Category Archives: Psychology

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Classroom Management and Theories on Deviance

Deviance is something teachers and administrators deal with every day when managing students. Deviance is simply a fancy word for the breaking of social norms and rules. In other words, in the context of classroom management, deviance is the everyday misbehavior of students.

There are two types of deviance. Primary deviance is misbehavior that does not have a long-term effect in terms of the perception or reputation of the person. For example, a student talking out of turn may be primary deviance if it is not too common. Secondary deviance is misbehavior that can give a student a label that strongly harms how others perceive him. For example, getting into fights, drug use, and academic dishonesty often give a student a poor reputation that is hard to overcome. When this happens, the student’s status is linked to deviant behavior.

Fighting Deviance

Schools work to maintain social control of their campus by enforcing rules and norms. Doing this helps to maintain the social order and stability of the organization. Common tools used to achieve this include the use of sanctions, both positive and negative.


Positive sanctions are rewards; those familiar with behaviorism may be more familiar with positive/negative reinforcement. Negative sanction is the giving of consequences in behaviorism. Another term for this is positive/negative punishment. Another type of sanction is a formal sanction which is an official way of giving rewards or punishments. For example, citizenship awards might be a formal positive sanction, while suspension would be a formal negative sanction.

Theories of Deviance

Theories are several theories that attempt to explain deviance. Strain theory states that having a way to achieve a goal influences deviance. For example, no money for college may turn a student towards a life of crime as they see no other options. However, this is not the only potential response. Students may confirm and set aside their goal until an opportunity arises, if ever. Students may innovate, such as our example of turning to a life of crime. Students may lower their goal to achieve whatever they can, such as finishing high school and learning a trade. Students may also simply give up. Lastly, students may rebel with a desire to tear down the system. This last action partially explains the protesting in many places.

Strain theory does not have to deal with weighty issues such as going to college. Students can simply deviate because they are not allowed to go outside and play. As such, a teacher can anticipate certain behaviors from students through being familiar with strain theory.

Cultural deviance theory states that students may deviate if they conform to lower-class society norms. This implies a difference in class being a primary means of deviance. For example, students who grow up in gang culture will probably learn behaviors that are considered deviant by middle-class teachers. This will lead to problems in the classroom.

Cultural deviance theory is supported by at least two other theories. Differential association theory states that students learn deviant behaviors from others, and labeling theory states that those with power (teachers) determine acceptable behavior. Gang culture is considered deviant by most teachers, but whether this is considered deviant by gang members?

Lastly, control theory states that the strength of social bonds influences a student’s desire to perform deviant behaviors. In other words, students do not like to submit to strangers but will respond to people they know and respect.

Control theory proposes several ways to curtail deviant behavior. Attachment, if students are close to you, they will not want to deviate. Commitment, if you as the teacher are invested in the students, they will not want to deviate. Involvement, if you participate in activities with the students, they will not want to deviate. Belief, if students agree with what you want or think, they will not want to deviate.


Deviance is to be expected. Students want to push the limits, and it is the teacher’s job to deal with this. However, students need to learn from their mistakes so that their deviance does not become a major problem for them or the learning experience of others.

Theories of Motivation and the Classroom

Motivation is a crucial driver for success in education. This post will look at two theories of motivation and briefly connect them when appropriate to the classroom. These two theories are Manifest Needs Theory and ERG Theory.

Manifest Needs Theory

Henry Murray developed a theory of motivation called Manifest Needs theory. For Murray, needs are divided into two broad categories called primary and secondary needs. Primary needs are physiological needs, such as food, water, shelter, etc. Secondary needs are needs that people acquire or learn about through life. Examples of secondary needs are achievement, affiliation, etc.

This theory assumes that people are driven to satisfy these needs. If a student is talkative, they probably need affiliation. If a student is hard-working, they probably need achievement. People’s behavior is often an indication of what they need. There is an exception to this, and this is what Murray calls a latent need.

A latent need is a need that cannot be inferred by a person’s behavior. This is probably because the person is not able to satisfy this need. For example, a student may be disruptive because they are bored in class. The behavior indicates a need for affiliation, but the real need is achievement.

The point is that the behavior of a student can often be a clue to what motivates them. However, this comes with exceptions, as was already discussed.

ERG Theory

Clayton Alderfer took a different view of motivation. Alderfer proposes three categories of needs, which are existence, relatedness, growth. These three categories are where the acronym ERG comes from. Existence needs are physiological and material in nature, such as food, water, safety, etc. Relatedness needs are social and include esteem and interpersonal opportunities. Growth needs are related to personal development and include self-esteem and self-actualization.

