Multiple bells hanging from in foreground with a landscape scene in the background

Behaviorism is a theory primarily associated with Ivan Pavlov and J.B. Watson.

Behaviourists initially reject introspection and take into account observable behaviours and reactions. Knowledge itself is a collection of responses (mechanical) to the environment (stimuli). Understanding is not a cognitive process but rather a significant collection of appropriate responses, a ‘repertoire (Behaviorism, n.d.).’

When teaching through behaviorist mechanisms, it is a process of tasks that require specific behaviours that are reinforced positively. Due to this positive reinforcement, learners are motivated to gain/exhibit the correct responses to gain further positive reinforcement.

This is especially common in the compliance based online training resources, as an example, as the learner has been taught the correct methods of responses to the material and the assessments. In these types of online learning resources (commonly called courses), the learner moves through content provided to them to read and then is assessed on their ability to retain the prior information. Generally, these assessments are questions asking the learner to recall information with reinforcement gained via positive/negative feedback (with the learner ultimately aiming for the positive feedback and positive results of finishing the course). However, this example is a generalisation, I am not saying all compliance training or by extension online learning courses are behaviorist only.

This is my example of behaviorism in learning and its pros/cons:

I had a high school AP American History class where everything that was taught and tested were all in lead up to the AP American History exam at the end of the year. This exam and class was a pure example of behaviorism in practice. Everything that was taught, was done so that we would provide the correct response to the specific historical questions asked. I learned very quickly that even though history could be seen in different ways/contexts, that I was learning the correct way to see history (through the lens of the AP exam). This exam was a measurable way for colleges to assess if I had learnt this history to a collegiate level to receive college credits. The stimulus was always specific questions asked from the AP exam and we were to provide the specific and correct response. The correct responses were marked right and therefore, positive reinforcement came from good feedback and good grades. Whereas the AP exam, and consequently my teacher as well, marked incorrect answers as negative points to deter us from guessing (suffice it to say we quickly learned not to put down answers at all if we didn’t know). Overall, our rote memory of historical dates and our correct summarization of the impact of certain situations on history were the behaviors expected to be observed.

A pro of behaviorism is its ability for measurement, in a world where measuring L&D to see the ROI, a behaviorist approach suits. Also, behaviorism allows for a clear delineation for a learner of what is expected of them. They learn quickly what is rewarded and what isn’t to mold themselves to that, limiting confusion.

A con of behaviorism is also the clear delineation of learning, people are taught to learn correctly (based on their teacher) and are rewarded for their ability to produce the correct result one or a few times. Does this actually equate to someone learning? This style favors certain types of people, especially those who can memorize and mimic well, whereas it does not suit a learner like me who cannot.



Behaviorism. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2017, from

Keramida, M., M.Ed. (2017, July 20). Behaviorism In Instructional Design For eLearning: When And How To Use. Retrieved August 24, 2017, from