Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning came about at the same time as structuralism and functionalism. Ivan Pavlov was the developer of classical conditioning almost by accident. He noticed how the dogs in his laboratory would begin to salivate at the sight or sound of an attendant bringing them food.

Defining Terms

Before explaining how classical conditioning works it is important to define terms. Some terms you need to know to understand the basics of classical conditioning are

  • unconditioned
  • conditioned
  • stimulus
  • response

A stimulus provides input that leads to a response. A response is a reaction to a stimulus. For example, if a child sticks their hand in a fire, the stimulus is a burning sensation. This leads to a response of the child pulling their hand out of the fire. The fire was the stimulus that led to the response of pulling the hand.

The word unconditioned and conditioned are highly related in classical conditioning. To make this as simple as possible, you can think of conditioned as controlled and unconditioned as uncontrolled. Therefore a unconditioned stimulus is one that is not controlled. A unconditioned response is an uncontrolled response. A conditioned stimulus is one that is controlled and a controlled response is a response that is controlled.

Example Pavlov’s Experiment

We will now look at an example of all the terms in action. Pavlov conducted an experiment with dogs. First, Pavlov provided an unconditioned stimulus of food. This led to the dog displaying the unconditioned response of salivation. Neither the food nor the salivation of the dog was controlled at this moment.

In the second phase, every time Pavlov provided food he also played a metronome. Originally, the metronome was a neutral stimulus in that it did not cause a response. With time, the dog associated or connected the sound of the metronome to the idea of receiving food. It is this association that leads to conditioning.

After hearing the metronome and receiving food over and over again the connection was strengthened to where the dog only had to hear the metronome in order to begin salivation. In other words, the metronome had become a conditioned stimulus or a stimulus that was controlled. The salivation was now a controlled response. To put it simply, it was controlled or happened under the condition of hearing the metronome. The food was no longer necessary to bring about the behavior of salivation. Off course, the food had to be rewarded occasionally in order to maintain the connection between the metronome and salivation.


Classical conditioning is not used much in education. However, Pavlov’s work laid the foundation of aspects of behaviorism that are employed in education. Examples include contiguous and operant conditioning.

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