Introduction to Behaviorism

Presented by Joe Tise, PhD, Educational Psychology & Senior Education Researcher at

At least surface-level familiarity with Pavlov’s experiments and principles of classical and operant conditioning have become almost ubiquitous among the general public. What many may not know, however, is that classical and operant conditioning are the two primary Behaviorist theories of learning. To a behaviorist, only observable behavior is worthy (or even possible) of scientific study. From this philosophy stems the behaviorist definition of learning: a relatively permanent change in behavior that is caused by experience. Behaviorist theories of learning exclude any attempts to examine cognition or cognitive processes because they are not directly observable.

The theory of classical conditioning was born from Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. Pavlov discovered that his dogs began to associate food with the sound of a bell, and that upon ringing the bell, his dogs would salivate. Thus, a change in behavior (salivation) was caused by experience (presentation of food shortly after the bell). Note that classical conditioning only applies to involuntary (reflexive) behavior (e.g., fear, physiological responses). Operant conditioning (think B.F. Skinner) extends the theory into voluntary behavior. In a series of classic experiments, psychologist B.F. Skinner trained rats to perform novel behaviors in exchange for food (reinforcement) or in anticipation of an electric shock (punishment) (Skinner, 2019).
Dog working at a computer

Operant conditioning still relies on the mechanism of association, but accounts for novel (i.e., not innate) behavior. Indeed, operant conditioning is at the heart of nearly all animal training (e.g., dogs, show animals) and has real-world applications for classroom management. For example, a teacher may reward students with a small toy if they participate in class and may punish students (e.g., by issuing a demerit) for acting out. If this reinforcement and/or punishment is successful and the student’s behavior changes, the behaviorist would say the behavior change is evidence of learning. Although purely Behaviorist research studies are less common today than they were 60-70 years ago, elements of Behaviorism are still prevalent in some fields and sub-disciplines, including game-based learning (e.g., though badges, scoring) (Coskun, 2019; Hulsbosch et al., 2023; Leeder, 2022)


There are several strengths of behaviorist theories of learning.

  • First, research has shown that behaviorist conceptions of learning are generalizable to not just multiple cultures, but indeed a wide variety of animals. That is, learning by association and reinforcement/punishment is not uniquely human, and therefore behaviorist theories of learning are by far the most generalizable.
  • And since behaviorists study only what can be observed directly (i.e., behavior), behaviorist theories are arguably the best-positioned to achieve replicability—a known problem in the psychology fields (Open Science Collaboration, 2015).
  • Behaviorist principles are directly applicable to the classroom via classroom management techniques. Any experienced K-12 teacher will tell you that classroom management is a top priority, and there is ample opportunity to apply behaviorism throughout the instructional process.
  • Behaviorism arose as a direct counter to eugenic philosophies, and therefore was one of the first DEI-minded approaches to psychological/educational research. To this effect, John Watson (1930) famously said: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief…”


Noteworthy limitations to behaviorism also exist. For example:

  • Behaviorist theories cannot account for cognitive processing—and explicitly exclude study of cognition. Cognitive/educational research, and even simple experience, tells us that human learning is much more complex than involuntary associations and reinforcement/punishment schedules.
  • The notion of observational learning (i.e., learning by watching someone else) is a prime example of the shortcomings of behaviorism. Behaviorism cannot explain observational learning.
  • Finally, experienced students and teachers understand many tasks require complex problem solving, learning strategies, and metacognition to complete. Behaviorism falls short of even conceptualizing these constructs, let alone explaining them.

Potential Use Cases in Computing Education

  • Research: An intervention based in classical conditioning designed to reduce negative physiological responses (anxiety) to computers/computer science. These negative physiological responses would also influence students’ self-efficacy, so a link could be made to social-cognitive theory as well.
  • Practice: A teacher could begin each class with a pleasant story, song, comment, snack, or even scent to elicit a positive emotional response from their students. After repeated exposure (i.e. conditioning), the students should associate positive feelings with the classroom/subject/teacher.

Influential theorists

  • John B. Watson (1878 – 1958)
  • B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990)
  • Edward L. Thorndike (1874 – 1949)

Recommended seminal works

  • Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158–177.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.
  • Thorndike, E. L. (1898). Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. The Psychological Review: Monograph Supplements, 2(4), i–109.


Coşkun, K. (2019). Conditioning Tendency Among Preschool and Primary School Children: Cross-Sectional Research. Interchange, 50(4), 517–536.

Hulsbosch, A., Beckers, T., De Meyer, H., Danckaerts, M., Van Liefferinge, D., Tripp, G., & Van Der Oord, S. (2023). Instrumental learning and behavioral persistence in children with attention‐deficit/hyperactivity‐disorder: Does reinforcement frequency matter? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 64(11), 1–10.

Leeder, T. M. (2022). Behaviorism, Skinner, and Operant Conditioning: Considerations for Sport Coaching Practice. Strategies, 35(3), 27–32.
Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349(6251), aac4716.

Skinner, B. F. (2019). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. B. F. Skinner Foundation.

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (Revised edition). University of Chicago Press.


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