These categories are ranked. In other words, existence needs must be met first, followed by existence, and lastly by growth. There are four different ways to move or stay in a particular category. Satisfaction progression involves satisfying the needs in one category and then focusing on the next category. For example, if food, water, and safety are taken care of, many students will focus more on relationships.

Frustration happens when people want to satisfy a need but cannot satisfying the needs that belong to a category. This can lead to over-focusing on the need. For example, a student needs attention and interaction but is told to be quiet in class. Being forced to be silent makes the need for socializing even stronger.

The third form is frustration regression. Frustration regression happens when a person cannot satisfy higher needs, so they double down on satisfying lower needs. If a student is not allowed to talk, they may focus on eating or drinking or asking to go to the bathroom. Since socializing is blocked, there is a greater focus on existence needs such as food and hygiene.

The final form is aspiration. This form explains the inherent satisfaction in growth. As people are allowed to grow, they become more and more satisfied with growing.


People are motivated by similar things, but there may be a difference in their behavior and how they satisfy their needs. As teachers, we need to be able to look at our students and determine ways to motivate them to succeed.

The Perceptual Process and Students

It is common for a teacher to see students staring off into space when they should be paying attention to the teacher. In this post, we will look at perception and its role in a student’s ability to focus in the classroom.


Perception is the process by which a person gives meaning to what they choose to pay attention to. This can be the words in a book that a person sees or the conversation a person hears while speaking with a friend. A student’s perception can take in information from peers, the teacher, or other sources such as a cellphone in the classroom.

Perceptual selectivity is the process of picking a specific stimulus to focus on among several competitors. As teachers, we want our students to focus on learning and or instruction when they try to determine what to focus on perceptually.

To further complicate things, different students will focus on other things, even when they are focused and paying attention. For example, if the teacher is demonstrating how to use lab equipment, some students will focus on the equipment while others will be focused on the teacher’s words. Those who focus on the equipment do not focus on the teacher, while those who focus on the teacher’s words do not see how to use the equipment.

Once a student has focused on the stimulus that a teacher desires, the student enters the next stage, perceptual organization. At this stage, students attempt to make sense of what they are focusing on. This can be instructions from the teacher or an assignment as examples.

Several factors influence what a student will focus on, and these can be grouped into two broad categories: physical properties and dynamic properties.

Physical & Dynamic Properties

Physical properties include size because the larger something is, the easier it is to focus on it. This is why visuals need to be large so that the students can focus on them. A second physical property is the use of contrast or opposing characteristics such as light and dark or small and big. Contrast also relates to visuals. A third physical property is novelty. Nothing will get a student’s attention, like doing something unexpected.

Dynamic properties involve things that change or have an order to them. Two examples are motion and repetition. Motion is self-explanatory, but one example of this for a teacher is to move about the classroom while teaching. This may help some students to focus as the act of motion prevents the zoning out of focusing on a static object. Repetition is another prominent dynamic property. If instructions are repeated several times, it helps with retention.

The properties mentioned above are external factors. However, there are also several internal factors, such as response salience and response disposition.

Response Salience and Response Disposition

Response salience is the habit of focus on objects that relate to immediate needs and or wants. This means that a student needs to be persuaded that focusing on an assignment and or the teacher is meeting an immediate need or want. Often, a student will not pay attention because they do not see the need to. Therefore, teachers need to make sure that they can connect whatever they need to do in the classroom with some immediate relevancy.

Response disposition is a person’s habit of noticing familiar objects faster when compared to unfamiliar objects. Naturally, familiar objects will be things that a student has already learned and or be exposed to. In the classroom, sometimes students will hear what they think they hear when the reality is that they are replacing what the teacher said with something they are more familiar with. For example, it is common for students to mix up directions and or complete assignments incorrectly. Math assignments are often done incompletely because students use the wrong tools to complete a problem. The tool they select is often from ones they are already familiar with rather than the new one they just learned.


It is easy for a teacher to jump to conclusions when a student is not paying attention and focused. However, a teacher needs to familiar with the processes that people, including students, use when deciding what to focus on in the classroom.

Motivating Students

It can be frustrating for a teacher to spend hours in preparation and planning activities only to have to students who have no desire to learn or enjoy the learning experience. There are ways to help students to be more motivated and engaged in their learning. This post will provide some basic ideas.

