Category Archives: behavorism

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning was developed by BF Skinner who was inspired by the work of Pavlov. As a behavorist, Skinner was focused on the environment when looking for a change in peoples’ actions. He stated that learning is a response to a situation. There are many important words to define before explaining the details of operant conditioning. Such as,

  • conditioning
  • discriminative stimulus
  • operant behavior
  • reinforcement
  • punishment

Key terms 

Conditioning, is the strengthening of a behavior due to reinforcement. For example, a child studies hard and he receives free time. He is conditioned to work hard because of the reward.

Discriminative stimulus sets the occasion for a response. An example would be a teacher giving students time to study. This provides the environment for the response of the students.

Operant behavior is the response to a stimulus. For example, a teacher gives students time to study and their response is to work hard. It is the presence of the opportunity to study that leads to the students working hard. The student learns to work hard due to the setting they are in.

Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a particular response. For example, if the teacher provides study time and the students work hard. The teacher may decide to give free time. Since the students were given free time for working hard, it increases the likelihood that they will work hard the next time they are given time to study.

Punishment is used to lessen an undesired response. For example, the teacher provides study time and the students are playing and being silly. To discourage this the teacher may give additional work to the students. Since the students do not like extra work the likelihood they will misbehave in the future will go down.

Putting it all Together

Operant conditioning has three steps to it

  1. A discriminative response (Such as a teacher providing study time)
  2. A response (such as the students choosing to work hard
  3. And a reinforcing/punishing stimulus (such as free time or extra homework)


A teacher provides students with study time. This is the discriminative stimulus that set the scene for the students. The students have the choice to work hard or misbehave. If the students work hard two things can happen

  1. The teacher gives them free time (positive reinforcement)
  2. The teacher takes away homework (negative reinforcement)

Positive reinforcement is giving the students something they want such as free time. Negative reinforcement is taking away something the students hate, such as homework. Reinforcement always encourages a behavior to be repeated in the future.

If the students choose to misbehave the teacher has two choices as well

  1. Give the students more work (positive punishment)
  2. Take away the students recess (negative punishment)

Positive punishment is giving the students something they do not like, such as more work. Negative punishment is taking away something the students love, such as recess.


Operant conditioning is somewhat complicated and difficult to understand. The principle is that the behavior comes before the stimulus. In the example, the students acted a certain way before they received a reinforcer or punishment. In addition, positive means to received something while negative means to lose something. These simple principles can help in understanding the complexities of operant conditioning.

Contiguous Conditioning

Contiguous conditioning is also a part of the behaviorist school. This approach, developed by Edwin Guthrie, states that a stimulus that causes a response will cause the same response if the stimulus is experienced again. In other words, a behavior (response) will be repeated if the same situation (stimulus) is experienced again.

For example, if a teacher provides a stimulus of “be quiet in the classroom” and the students’ response is silence every single time they are in the classroom this is considered contiguous conditioning. Every time they hear “be quiet in the classroom” the students develop an association between silence and the classroom.


One influential aspect of Guthrie’s work was in habits. Habits are learned behaviors in response to various cues. Continuing with the be quiet example, if the teacher tells the students to be quiet in the classroom, library, and hallway. Students develop the habit of being quiet in many different settings. The stimulus is now leading to responses in various context developing an overall habit.

Habit Breaking

Guthrie not only study habit formation but also habit breaking. He devised three methods of breaking habits

  • Threshold
  • Fatigue
  • Incompatible response


In order to break a habit, a person introduces a weak stimulus and gradually increasing the strength right to the point of the person’s tolerance. For example, if students cannot sit still to study (bad habit). The teacher might gradually increase the amount of time students have to sit still and study (weak to strong stimulus) from five minutes to eventually 30 minutes. By moving incrementally, the students slowly break the bad habit of restlessness and replace it with the habit of diligent study.


This approach works by forcing an individual to repeat an unwanted response in the presence of a stimulus. Continuing with our restless student example, if students cannot sit still (bad habit), the teacher would make them run around nonstop until they are exhausted (stimulus until fatigue). Even though students love to play, the possibility of fatigue from over exposure changes their behavior.

Incompatible Response

This method involves the presence of a stimulus but having the person make a response that is incompatible with the unwanted response. Using the same example of restless students (bad habit/response), a teacher might have students write a story (incompatible response). Since it is difficult to write and talk at the same time, it helps to encourage the desired behavior of silence (desired response). The response of writing and talking are incompatible with each other. This friction leads to the silence that the teacher desires.


Guthrie’s work seems to have been forgotten in education. It is common to speak of classical and operant but rarely of contiguous conditioning. Guthrie work discourages punishment while encouraging the replacement of bad habits with good. This is advice that many teachers struggling with classroom management should consider.

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.