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In this article, discover Behaviouralist learning theory and its associated teaching style. How relevant is it in the network age?
Flat vector illustration of lecturer giving a lecture to students in a lecture room.
© University of Southampton

The picture above represents a theory called Behaviouralism (also known as Behaviourism), which considers knowledge to be a collection of conditioned behavioural responses to external stimuli.

In other words, we receive information passively from our senses (such as seeing, hearing, smelling something…etc) and respond to it with the appropriate associated behaviours that we have learnt. We then remember that behaviour and store it in a ‘collection’ of responses to use again with the same external stimuli.

Those behaviours can either be trained (Classical Conditioning) or voluntary (Operant Conditioning) – this TED-ed video by Peggy Andover explains the difference. Conditioned behaviours can be reinforced by giving rewards or punishments.

Behaviouralism (especially Classical Conditioning) is also the same method we use to train animals, much as Pavlov famously did with his dog.

Teaching and learning

Behaviouralism suggests that learning is best achieved by passively absorbing information given to us by someone more knowledgable than us (an expert). This is known as an Instructionist approach.

Centred on the expert, it often involves a lot of repetition and reinforcement, until we store it as the desired response.

For example, – what is 5 x 2?

Did you have to think about the answer – or did it just pop’ into your head (as a conditioned response)?


This approach to learning is best suited to topics where there are ‘right and wrong’ answers and for people with extremely good memories. Also, it does not recognise the role of ‘thinking’ in the learning process, which can make applying learned responses to a new stimulus difficult.

Also, if we give an incorrect response to a stimulus, (such as replying “11” when asked “what is 5 x 2?”), there might be a negative result (such as a punishment or the removal of a reward). This can create negative associations towards learning.

What are your experiences of learning in this way?
How relevant is Behaviouralism / Instructionism to the network age?

Key thinkers

Pavlov, I. P. (1941). Lectures on conditioned reflexes. Vol. II. Conditioned reflexes and psychiatry. Chicago

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster; reprint, 2005, B.F.Skinner Foundation.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological review, 20(2), 158.

© University of Southampton
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