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Teaching Guide for Graduate Student Instructors
GSI Teaching & Resource Center

Learning: Theory and Research

Behaviorism

  • Behaviorist teaching methods have proven most successful in areas where there is a “correct” response or easily memorized material.

Background
View of Knowledge
View of Learning
View of Motivation
Implications for Teaching

Background

Methodological behaviorism began as a reaction against the introspective psychology that dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Introspective psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt maintained that the study of consciousness was the primary object of psychology. Their methodology was primarily introspective, relying heavily on first-person reports of sensations and the constituents of immediate experiences. Behaviorists such as J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner rejected introspectionist methods as being subjective and unquantifiable. Instead, they focused on objectively observable, quantifiable events and behavior. They argued that since it is not possible to observe objectively or to quantify what occurs in the mind, scientific theories should take into account only observable indicators such as stimulus-response sequences. According to Skinner (1976, 23),

  • The mentalistic problem can be avoided by going directly to the prior physical causes while bypassing intermediate feelings or states of mind. The quickest way to do this is to … consider only those facts which can be objectively observed in the behavior of one person in its relation to his [or her] prior environmental history.

Radical behaviorists such as Skinner also made the ontological claim that facts about mental states are reducible to facts about behavioral dispositions.

View of Knowledge

Behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner construe knowledge as a repertoire of behaviors. Skinner argues that it is not the case that we use knowledge to guide our action; rather “knowledge is action, or at least rules for action” (152). It is a set of passive, largely mechanical responses to environmental stimuli. So, for instance, the behaviorist would argue that to say that that someone knows Shakespeare is to say that they have a certain behavioral repertoire with respect to Shakespeare (152). Knowledge that is not actively expressed in behavior can be explained as behavioral capacities. For example, “I know a bluebird when I see one” can be seen as effectively equivalent to “I have the capacity to identify a bluebird although I am not now doing so” (154). If knowledge is construed as a repertoire of behaviors, someone can be said to understand something if they possess the appropriate repertoire. No mention of cognitive processes is necessary (156–57).

View of Learning

From a behaviorist perspective, the transmission of information from teacher to learner is essentially the transmission of the response appropriate to a certain stimulus. Thus, the point of education is to present the student with the appropriate repertoire of behavioral responses to specific stimuli and to reinforce those responses through an effective reinforcement schedule (161). An effective reinforcement schedule requires consistent repetition of the material; small, progressive sequences of tasks; and continuous positive reinforcement. Without positive reinforcement, learned responses will quickly become extinct. This is because learners will continue to modify their behavior until they receive some positive reinforcement.

View of Motivation

Behaviorists explain motivation in terms of schedules of positive and negative reinforcement. Just as receiving food pellets each time it pecks at a button teaches a pigeon to peck the button, pleasant experiences cause human learners to make the desired connections between specific stimuli and the appropriate responses. For example, a student who receives verbal praise and good grades for correct answers is more likely to learn those answers effectively than one who receives little or no positive feedback for the same answers. Likewise, human learners tend to avoid responses that are associated with negative reinforcements such as poor grades or negative feedback.

Implications for Teaching

Behaviorist teaching methods tend to rely on so-called “skill and drill” exercises to provide the consistent repetition necessary for effective reinforcement of response patterns. Other methods include question (stimulus) and answer (response) frameworks in which questions are of gradually increasing difficulty; guided practice; and regular reviews of material. Behaviorist methods also typically rely heavily on the use of positive reinforcements such as verbal praise, good grades, and prizes. Behaviorists assess the degree of learning using methods that measure observable behavior such as exam performance. Behaviorist teaching methods have proven most successful in areas where there is a “correct” response or easily memorized material. For example, while behaviorist methods have proven to be successful in teaching structured material such as facts and formulae, scientific concepts, and foreign language vocabulary, their efficacy in teaching comprehension, composition, and analytical abilities is questionable.

Reference

Skinner, B. F. (1976). About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.

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