Types of Motivation

In simple terms, there are two types of motivation. These two types of motivation are intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive to do something or in other words to be self-motivated.

Extrinsic motivation is when the push to do something comes from outside of the person. Due to uncontrollable circumstances, the person is pushed to do something.

Each teacher needs to decide which form of motivation to focus on or whether to try and address both in their classroom. A teacher with more of a cognitivist view of teaching will probably lean towards developing intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, a teacher who has more of a behavioral view of teaching may focus more on influencing extrinsic motivation.

Ways to Motivate


Nothing motivates like having to help those around you. Getting students involved in their learning and in the management of the class often affects motivation. When students are called to help they realize that they have a role and that others are depending on them. This brings a naturally social pressure to fulfill their role.

Make it Relevant

Teachers often fall into the trap of knowing what’s best for students and sticking to teaching this. However, the student does not always agrees with what is best for them and thus are not motivated to learn.

To alleviate this problem, a teacher must provide immediate applications of knowledge. If the student can see how they can use the information now rather than several years from now they will probably be more motivated to learn it.

One way to develop relevancy is discovery learning. Instead of teaching everything in advance let the students work until they can go no further. When they realize they need to learn something they will be ready to listen.

Acknowledge Excellence

When students are doing good work, it is important to let them know. This will help them to understand what is acceptable learning behavior. People like positive reinforcement and this needs to come from a person of authority like a teacher.

A slightly different way to acknowledge excellence is simply to expect it. When the standard is set high often students naturally want to reach for it because they often want the approval of the teacher.


We have all faced situation when we were not interested or motivated to learn and study. It is important to remember this when dealing with students. They have the same challenge with motivation as we all do.

Critical Thinking Strategies

Developing critical thinking is a primary goal in many classrooms. However, it is difficult to actually achieve this goal as critical thinking is an elusive concept to understand. This post will provide practical ways to help students develop critical thinking skills.

Critical Thinking Defined

Critical thinking is the ability to develop support for one’s position on a subject as well as the ability to question the reasons and opinions of another person on a given subject. The ability to support one’s one position is exceedingly difficult as many people are convinced that their feelings can be substituted as evidence for their position.

It is also difficult to question the reasons and opinions of others as it requires the ability to identify weaknesses in the person’s positions while having to think on one’s feet. Again this is why many people stick to their emotions as it requires no thinking and emotions can be felt much faster than thoughts can be processed. Thinking critically involves assessing the strength of another’s thought process through pushing them with challenging questions or counter-arguments.

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

Debates-Debates provide an opportunity for people to both prepare arguments as well as defend in an extemporaneous manner. The experience of preparation as well as on the feet thinking help to develop critical thinking in many ways. In addition, the time limits of debates really force the participants to be highly engaged.

Reciprocal Teaching-Reciprocal teaching involves students taking turns to teach each other. As such, the must take a much closer look at the content when they are aware that they will have to teach it. In addition, Reciprocal teaching encourages discussion and the answering of questions which further supports critical thinking skills development.

Discussion-Discussion through the use of open-ended question is another classic way to develop critical thinking skills. The key is in the open-ended nature of the question. This means that there is no single answer to the question. Instead, the quality of answers are judged on the support the students provide and their reasoning skills.

Open-ended assignments-Often as teachers, we want to give specific detailed instructions on how to complete an assignment. This reduces confusion and gives each student a similar context in which learning takes place.

However, open-ended assignments provide a general end goal but allow the students to determine how they will complete it. This open-ended nature really forces the students to think about what they will do. In addition, this is similar to work in the real world where often the boss wants something done and doesn’t really care how the workers get it done. The lack of direction can cause less critical workers problems as they do not know what to do but those who are trained to deal with ambiguity will be prepared for this.


Critical thinking requires a context in which free thought is allowed but is supported. It is difficult to develop the skills of thinking with activities that stimulate this skill. The activities mentioned here are just some of the choices available to a teacher.

Teaching Reflective Thinking

Reflective thinking is the ability to look at the past and develop understanding and insights about what happened and using this information to develop a deeper understanding or to choose a course of action.  Many may believe that reflective thinking is a natural part of learning.

However, I have always been surprised at how little reflective thinking my students do. They seem to just do things without ever trying to understand how well they did outside of passing the assignment. Without reflective thinking, it is difficult to learn from past mistakes as no thought was made to avoid them.

This post will examine opportunities and aways of reflective thinking.

