Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Behaviorist Learning Theory

Learning theories are an attempt to explain how a student learns.  One of the theories that we are exploring this week is the behaviorist perspective.  Behaviorist, “view all behavior as a response to external stimuli” (Lever-Duffy & McDonald, 2008, p. 15).  According to this learning theory, learners respond to positive, negative, and neutral reinforcements. Learning is viewed as a passive not an active process (Lever-Duffy & McDonald, 2008). 

The instructional strategy of homework and practice falls under “Repetition, generalization and discrimination,” one of the four key principles of learning according to James Hartley (Smith, 1999).  He also notes, “Skills are not acquired without frequent practice” (Smith, 1999).  Homework and practice are an instructional strategy that do just that, it provides students an opportunity to review, apply, and practice the skills they have learned. 
The author’s of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works talk about how exposing students to concepts multiple times helps them to become proficient with the skill and that they need to be exposed to the skill about 24 times to achieve 80-percent competency (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007).  Numerous software programs and websites provide students an opportunity to practice the concepts they learn.  This programmed instruction provides students with reinforcement and can be used as practice during school or as homework.   Some great websites I use are , , and .
The authors continue to state that when “homework is assigned, it should be commented on” (Pitler et al., 2007, p. 187).   Providing comments on homework and practice is a way to give positive and negative reinforcement.  Providing positive and negative reinforcement is a way to increase the likelihood that students will repeat the behavior that the teacher is looking for.  As the students repeat the behavior, their proficiency in the skill will increase. 
Reinforcing effort is another instructional strategy that increases achievement (Pitler et al., 2007).  Making a connection between effort and achievement is important for students.  I really like the activity that fifth grade teachers, Ms. Powell and Mr. Rodriguez, used to help their students to see this connection.  The filled out an effort rubric to assess themselves and then charted their progress on a spreadsheet.  This is a perfect example of, “Reinforcement is the cardinal motivator” and “Learning by doing,” that are key principles of behaviorist James Hartley (Smith, 1999). 
Even though there are differing opinions on whether or not the behaviorist learning theory is applicable in a classroom, I feel that it can be useful.  There are many concepts, like math facts, that once a student learns the concept they need to practice the skill repeatedly to become proficient.  Reinforcement is also a great motivator when used the correct way.  However, I do believe that behaviorism should not be the only learning theory that is evident in a classroom.   
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Program four: Behaviorist learning theory [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from
Lever-Duffy, J., & McDonald, J. (2008). Theoretical foundations (Laureate Education, Inc. custom ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Smith, K. (1999). The behaviourist orientation to learning. In The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from



  1. I agree with you in that the behaviorist theory has a place within today’s classrooms, as long as it is used in moderation and in conjunction with other learning styles. The principals of the behaviorist theory provides research based evidence that students need repetition and practice in order to master new skills in the classroom. While I am a strong believer in the constructivist approach to learning new content, I frequently use elements of the behaviorists theory to reinforce positive choices taking place in the classroom. I agree with Dr. Orey when he stated in the video Behaviorist learning theory, that positive reinforcement is more meaningful to students than negative reinforcement and can make a larger impact on student success in the classroom. (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011)

    I also liked how Ms. Powers and Mr. Rodriguez used a spreadsheet with their students to help them see the connection between their effort and performance in the classroom. I currently teach a digital technology class and have my student participate in 5-10 minutes of typing practice each day. Students use the program Everyday when students come to class they are expected to take two timed typing tests and record their best score in a Google spreadsheet. When they are done with their tests and recorded their results they are then given the opportunity to play typing games to continue practicing their keyboarding skills. It is my hope that through this continued practice and tracking of results that students will begin to see how practice can influence their typing speed and efficiency.

    Thank you for sharing those sites. I have used cool math games before and found that my students really enjoyed many of the programs. I look forward to checking out the other two later this week!

    Katie Dorr

  2. Hello Daneen - Todd from Walden

    I saw your blog discuss the two spreadsheet activities from Chapter Eight of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. I copied the Effort Rubric from Chapter Eight and gave it out to my students this week, and it was a real shocker to them. We always tell the students to work hard and give your best effort, and their comeback more than likely is something along the lines of that they really did try in some kind of whiney voice. The effort rubric puts in some tangible levels, which allows the students to see what it really means to take good notes, and then allows us to question the efforts. I spent some time with one of my students who appears to be struggling, and we went over the rubric item by item. By the third line, he looked at me and said that he does not give a good effort, but would use the spreadsheet to help him from now on.
    I set them up with the spreadsheet activity, and they are actually anxious to start tracking their effort versus results in the graph. I cautioned them to be patient and it might take some time to see the results. I did this with my two Algebra classes, which total about 50 students. I find it difficult to imagine setting up and maintaining the spreadsheet with more than 100 like you mentioned. I am very interested in the results as well. I hope they are similar to what everyone would project, because if they are not, then an entirely wring message is sent.

    I enjoyed you post. I use as well. It has some repetitve sections, and there are some really good games that challenge rather than repeat. The kids tend to gravitate to those sections of the site by themselves.

    Todd Deschaine

  3. I am a math teacher as well. I have used each of the websites that you listed and I agree that they are useful tools. Many of the students that come through my door still do not even know their multiplication facts. Using interactive websites and various pieces of technology in my classroom, I have found that repetition of these simple facts can be very effective when approached with variety.

    I would be curious to visit a school that had a one to one ratio of students to tablets or iPads. I can see the repetition of math facts found within many of the apps that are available being beneficial to students.