Behaviorism in the Classroom

Behaviorism in the Classroom

By: Cindy Nebel

A couple weeks ago, we provided several resources talking about behaviorism in the classroom. Today, we would like to provide our own overview of behaviorism and how it can be used in the classroom to promote learning. While often used as tools for classroom management, behaviorist principles can be broadly applied to change behaviors. Given that our goal is to encourage the use of better study strategies, any mechanism that can change behavior is worth considering.

Please note that I am not a historian. Nor am I a behaviorist. This is meant to be a brief overview to demonstrate how these principles can be applied without going into too much detail.

The History of Behaviorism

Around the turn of the 20th century, introspection was the dominant field of study in psychology. Introspection involved rigorous methodology aimed at examining the contents of consciousness. Under tightly controlled experimental conditions, subjects observed and carefully recorded their current awareness. Unfortunately, the results of such experiments were very difficult to replicate and many psychologists were disillusioned.

Meanwhile, a certain Russian physiologist serendipitously discovered that his dogs could learn to anticipate elements of his experimental design. He was interested in the salivation reflex, but over time the dogs were salivating before they received any food. This discovery was later termed "classical conditioning" (more below).

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In 1911, psychologist John Watson took key elements of observation and experimental rigor, but wrote a  seminal paper, Psychology as the Behaviorist View It. In this manifesto, he explained that in order for psychology to be taken seriously as a science, the focus needed to turn toward objective, observable behaviors. Psychologists would then be able to determine exact cause and effect and measure behavior with precise calculations. So began a new movement - behaviorism.

Behaviorist Techniques

Classical (Pavlovian) Conditioning

In classical conditioning, you start with an automatic reflex. For Pavlov, this was his dogs salivating when they tasted food. Then you pair that with a meaningless stimulus. Pavlov used a bell in one of his conditions. So every time dogs got the food, they also heard a bell. Over time, the dogs anticipated the food and started salivating to a delicious sounding bell. This happens all the time in your life, too. Marketers love classical conditioning. Take, for example, this advertisement:

Naturally, a scantily clad woman leads to a response that includes, for example, pupil dilation and sweating palms (regardless of gender or sexuality).  We have an automatic response. Over time we see that woman paired with a pretty neutral hamburger such that a month later, when we see a Hardees logo, we have an automatic response and think, "Wow, that burger looks really good!"

Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning is fairly limited when it comes to shaping behavior, primarily because an automatic response must already exist. BF Skinner (a radical behavorist, famous for his assertion that there is no such thing as free will) pioneered research on a different form of learning - operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, the organism behaves in order to elicit a reward (reinforcement) or stops behaving to avoid a punishment. There are four different possible consequences to behavior in operant conditioning. The behavior can be rewarded (causing it to be repeated) or punished (making it less likely to be repeated). We can either give something to the organism (called "positive" because we are adding a stimulus) or we can take something away (called "negative" because we are subtracting a stimulus). Thus, our four consequences are positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. Here are some examples:

Let's say I want to increase the frequency that my teenage daughter cleans her room. This means I need a reinforcement. I can give her something she likes (e.g. cash, more screen time) each time she cleans her room - positive reinforcement. I could also take something away that she doesn't like (e.g. doing dishes) - negative reinforcement.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Let's say I want to decrease the frequency that she says swear words. This means I need a punishment. I can give her something she doesn't like (e.g. shame, soap in her mouth) - positive punishment. I could instead take away something she does like (e.g. her phone) - negative punishment.

Behaviorism in the Classroom

It's easy to see how operant conditioning can be used for classroom management. There are many behaviors that need to be shaped (an operant term!) in order to have an orderly classroom. There are indeed some classroom behaviors that I need to shape in order to enhance learning. For example, students could receive negative punishment for having their phones out. This might mean that they do not receive their daily attendance points. Research indicates that cell phones pull attention (1), so we can use operant conditioning to increase attention and learning.

However, this type of behavioral management is not the main take away here. Instead, I want to talk about increasing the use of good study strategies. You have seen our free downloadable materials. Maybe you've even directly taught them to your students. Unfortunately, for many reasons, students do not readily change their study strategies, even when shown evidence that the new strategies are better (2). In order to encourage the use of good study strategies, students need to see the direct consequence of using them. One way to do this is to give them practice using their own strategies and then require them to study some small bit of material using the new strategy you are teaching. The immediate and direct feedback that shows a higher grade is a positive reinforcement. You can also provide positive reinforcement in class. You can use praise or extra credit for students who demonstrate that they are using the new strategies to try and shape their behavior. One key is that the consequence should come fairly quickly after the behavior, which is what makes this such a challenge. Students who use spacing, for example, do a lot of work for a long time before receiving a reinforcement. Students who cram the night before and manage to pass the exam receive a more immediate positive reinforcement, making them more likely to engage in that behavior again.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Knowing how behaviorist principles work helps us to better understand why our students do not immediately change their study strategies, but they also provide ideas for how we can slowly shape those behaviors to lead to better studying.

Do you have a way of encouraging better studying based on behaviorist ideas? Let us know in the comments!


(1) Shelton, J.T., Elliott, E.M., Eaves, S.D., & Exner, A.L, (2009). The distracting effects of a ringing cell phone: An investigation of the laboratory and the classroom setting. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 29, 513-521.

(2) Karpicke, J.D. (2009). Metacognitive control and strategy selection: Deciding to practice retrieval during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138, 469-486.