Opportunities for Reflective Thinking

Generally, reflective thinking can happen when

  1. When you learn something
  2. When you do something

These are similar but different concepts. Learning can happen without doing anything such as listening to a lecture or discussion. You hear a lot of great stuff but you never implement it.

Doing something means the application of knowledge in a particular setting. An example would be teaching or working at a company. With the application of knowledge comes consequences the indicate how well you did. For example, teaching kids and then seeing either look of understanding or confusion on their face

Strategies for Reflective THinking

For situations in which the student learns something without a lot of action a common model for encouraging reflective thinking is the  Connect, Extend, Challenge model. The model is explained below

  • Connect: Link what you have learned to something you already know
  • Extend: Determine how this new knowledge extends your learning
  • Challenge: Decide what you still do not understanding

Connecting is what makes learning relevant for many students and is also derived from constructivism. Extending is a way for a student to see the benefits of the new knowledge. It goes beyond learning because you were told to learn. Lastly, challenging helps the student to determine what they do not know which is another metacognitive strategy.

When a student does something the reflection process is slightly different below is an extremely common model.

  • what went well
  • what went wrong
  • how to fix what went wrong

In this model, the student identifies what they did right, which requires reflective thinking. The student also identifies the things they did wrong during the experience. Lastly, the student must problem solve and develop strategies to overcome the mistakes they made. Often the solutions in this final part are implemented during the next action sequence to see how well they worked out.


Thinking about the past is one of the strongest ways to prepare for the future. Therefore, teachers must provide their students with opportunities to think reflectively. The strategies included here provide a framework for guiding students in this critical process.

Learning Styles and Strategies

All students have distinct traits in terms of how they learn and what they do to ensure that they learn. These two vague categories of how a student learns and what they do to learn are known as learning styles and learning strategies.

This post will explain what learning styles and learning strategies are.

Learning Styles

Learning styles are consistent traits that are long-lasting over time. For example, the various learning styles identified by Howard Gardner such as auditory, kinesthetic, or musical learner. An auditory learner prefers to learn through hearing things.

Learning styles are also associated with personality. For example, introverts prefer quiet time and fewer social interaction when compared to extroverts. This personality trait of introversion my affect an introverts ability to learn while working in small groups but not necessarily.

Learning Strategies

Strategies are specific methods a student uses to master and apply information. Examples include asking friends for help,  repeating information to one’s self, rephrasing, and or using context clues to determine the meaning of unknown words.

Strategies are much more unpredictable and flexible than styles are. Students can acquire styles through practice and exposure. In addition, it is common to use several strategies simultaneously to learn and use information.

Successful Students

Successful students understand what their style and strategies are. Furthermore, they can use these tendencies in learning and acquiring knowledge to achieve goals. For example, an introvert who knows they prefer to be alone and not work in groups will know when there are times when this natural tendency must be resisted.

The key to understanding one’s styles and strategies is self-awareness. A teacher can support a student in understanding what their style and strategies are through the use of the various informal checklist and psychological test.

A teacher can also support students in developing a balanced set of strategies through compensatory activities. These are activities that force students to use strategies they are weak. For example, having auditory learners learn through kinesthetic means. This helps students to acquire skills that may be highly beneficial in their learning in the future.

To help students to develop compensatory skills requires that the teacher know and understand the strengths and weaknesses of their students. This naturally takes time and implies that compensatory activities should not take place at the beginning of a semester or should they be pre-planned into a unit plan before meeting students.


Strategies can play a powerful role in information processing. As such, students need to be aware of how they learn and what they do to learn. The teacher can provide support in this by helping students to figure out who they are as a learner.

Extrinsic & Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic and Intrinsic motivation are two extremes of a continuum of motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do something coming from outside of the person. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something coming from within a person. This post will explain some of the pros and cons of each type of motivation as they relate to education.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is an external force that compels someone to do something. For example, it is common for students to study in order to prepare for a test. The test provides an extrinsic motivation to study. If there was no test, the students probably would not study.

This leads to one of the first problems with extrinsic motivation which is its addictive nature. A student will get used to the extrinsic motivation and never become motivated themselves to complete a task.

Extrinsic motivation can also lead to either of the following. In some situations, extrinsic motivation can lead to a competitive classroom environment in which students try to outdo each other due to the pressure. In other situations, the students will band together to push back against the extrinsic motivation by the teacher. Either situation can lead to academically dishonesty practice such as cheating and plagiarism.

Generally, extrinsic motivation is negative. When people are doing something willing and then are told to do it they often lose motivation. This is because something that used to be done by choice is now forced upon them.

