learns to salivate when the bell is rung without the meat. In this case the bell is the conditioned stimulus.

According to Hilgard and Bower, Pavlov's contribution rested as much on his methodology as the results of his research. His theorizing and the care with which he explored numerous relationships provided a foundation for further behaviorists.


According to Edward L. Thorndike (1874 - 1949), the basis of learning is the association between sense impressions and impulses to action. Such an association became known as a "connection." Thorndike's theory of stimulus-response became the original S__R psychology of learning. Thorndike theorized that the most characteristic form of learning was trial-and-error, or learning by selecting and connecting.

Thorndike developed many of his ideas on learning by studying the behavior of animals (cats, dogs, fish, and monkeys) in what he called a "problem-box." The animal was placed in the problem-box confronted with a situation in which it has to escape from the box or attain food. In the case of the hungry animal trying to escape, it was learning to associate the stimulus(release mechanism) with the response (escape or food). Thorndike developed the "law of effect" which refers to the strengthening or weakening of a connection as a result of it consequences. Thorndike found that rewards strengthened connections, but punishments did not weaken them.

Operant Conditioning

Of all the theories of behavioral learning, operant conditioning probably has had the greatest impact on the science teacher. B. F. Skinner (1904 - 1990) proposed a class of behavior that is controlled by stimulus events that immediately follow an action. Skinner labeled these operant behaviors because they operated on the environment to receive reinforcement. According to Skinner, once an operant behavior occurs, its future rate of occurrence depends upon its consequences. According to Skinner and other modern behaviorists, operant behavior is to be distinguished from responding behavior. Responding behavior involves the reactions of the smooth muscles and glands and includes reflexive reactions such as salivating, secreting digestive juices, shivering, increased heart or respiratory rates, and so forth. Operant behavior, on the other hand, involves the striated muscular system (muscles under voluntary control), and results in behaviors such as talking, walking, eating and problem solving. Responding behavior is controlled by preceding stimuli, as shown in Figure 2.13


Figure 2.13 Classical Stimulus-Response Psychology

Operant behavior, on the other hand, is controlled by stimulus events that immediately follow the operant as shown in Figure 2.14.


Figure 2.14. Operant Conditioning

Skinner designed a special apparatus (others called it the Skinner box) for use with white rats, and later with pigeons. It consisted of a darkened sound-resistent box into which the rat (or pigeon) is placed. The box contains a small brass lever which, if pressed, delivers a pellet of food. Skinner connected the lever with a recording system which produced a graphical tracing of the rat's behavior. The pigeon box was slightly different; the pigeon "pecked" for its food at spot and received grain.

Skinner's work resulted in the development of a number of principles of behavior that have direct bearing on science teaching. Two concepts stand out that have implications for the science teacher, namely, consequences and reinforcement. In the sections that follow, we will explore these two concepts, and then return to them again in Chapter 10 on classroom management.

Consequences. Skinner found that pleasurable consequences "strengthen" behavior, while unpleasant consequences "weaken it." Pleasurable consequences are referred to as reinforcers, while unpleasant consequences are called punishers. The teacher who says, "Alex, you did such a great job on your laboratory assignment that you can spend the remaining ten minutes working with one of the computer games" is making use of reinforcer to strengthen classroom work. Let's examine reinforcers a little more carefully.

Reinforcers. Behavioral psychologists differentiate between two types of reinforcers, primary and secondary. A primary reinforcer satisfies human needs for food, water, security, warmth and sex. Secondary reinforcers are those that acquire their value by being related to primary reinforcers, or other secondary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers are the ones that are of greatest value to the science teacher. These reinforcers, which are also called conditioned reinforcers, can be divided into three categories, social, token and activity.

1. Social reinforcers.

Social reinforcers are used very effectively by teachers to strengthen desired classroom behavior and learning. Social reinforcers, especially praise, can be a powerful tool for the science teacher. Although Brophy reports that praise is not used very frequently, he did report that most students enjoy receiving some praise, and teachers enjoy giving it. To be effective, praise should be given only when a genuinely praiseworthy accomplishment has occurred. The teacher's praise should be informative, specifying some particulars about the noteworthy behavior or performance to help the student understand his or her successes. And finally praise should be genuine, sincere and credible.

Social behaviors can be divided into four clusters: praising words and phrases, facial expressions, nearness, and physical contact (Figure 2.15) The use of these behaviors is common in many science classrooms.

Figure 2.15. Examples of Social Reinforcers for the Science Classroom

Praising words and phrases

Facial Expressions


Physical Contact

  • Good
  • That's right
  • Excellent
  • That's clever
  • Fine answer
  • Good job
  • Good thinking
  • Great
  • That shows a great deal of work
  • You really pay attention
  • I like that.
  • Show the class you model.
  • That's interesting
  • Joan, you're doing so well with the microscope.
  • That was very kind of you.
  • Smiling
  • Winking
  • Nodding
  • Looking interested
  • Laughing
  • Walking among the students.
  • Sitting in their groups.
  • Joining the class at break.
  • Eating with the students.
  • Touching
  • Patting head.
  • Shaking hand.
  • Stroking arm.

2. Token reinforcers.

Token reinforcers are things such as points, gold stars or chips that can be earned and have a reinforcing effect by pairing them with other reinforcers. Teachers have found the use of tokens very effective in managing student learning and classroom behavior. The use of a point system is especially effective in helping students learn how to manage their behavior, as well contributing their success as science learners. Many teachers set up their grading system using a point system, e.g. points can be earned for homework, laboratory assignments, projects, quizzes, and tests.

