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"Behaviorism is a worldview that operates on a principle of “stimulus-response.” All behavior caused by external stimuli (operant conditioning). All behavior can be explained without the need to consider internal mental states or consciousness..." — Skinner (1950)

Behaviourism refers to one of the classic theories of learning that focuses on behavioural conditioning. As a learning theory, behaviourism can be traced back to Aristotle, whose essay "Memory" focused on associations between events such as lightning and thunder. Other philosophers that followed Aristotelian thought were Hobbs (1650), Hume (1740), Brown (1820), Bain (1855) and Ebbinghause (1885) (Black, 1995). The theory of behaviourism concentrates on the study of overt behaviours that can be observed and measured (Good & Brophy, 1990). It views the mind as a "black box" in that response to a stimulus can be observed quantitatively, totally ignoring the possibility of thought processes occurring in the mind. Similarly, the learner starts off as a clean slate (i.e. tabula rasa) and behavior is shaped through positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Some key players in the development of the behaviourist theory were Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike and Skinner.

Rewards and punishments

This type of learning is based on rewards and punishments - or, rather the use of positive and negative reinforcement. Behavioural learning strives to create permanent change in observable behaviours by strengthening the relationship between specific stimuli and desired responses. When a learner's response is what the teacher wants "or is correct" the behaviour is positively rewarded. The correct answer-and-rewards model of learning is used in educational settings around the world. While behaviourism is considered by some to be "old hat", there is evidence showing that the learning theory is widely used especially in assessment. Behavioural approaches are well-suited to reinforcing pedagogical objectives particularly when memorization is paramount. Behaviourism is easy to deploy pedagogically online and popular in game design. In gaming, there are many opportunities to reinforce desired behaviours which can be integrated into computer training by repetition. Behaviourism was established as a learning model through the works of Skinner, Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike (connectionism), Bandura, Tolman (moving toward cognitivism).

What is classical conditioning?

  • Learning where an unconditioned stimulus following a neutral stimulus closely causes an unconditioned response. After repetition, the neutral stimulus will cause the unconditioned response without the unconditioned stimulus and will become a conditioned response.

What is operant conditioning?

  • Learning where behaviours are modified by consequences; behaviours may change in form, frequency or strength; in brief, a voluntary response is followed by a reinforcing stimulus.

Definition of behaviourism

Observable positive changes in behaviours are seen when learners recognize that desirable behaviours will receive specific rewards. Some general assumptions of behaviourism are that:

  • the principles of learning apply to different behaviours and species equally
  • external learning processes can be studied objectively when the focus of study is on a stimulus and a learner's response to it
  • internal cognitive processes are largely excluded from behaviourism
  • learning involves mostly behavioural changes; learners are born as blank slates (tabula rasa)
  • learning is the result of environmental events
  • the most useful theories tend to be parsimonious

Contract, consequence & reinforcement

Difference between classical and operant conditioning

A simple contract (or agreement) can be an effective way to help someone focus on changing behaviours. The relevant behaviour can be identified by a mentor, and mentor-mentee can decide what the terms of an agreement will be. Generally, behavioral contracts can be used in a number of settings. Performance reviews are a kind of behavioural contract; both parties work to ensure the contract is followed.

  • In academic libraries, if librarians are not productive, this might be written into their annual reviews
  • Contracts can be designed so that librarians will ask for help, and complete more work, as stipulated
  • If librarians behave badly, contracts can be created to minimize the problems or infractions
  • Added provisions for librarians may include that their behaviours will be monitored and assessed

Consequences should occur immediately after bad behavior is witnessed. Consequences may be positive or negative, expected or unexpected, immediate or long-term, extrinsic or intrinsic, material or symbolic (promoted/demoted), emotional/interpersonal. Consequences occur after the behaviour recurs. Some positive reinforcement occurs frequently in the workplace to increase the likelihood of a repeat in the future.

  • smiling at the worker
  • commending someone for their work
  • selecting them for a special project
  • praising someone to another person

Negative reinforcement increases the probability of a response that removes or prevents an adverse event.

  • for students, obtain a score of 80% or higher to be exempt from the final exam
  • submitting all assignments on time will result in the student's lowest grade being dropped
  • attendance in class is rewarded with a "homework pass"

Punishment involves presenting a stimulus that decreases the frequency of a response. Punishment is effective in eliminating undesirable behaviour.

Key websites & video

~ a humorous look at what behaviourism is..."


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