The only exception to this is positive feedback. When people are given compliments on how they are doing something it helps them to stick to the task.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to complete something coming from within. For many, intrinsic motivation is one of the ultimate goals of learning. Teachers often want students to develop a desire to learn and grow on their own after they complete their studies.

To achieve this, a teacher must become a facilitator of learning. A facilitator of learning is one who provides students with a context in which the students can set their own learning goals. A primary component of this is allowing choice in the classroom. Choice can be given in types of assignment, how to complete assignments or other ways.

There are also effective measures that can be taken. Examples include developing positive relationships with students, having a relaxing classroom environment, and increasing self-confidence.

Content-based and cooperative learning activities both provide opportunities for students to develop intrinsic motivation. The goal is to develop independent learners who can set their own goals and achieve them.


Motivation is necessary. The question is where will the motivation come from. In education both forms of motivation are present. However, the goal should normally be to strive for intrinsic motivation when this is possible.

Factors that May Affect Personality

Dealing with people or students involves dealing with personalities. Everyone has a unique personality that has varying degrees of similarities and difference from others. Those post will introduce some commonly proposed factors that shape and influence personality.


There is evidence that our personality is affected by our genetics. Thomas Bouchard published a paper on twins separated at birth and found that despite never meeting each other, the twins had very similar personalities. Indicating that there is more to personality than common family experiences.

It is no longer a question of if genetics influences personality but rather how much genetics influences personality. This has led to the controversy called nativism-empiricism, which is a scholarly term for nature vs nurture. Nativists believe that personality is primarily genetically determined whereas empiricists believe that personality is primarily determined by experience. 


Traits can be defined loosely as consistently displayed or performed behaviors. For example, some people show the trait of a love of sweets while others do not. The person with the trait for loving sweets will consistently enjoy eating sweet foods.

Traits are developed one of two ways. One way is through learning. For example, a person who loves sweet food may have been exposed to sweet food since they were born. Thus, the acquired a taste for it.

The second way is by genetics. For example, some people display are more emotional than others regardless of their background. One explanation of this is that their emotional character traits are a result of their genetic makeup.


Culture influences personality through prescribing what behaviors are acceptable. For example, different cultures have different rules in regard to marriage, raising children, food, money, etc. These norms restrain and promote various behaviors.

Again the argument here is not whether or not culture plays a role but rather how much of a role. Some personality theories believe culture is significantly important such as Erickson, Alder, and Horney.

Strange Assertion

Some of the more unusual proposed determinants of personality include the existential-humanistic considerations and unconscious mechanisms. Existential-humanistic considerations believe personality is shaped by how people give meaning to the situations they find themselves in. In other words, the individual shapes their own destiny by how they answer the big questions in life such as why am I here?, what happens when I die?

Unconscious mechanisms assert that personality is shaped by unconscious forces in childhood. Uncovering these forces involves the use of such techniques as hypnosis and dream analysis.


This post provided some explanations for how personalities are shaped and formed. Naturally, there are many more reasons for why people behave the way they do. However, the information provided here provides an introductory insight into why people act the way they do.

Theories on Motivation

Motivation is the desire a person has to do something. There have been many different theories that have attempted to explain motivation. This post will look at some of the lesser know theories that have helped to shape views on motivation. In particular, we will look at the following theories.

  • Drive theory
  • Expectancy-Value theory
  • Self-Worth theory
  • Views on Control

Drive Theory

Drive theory is one of the simplest and earliest theories of motivation. In drive theory, there are three critical component.

  1. A need is noticed
  2. The need leads to a drive to do something
  3. The drive causes a behavior.

An example of this is someone who has a need for food. This leads to a desire to eat which culminates in the person finding food and actually eating.

The simplicity of the model was actually one of the criticisms of it. Many people there was more to motivation than just these three components.

Expectancy-Value Theory

Another influential theory in motivation is the expectancy-value theory. This theory states that the amount of motivation a person has depends on the expectation of what the person will get if the complete the activity. If the person highly values the expected reward the will be highly motivated and vice versa.

For example, if a parent promises a child a new bike if they learn how to ride on two wheels. If the child highly values the new bike they will be highly motivated to learn to ride a bike on two wheels because of the expectation of the reward of a new bicycle.

Self-Worth Theory

Self-worth theory tries to explain motivation through how a person sees their own ability.  If a person believes they have high ability they will put forth high effort. This often leads to excellent results.

This means that the opposite is true as well. If a person believes that have low ability they will not try hard and they will produce poor results. The difference lies in how each person sees their ability level.


