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This page was originally authored by Meghan and Trevor Canil (2007).
This page has been revised by Alvin Gross (2008), Melissa Anders (2008), Patricia Neves (2009).

Behaviourism studies observable, testable and verifiable behaviour. According to H. J. Eysenck (1972) the central theme of behaviourism is "the objectivity of the data to be accepted by science. The facts of observation are to be limited to those of any other science: observable events that can be recorded by an experimenter, often with the aid of precision instruments” (p. 118). This was a departure from the states of consciousness, thought processes and introspection that had governed earlier understandings of psychology. Behaviourism thus analyzes the changes in behaviour resulting from certain stimuli in the environment.

History of Behaviourism

Prominent Figures

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov's (1849-1936) is best known for classical conditioning. He concluded that a dog will salivate (unconditioned response) if it receives food (unconditioned stimulus). Pavlov discovered that by ringing a bell (neutral stimulus) each time he gave meat (unconditioned stimulus) to a dog, the dog would eventually salivate (conditioned response) from just hearing the bell (conditioned stimulus).

John B Watson

John B Watson (1878-1958) introduced operant conditioning. He allowed an infant, Albert, to play with a white rat. While playing with the rat, Watson would bang on Albert's crib with a hammer, causing the child to cry. Watson continued this behaviour seven times. After the seventh time, Albert developed a conditional emotional response of fear brought on by the mere sight of the rat.

File:Skinner box.JPG
Click on the video clip link below to see an example of a rat in a Skinner's box: Video Clip

Burrhus Frederick Skinner

During the mid 1900’s B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) became known for radical behaviourism. He studied how rewards and punishments can influence behaviour. In his experiments, he used shaping - the use of rewards to guide behaviour toward a desired behaviour. He would place a rat into a box with a lever (later known as a Skinner box). If the rat would push the lever, the rat would be positively reinforced with a food pellet. Eventually, the rat learned that pressing the lever would result in the food reward (Myers, 269).

Classroom Application

Behaviourist techniques are used in the classroom to shape behaviour, especially when dealing with classroom management. Teachers use positive reinforcements, such as rewards and compliments, to reinforce positive behaviours and punishments to prevent undesirable behaviours.


Computer use enhances the educational experience for many students. Skinner discovered “teaching machines” which are now referred to as computer-based training (CBT) or computer-aided instruction (CAI). Using CAI students learn small amounts of information at a time followed by a simple test question. In this way the student accumulates a body of knowledge and is positively reinforced to do well. This form of instruction not only takes account of individual student differences but the "rate of reinforcement depends entirely on the individual's own rate of progress and not on the relation of his rate to that of other individuals” (Wolman, 1973, 504). Students are therefore able to progress at their own pace and are able to transcend the “traditional structures based on lock-steps through grade levels" thus allowing "each student to progress through the curriculum at his own pace” (Wolman, 1973, 115).

Criticisms of Behaviourism

Criticisms of Behaviourism


Education in British Columbia is focusing more on constructivism where students build upon their previous knowledge. Teacher training programs in British Columbia encourage pre-service teachers to avoid rote learning, typical in behaviourism, in favour of problem-solving skills. Also, Beatty (2002) cautions that tasks may become teacher-centered if the behaviourist model is used for instruction.

In the 1960s, behaviourism was not seen to have any benefit to learning and became less popular. (Scheepers, 2000, Wood et al., 2005, Mergel, 1998, Casas, 2002). Furthermore, behaviourism does not develop intrinsic motivation. Rather, the learner is trained to receive immediate feedback and thus is only externally motivated.

In recent years there has been a greater desire to understand brain functioning in relation to motivation, memory and understanding. Behaviourism ignores these internal functions, causing it to have lost popularity (Graham, 2007).

Despite these criticisms of behaviourism, there are still uses for this learning theory today. Behaviourism is still apparent in behaviour therapy as well as in laboratory-based animal learning theory (Graham, 2007).


Beatty, K. (2002). Describing and enhancing collaboration at the computer. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 28. Retrieved February 20, 2007 from

Casas, M. (2002). The use of Skinnerian teaching machines and programmed instruction in the United States 1960-1970. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1997. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 469942).

Eysenck, H.J. (1972). Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Graham, G. (2007). Behaviorism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved January 27, 2008 from,

Mergel, B. (1998). Instructional design & learning theory. Retrieved February 18, 2007 from

Myers, D. G. (1995). "Psychology: Fourth Edition". New York: Worth Publishers.

Scheepers. D. (2000). Learning theories: Behaviorism. Retrieved February 18, 2007 from

Wolman, Benjamin B. (1973). Handbook of General Psychology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Wood S.D., Zaientz, J.D., Holt, L.S., St Amant, R., Healey, C., Ensley, M., and Strater, L. (2005). Model–based automated visualization for enhanced situation awareness. United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Retrieved February 18, 2007, from