The behaviorist learning theory focuses on the influence environment has on behavior and how people learn to behave. Behavior is shaped gradually as a response to stimuli in the environment and the data collected is observable and measurable. Learning is based on classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Positive and negative reinforcement is used to shape behavior (Thomas, Crandel & Zanden, 2011). Skinner, a psychologist who studied operant conditioning, believes people learn by consequences of their actions (Smith & Hains, 2012). Operant behavior responds to the environment. Rewards given in the classroom will increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Continuous reinforcement is used to reinforce a behavior at the beginning. Intermittent reinforcement should be used to make the behavior last. Positive reinforcement is used to strengthen the behavior. Negative reinforcement is used to eliminate behavior and only eliminates the behavior temporarily. Negative reinforcement also can cause conflict such as avoidance because the person fears the consequence (Crane, 2011).
Today, the behaviorist theory is applied to the classroom with direct instruction. Teaching is structured and learning is broken down into small steps. The teacher monitors and provides feedback and positive reinforcement. Modeling is used in explicit instruction and provides extra guidance for students so they do not feel overwhelmed. Students need to be provided with extra practice time to help with processing and memory. Feedback and reinforcement is given throughout the lesson. The lesson is structured and includes predictable routines (Steele, 2005). Teachers write measurable and observable behavioral learning outcomes, state learning goals in advance, use instructional strategies to shape desired skills, and giving positive reinforcement and feedback. Behaviorism applies to classroom management. If a negative behavior is ignored, the problem is most likely to continue. When students demonstrate positive behavior it is reinforced and rewarded (Beavers, Collins, Geen, Nathan & Wolfe, 2002).
Some programs that apply the behaviorist theory are very structured. Small amounts of information are learned sequentially, students respond to the learning and are reinforced if the answer is correct. There is little student input and objectives, activities, and evaluations are determined by the program (Ediger, 2012). Lynda Lambert (2012), a college professor, argues that college students are not used to thinking on their own. They are unable to form their own opinion and need explicit explanations and rubrics from teachers in order to know what do to complete an assignment. Lambert (2012) states, “Students are looking for a checklist to get an “A” but are not putting in the effort to explore and be creative” (p.6). Lambert (2012) argues that the assignments due in elementary and secondary school are based on the behaviorist theory. Students are told what the result needs to me and are given guidelines to reach it, rather than asking students to be creative and thoughtful.
Research today supports the belief that objectives should be observable and measurable. Setting objectives is used to establish and communicate learning goals. Setting objectives helps students understand the purpose for their learning. It also provides clear direction for instruction and expectations for meeting the learning target. Setting objectives guides students through the learning process. It helps them make connections between the learning activities and how they apply to what they are expected to learn (Marzano, 2007). Dean, Hubble, Pitler, & Stone (2012) suggest one way to increase student input and motivation is to engage students in setting personal learning objectives. Marzano (2007) believes that reinforcing effort and providing recognition is important. He states, “Focusing on knowledge gain provides a legitimate way to recognize and celebrate- as opposed to reward- success. Tangible reward has weak support for its use and verbal reward has moderate support” (p. 27). Instead, Marzano (2007) suggests that students should see a direct relationship between how hard they work and how much they learn (p. 14).
Beavers, H., Collins-Eaglin, J., Green, D., Nathan, G., & Wolfe, K. (2002, December). From Theory to Practice: Behaviorist Principles of Learning and Instruction. Teaching Matters, 7(2) Retrieved from http://www.otl.wayne.edu/pdf/newsltr/dec02.pdf
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