This last point involves a collection of related terms on motivation. Control has to do with a person’s perspective that they have authority over what they do and what happens to them. Two common terms related to control are locus of control and learned helplessness.

Locus of control has to do with a person’s perception of the control they have over their decisions and life. People with an internal locus of control believe they have the authority. People with an external locus of control believe that others control their destiny.

Highly motivated people have an internal locus of control and tend to be more assertive than people with an external locus of control.

Learned helplessness is a person becoming convinced that they cannot do something. This is often a result of an external locus of control. Individuals who accept a learned helplessness viewpoint are characterized by a lack of motivation and assertiveness.


Motivation is a critical part of teaching. This post provided insights into some basic concepts found in the realm of motivation.

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.

Behavioral vs Cognitive Perspectives on Learning Theories Part II

In the previous post, we looked at how the behavioral and cognitive schools of psychology address different issues or questions related to learning. In this post, we will look at the last four questions/issues that both behavioral and cognitive schools of psychology deal with when explaining learning. The questions are…

  • What is the role of motivation?
  • How does transfer occur?
  • What processes are involved in self-regulation?
  • What does this mean for teaching?

What is the Role of Motivation?

Behaviorists see motivation as an increase in the likelihood of a behavior. Therefore, if a behavior happens often it is because a person is motivated to do it. For behaviorist, there is no difference between learning and motivation. A person who is motivated to perform an action must already know how to do it according to this train of thought.

Cognitivists see motivation and learning as related but not the same. For them, people can be motivated without actually learning anything since the behavior is not automatically linked to motivation. Instead, motivation affects how information is processed.

How Does Transfer Occur?

Transfer is the application of knowledge or skills in new ways or in a different setting. In the behavioral school, transfer happens when the new and old environments are similar in nature. For example, if a person knows how to ride a bicycle they should be able to use these skills to drive a motorcycle.

The cognitive school states that transfer happens when people understand how to apply knowledge in different environments. The environments do not need to be similar. This is because cognitivists focus on how the information is remembered in the mind instead of the environment in which the knowledge is applied.

What Processes are Involved in Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to focus on attaining goals. Behaviorists believe that self-regulation occurs when people setup their own reinforcement. For example, if someone decides that they will eat their favorite food after completing a project. They are reinforcing their behavior by providing the food contingent on completing the project.

Cognitive approaches to self-regulation include monitoring one’s comprehension, rehearsal of content, and or attention. For cognitivists, it is not about reinforcement but making sure one understands what one is trying to process. Rewards and punishments are not necessary.

What are the Implications

Behaviorists emphasize stimuli response in the theories on learning. The theories that are developed from this perspective on most useful in explaining simple forms of learning such as word meanings and other forms of lower-level thinking.

Cognitivists propose theories related to information processing and memory networks. Their theories are strongest in explaining complex learning or higher level thinking.


The purpose was not to state that one school of thought on learning is superior. The goal is to see how a combination of behavioral and cognitive theories can be used to understand learning.  Seeing learning from both perspectives rather than one provides a fuller understanding of learning.

Behavioral vs Cognitive Perspectives on Learning Theories

In the study of learning, there are two major perspectives that attempt to explain the components of learning. The two perspective are behavioral and cognitive approaches. Behavioral approaches view learning as a behavior. The behavior is observable and can be measured. Cognitive approaches explain learning as the acquisition of knowledge and the processing of information.

In many ways, these two schools of thought on learning reflect the Greek philosophies studied in an earlier post.   Recall that realism was about the senses just as behaviorism is about seeing a change in behavior. In addition, idealism was focused on what is happening inside the mind just as cognitivism is.

There are several big questions in the field of learning theory that both of these perspectives attempt to answer. The questions are

  • How does learning occur?
  • What is the role of memory?
  • What is the role of motivation?
  • How does transfer occur?
  • What processes are involved in self-regulation?
  • What does this mean for teaching?

In this post, we will examine the first 2 questions. The next post will look at the last four.

How Does Learning Occur?

Behavioral theories stress the importance of the environment in encouraging learning. Behaviorists speak a great deal about stimulus response. The stimulus comes from the environment and the individual responds. Behaviorists see learning as an experience in reinforcement. Individual difference is not a major concern as everyone should act in a similar manner when facing similar stimuli.

Cognitivist agree with the influence of the environment in learning but downplay its role. For them, learning is about how students’ encode, store, and or transfer learning within their mind. The learner’s thoughts play an important role in their learning. Reflection and asking questions all play a part in the learning of students.

