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This page originally authored by Meghan and Trevor Canil (2007)
This page was edited by Mark McVittie (January 2008) and Alvin Gross (January 2008).

Skinner and his teaching machine.

The concept of Computer-aided instruction (CAI), was inspired by Skinner's teaching machine – a machine soundly based in Behaviourism. CAI uses software that has preprogrammed answers which immediately gives positive or negative feedback based on the users' answers. A preprogrammed rubric to assess if the user has answered enough correct questions to move onto the next level of tasks.

In the 1960’s, behaviourism was not seen to have significant benefit to learning and became less popular (Scheepers, 2000, Wood et al., 2005, Mergel, 1998, Casas, 2002). Although this was the case in the traditional school setting, in the early development of CAI carried out in the 1960's and 1970's were exclusively behaviourist in nature. A significant reason for this was because of the relative ease of programming software in the behaviourist style, combined with the great challenge of early computer programming. The majority of the U.S. government-funded CAI projects, were directly derived from Skinner's teaching machine.

In the late 1970's, advances in technology started to catch up with advances in educational theory and began to change the role of computers in education. The development of the micro- and personal-computers, allowed for easier and more wide-spread experimentation in CAI based in developing educational theory. By 1980, large-scale CAI programs were rarely based purely in behaviourist learning theory; however, personal computer software grounded in behaviourism continues to be prevalent today.

Behaviourist Educational Software

Applications of Behaviourist Software

Behaviourist software is only applicable in situations where "the questions and hints were easily accessible and plainly stated" (Beatty, 2002). The behaviourist computer programs are easy to implement and use while the objectives are usually predetermined by the teacher. Thus, the program can directly test the prescribed learning outcomes of the lesson. However, in order for the software to be useful, the teacher must be able to control, observe and measure these outcomes. Learning is perceived to have occurred when the learner correctly fulfills the given tasks or outcomes. This simplicity and structure seem to make behaviourist software most applicable when the learner is beginning to learn a new concept. (Scheepers, 2000, Wood, Zaientz, Holt, St. Amant, Healy, Ensley & Strater, 2005). It can also be used to determine whether or not students are able to practice a specific skill or whether they understand a concept at a chosen point in the learning process.

The success of this and any software is not only related to the quality of material for which it is used, but also upon the culture and the infrastructure of the school. According to Teo and Wei (2001) "competent teachers and adequate resources are necessary and instrumental to delivering CAI-based education effectively" (p. 404). In this way a holistic approach must be taken in order to understand the effect that educational software has on students' learning.

Polonoli (2004) asserts that when any style of educational software is “not integrated into the curriculum in a purposeful manner, it is worthless” (p. 49). All software should have a specific purpose in our classrooms, and should that purpose be to provide continued practice for a specific skill, the Behaviourist style software may be appropriate.

Examples of Software

There are many educational games and software which use the behaviourist approach. The software comes in various forms including drill and practice, simulations and tutorials (Scheepers, 2000). Below is a list of a few examples of online games related to the behaviourist theory. Skinner's idea of the teaching machine was motivated by his dissatisfaction of the non behaviourist approach of his daughter’s math class. Several examples of web-based behaviourist software can be found below:

History/Social Studies:

Language Arts: .


Criticisms of Behaviourist Software


General criticism of behaviourism can be found in the more generic behaviourist topic. In addition to those criticisms which include the move towards constructivism, some believe that Behaviourist educational software does not take into account the overall context and culture of a modern school environment. The school culture must support the information technology infrastructure needed to develop the problem solving abilities of students, and software that goes beyond just rote memory and skill checking is viewed as being more appropriate to a constructivist learning environment. Teo and Wei (2001) caution that "it would not make sense to invest heavily in computer hardware when the culture of the school or their teachers are not ready to exploit the use of technology for education" (p. 404). In this way, teachers administrators and adequate resources must be combined in order to optimize both educational software and student learning through the use of behaviourist software that align with current educational research and thinking.


There are ways to integrate behaviourist software in a constructivist manner. For instance, different approaches can be taken when students use behaviourist software that only focuses on a single correct answer. The questions can be integrated into group problem-solving activities through the use of a SMART Board (Wiggins & Ruthmann, 2002). According to Casas (2002), studies which support the theory that teaching machines can significantly improve the learning of students always have two key elements. The first is that “programmed instruction was not the sole instructional medium” (p. 27). Teachers, books and other methods of instruction also play a critical role in the learning of youth. The second was that the teacher's attitude was paramount to this form of instruction. According to Teo and Wei, teacher leadership is but one part in a community approach that incorporates "principals and key administrators" who "need to provide leadership, and contribute sustained involvement, interest and resources in the implementation and use of computers for teaching" (p. 404). In this community approach the leadership that is offered by teachers and administrators plays a fundamental role in the use of behaviourist software for youth in schools. Further, Polonoli asserts that if educational software is “not integrated into the curriculum in a purposeful manner, it is worthless.” All software should have a purpose in our classrooms, and should that purpose be to provide continued practice for a specific skill, then Behaviourist Software may be appropriate.

An additional recommendation includes having student themselves construct behaviourist games using such game generators as Fling the Teacher Game Generator which would require students to come up with the questions and answers themselves. An assessment of the student created game could demonstrate true mastery of the skills at a high level. Creating such a game requires more advanced thinking skills that are more conducive to a constructivist learning environment, as the students are demonstrating their ability to create a behaviorist game. Many additional game generators that are easy enough to be used by students are available. These include games students can create from PowerPoint templates such as games based on popular TV game shows and arcade-style games (some available for free).

A more direct focus on the process of how the student solved the problems from the game could also be included. For example, in a math game, students could be asked to demonstrate how they solved a particular problem after successfully practicing certain skills in a behaviourist based game (or the game itself could require such input).


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, Havard University, 1997. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 469942).

Ponoloi, K. (2004). What makes educational software educational? Virginia Society for Technology in Education Journal, 18, 44-51. Retrieved January 22, 2008 from

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

Staettler, P. (2004). Evolution of American Educational Technology. Retrieved January 22, 2008 from

Teo, H.H. & Wei, K.K. (2001). Effective use of computer aided instruction in secondary Schools: A causal model of institutional factors and teachers' roles. J. Educational Computing Research, 25, 385-415. Retrieved February 23, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.

Wiggins, J. & Ruthmann, A. (2002). Music teachers' experiences: Learning through SMART board technology. Retrieved February 18, 2007, from

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