3. Activity reinforcers.

Activity reinforcers also referred to as the Premack Principle, are a third group of reinforcers that teachers have found effective in the classroom. According to psychologist David Premack, more-preferred activities can be used to reinforce less-preferred activities. According to the Premack principle, any higher-frequency behavior that is contingent on a lower-frequency behavior is likely to increase the rate of lower-frequency behavior. Thus the teacher would set up a situation in which students, when they complete the less-preferred activity are permitted to participate in a more-preferred activity. In the science classroom, some examples of the Premack principle would be, "You may work in the computer game center when you finish cleaning the laboratory," "Those who score over 90 on today's quiz will not have to do homework tonight," or "If all students are in their seats when the bell rings, then the class may have three minutes of free time at the end of today's class." These examples will not necessarily work in each situation. The science teacher must determine the preferred activities, and then use them to strengthen the less-preferred activities.

Theory into Practice

Behavioral theories of learning can be put into practice to the advantage of teachers and students alike. The underlying principle of behaviorism is "reinforce behaviors you wish to see repeated." According to Robert Slavin the main principles of the use of reinforcement is to increase desired behavior changes in the classroom are as follows:

1. The teacher should determine the behaviors desired from the students, and reinforce them when they occur.

2. Explain to students the behavior that is desired, and when they show the desired behavior, reinforce the students' behavior and explain why.

Science teachers deal with a complex classroom environment, often involving the handling of dangerous materials, or doing experiments involving safety issues. Specifying the behaviors that you expect in the laboratory, or whenever students are handling materials, and reinforcing them when they occur will help the students become independent and responsible science learners. Some science teachers post these behaviors in the science laboratory after spending time teaching and explaining these behaviors.

Skinner's concept of operant conditioning can be applied to the science classroom in many ways, but three seem clearly the most important, namely in (1) the use of classroom questions and associated techniques, (2) developing a positive classroom climate and (3) in the development of programmed teaching materials.

Use of Classroom Questions. One of the most common teaching behaviors that you will employ is that of asking students questions. Questions can be directed at the whole class, small groups of students, or individuals. The technique (developed fully in Chapter 8) involves this sequence:

• Teacher asks a question

• Teacher pauses for at least 3 seconds (to give students a chance to think of an answer)

• Teacher calls on a student

• Student responds

• Teacher responds to student (choices include praising the student, using the student idea). 

Classroom Climate. Although developed more fully in Chapter 10, Skinner's work can be applied to creating a positive classroom climate by having the teacher respond to student success rather than failures. For example, rather than pointing out what students are doing wrong, point out what they are doing right. When a student answers a teachers question with a partially correct response, the teacher should pick up on the correct aspect of the answer to reinforce the student's contribution. Figure 2.17 outlines the steps that can contribute to a positive learning environment based on Skinner's concept of operant conditioning.

Figure 2.17. Creating a Positive Classroom Environment by Means of Operant Conditioning

Step 1: Analyze the environment

Step 2: Make a list of positive reinforcers

Step 3: Select sequence of behaviors to be implemented

Step 4: Implement program, maintain records of behavior and make changes

Identify positive and undesirable student behaviors receiving reinforcement. What behaviors receive the punishment. What is the frequency of punishment. Have these behaviors been suppressed.

Determine students' preferred activities (students can contribute to this). Consider using punished behaviors as reinforcers. If talking with peers is a disruptive behavior consider using it (time to talk with peers) as a reinforcer.

Implement a positive reinforcement program. Instead of punishment for tardiness, reward students for being on time.

Make sure classroom rules are clear (see Chapter 9). Make sure students know how to earn reinforcement. Implement reinforcement schedule.

Programmed Teaching Materials and Computer Assisted Instruction

Skinner designed teaching machines which controlled the students progress through a body of material. The teaching machine, usually by means of questions or fill-in-the-blank statements, provided reinforcement for right answer (by confirming them, allowing the student to move ahead). The teaching machine was a vehicle for programming instruction, as well as providing an environment in which students could work at their own rate. Textbook and workbooks were written to teach information about a variety of subjects, especially in science. The textbooks were equipped with a card that could be inserted in a page holder. As student s worked through each statement or question, they would slide the card so that the correct answer would appear. Early machines and textbooks were limited in the types of reinforcements they could provide. However, with the development of the microcomputer, not only can a variety of reinforcements be provided (a pleasant sound, a voice), but the software can be programmed to provide a variety of feedback for various responses. Drill and practice, tutorial and some game software programs are based on the Skinnerian concept of programmed instruction.

Science teachers can make use of Skinner's concept of programmed instruction by providing students the opportunity to work in the microcomputer environment. Drill and practice and tutorial programs are available in most science content areas. Although not the most avant garde use of the computer, they can be help students learn science information efficiently, and with little teacher effort.

Behaviorism has contributed greatly to the teaching of science, but like any theory of learning, it has its limitation and rivals. In the past 20 years , there has been an increase in the variety of learning theories to explain student learning in science. Science teachers have available to them the theories proposed by a group of psychologists known as cognitive scientists. These psychologist shift their attention away from observable behaviors and instead focus on skills associated with memory, perception, conceptual processes, as well as processes related to problem solving, concept discovery and the use of rules. We turn our attention to cognitive theories of learning.