What is the Role of Memory?

Behavorists have a simple notion of learning. If some one remembers something it is because they are reinforced connection due to stimulus response. Forgetting for behavorists is caused from a lack of response to stimuli over time. Connections fade due to lack of use. For this reason, a teacher should review material occasionally to maintain the connections the students have developed. This will help in remembering what they learned.

Cognitivist see memory as the encoding of information in the mind. It is similar to storing data on a hard drive. From this perspective, forgetting is the inability to retrieve a memory. This can be caused by interference, lack of adequate mental triggers, or a loss of memory. These are all problems we sometimes face when dealing with computers. For teachers, this means helping students to organize what they learn and connect it to what they already know. By doing this, it assures that they will remember.


The goal is not to lift up one approach over the other. In reality, teachers should use a combination of the two approaches when appropriate to help their students. It is left to the teacher to know what will work and when as they try to help students to learn.

Structuralism & Functionalism

In the last post, we spoke of the work of Wilhelm Wundt and his groundbreaking work in psychology. One of Wundt’s students was Edward Titchener (1867-1927). Titchener is remembered for bringing Wundt’s ideas to America and for his significant role in the development of the school of structuralism in psychology.


Structuralism is the study of the structure of the mind. Adherents to this school of thought believe that the mind is made up of associations of ideas and that understanding the mind means breaking down these relationships into ideas.

To break down these ideas, Titchener used a form of self-analysis called introspection. An example of this is showing participants a picture of a table. The participant would not say it is a table but would rather describe the table such as its color, shape, size, etc. These descriptions of the table were the ideas associated with it.

This approach to experimental research was groundbreaking during its time but had problems. It was difficult for people to ignore the literal meaning of the images they say. Structuralists also struggle with explaining the meaning behind the associations they found. As such, this approach fell out of use.


Around the same time as Titchener functionalism was developed. Functionalism is people’s mental processes and behavior helps them to adapt to their environment. This school of thought was most heavily supported by William James (1842-1910).

The functionalist view was influenced by Darwin’s ideas of evolution. They focused specifically on the mind’s adaptability for survival. As such, this school of thought was a product of its times.

Functionalism focused on seeing the mind as a whole rather than in the discrete parts that structuralist used. For them, the mind and body worked together. Therefore, introspection was not popular with functionalist as it divided up the processes of the human mind. While structuralist were inwardly focused functionalists were outwardly focused.

The decline of functionalism was due to its lack of focus. Since it was a holistic view, it was hard to see what they were focusing on in regards to the mind. Any school of thought the studies everything eventually leads to understanding nothing.


Structuralism and functionalism were two of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. In many ways, these two approaches were complete opposites of each other. These two extremes laid the groundwork for many major schools of psychology to come.

The Psychological Study of Learning: The Beginning

The study of learning is relatively recent. This post will look at the birth of psychology and how the pioneers of this field laid the foundation for the study of learning.


Wilhelm Wundt

The first laboratory to focus on the study of psychology was opened by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) in Germany in 1879. Wundt’s goal was simple, to establish psychology as a legitimate science. At this time, psychology was seen by many as something akin to fortune telling and other black arts.

Wundt’s laboratory quickly became a meeting place for the top minds in this field. He started a journal to report psychological research and encouraged the shift from thinking about psychology ti performing experiments. This shift from rationalism to empiricism was a major change in psychology. Psychological studies were now investigated through controlled stimuli and responses.

Wundt, and his team of researchers investigated the perceptions, feelings, attention, and emotions of people. He was also a mentor to many psychologists who opened laboratories in the United States. Despite all if his pioneering work, Wundt’s laboratory never made any major discoveries in the field of psychology. A sad destiny of many great teachers.

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Hermann Ebbinghaus

Another major player in the early days of psychology was another German named Hermann Ebbinhaus (1850-1909). Ebbinghaus played an important role in establishing the experimental method. Again this is surprising to us in this day and age but experimenting was not established until work in such fields as psychology.

Ebbinghaus research focused on memory. He believed that learning happens through repeated exposure to whatever a person was trying to learn. He provided data through conducting memory experiments on himself. Naturally, such experiments led to questions of the validity of his studies. Nevertheless, his work was the first to look at memorizing in this way. However, Ebbinghaus results were later justified by the use of experimental methods.

The Impact

Our understanding of learning today would be stunted if not for the work of these to mentwoTheir major contribution is in establishing experiments as a legitimate way of collecting data in psychology. Today, this is one of the primary vehicles of data collection.

To this day, psychologist study the memory, perceptions, and feeling of individuals in due to the work of these men. Learning would not be defined the way it is if it were not for the work of these German gentlemen from the 19th century.

Defining Learning

The goal of most teachers is that their students learn in the classroom. However, a question to ask is what does it mean to learn? Another question to consider is how can we tell when a student has learned something?

It is not easy to answer these questions. Despite the challenge, there are several different criteria that can be considered to determine if a student has learned something. Three ways to see learning includes the following

  • Learning involves some form of change
  • Learning is something that endures over time
  • Learning occurs through experience

Learning and Change

The first criterion for defining learning is that it brings change. In other words, a student goes from acting or performing one way to another. For example, I child who cannot ride a bike eventually learns to ride the bike. The student moves from inability to ability and this is one example of learning. The actual process of acquiring the skill is not always clear but the outcome is clear. This criterion is for those who see learning as a behavioral process.

Learning Endures Over Time

When a student learns something the change should endure. How long is not always agreed upon and forgetting happens as well. Despite this, people who learn often remember what they learned for more than a few fleeting moments. Returning to our bicycle example, many people remember this skill for their entire lives. Even those who forget, they are able to quickly relearn the skill with some practice. In general, something that is learned is something that lasts.

Learning Happens through Experience

A common saying is that life is the best teacher. It is through experience and not theory that learning often occurs. For our bicycle example, the student did not listen to a lecture on riding bikes but went out there and rode a bike. It is through practice and observation that learning can also occur. The trials of life lead to reflection that modifies behavior in a way that is beneficial.


Learning involves change, time, and experience. These criteria helps people to make sense of the world and acquire new abilities. There is more to learning than just these three components. Whatever else is necessary, these components will apply in many situations in which learning occurs.

Constructivism & Curriculum

For some people, there is confusion over constructivism. For starters, constructivism is not considered a theory by many educators. Rather, constructivism is a philosophy that addresses the nature of knowledge and learning.

Constructivist see knowledge as always changing and being developed by the learner and is built upon the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and even Dewey. In this philosophy, the learner develops knowledge by building upon what they already know. The learner is actively involved in their learning as they interact with their environment and with other people.  In behaviorism, it is an external force that acts upon the learner but in constructivism, it is the learner who is acting upon the external environment. The student transforms the knowledge as the internalize it.

A curriculum that is heavily influenced by the philosophy of constructivism has students who are actively engaged in learning in a social environment. This includes such strategies as project-based learning, cooperative learning, and opportunities for problem-solving. For many, including opportunities for reflecting on learning experiences helps students to build knowledge is another aspect of constructivism.

Cognitive Psychology & Curriculum

Cognitive psychology is about how people learn and organize knowledge. The focus of cognitive psychologist is on the structure of the mind and the two types of memories, short-term and long-term memory.

There are many prominent educators who leaned toward cognitive psychology in their view of teaching. Montessori believed that struggling students lack intellectual stimulation. Piaget created a framework for cognitive development. More modern examples include Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences.

Whenever teachers adjust the curriculum to the intellectual development of the students this is due in part to the work of cognitive psychology. The most famous and practical example of this would be Bruner’s spiral curriculum. Students are exposed to the same themes and ideas but at varying levels of complexity over time. This sequencing of the curriculum is based in part on the intellectual capacities of the students.  Bruner’s work serves as an example of employing cognitive principles in curriculum development.


Connectionism is considered by many to be the foundation upon which behaviorism is based. Edward Thorndike is the developer of this concept of behavioral psychology. Thorndike, through conducting some of the first experimental research in the learning process, states that learning is the strengthening of the relationship between a stimulus and a response. A classic example of this is Thorndike’s experiments with animals. The animals were placed inside a puzzle box with a door that they had to learn to open. If they opened it they received a reward of food. The animals developed a connection between the lever for the door (stimulus) and the reward for opening it (the response).

This idea of connectionism came into curriculum as well. In many ways, behavioral objectives that are found in curriculum to this day can be traced to Thorndike’s influence.  The students perform the objective until they reach mastery. While they are repeating the behavior, the feedback they receive serves as an approximate response to the stimulus. With the growth in knowledge since the days of Thorndike, we have learned that behavior is not everything and that what happens inside the mind is important as well. Today there is more of an emphasis on cognitive approaches to learning. Despite this behavior is still has a major role in curriculum