Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Behaviorist Theory: A Place in the Classroom

The Behaviorist Theory:  A Place in the Classroom
The behaviorist theory, according to John Watson (in Smith, 1999), proposes the stimulus-response model as the way to study the effects of the environment on an individual’s responses.  Contrary to the psychologists view, behaviorists are concerned with observable and measureable aspects of human behavior (Orey, M., 2010).  According to their conjecture, human behavior is learned and can also be unlearned and replaced by new behaviors.  This is good news for me as a teacher.  Prior to my recent research, I understood the behaviorist view to be the environment, as it is, acting upon the learner. I now understand that the manipulation of the environment is what will trigger the desired response as in a rewards and punishment scenario.

This week’s resources provide many examples of ways behaviorism can positively affect learning in the classroom.  I now recognize that I use many of these practices regularly in my classroom to motivate and engage my students.  The website, Education Resources for K-8 Students follows James Hartley’s (in Smith, 1999) four principals essential for learning:  activity, repetition, reinforcement and clear objectives.  Students type the answer to a clearly stated question, receive instant feedback, and monitor their progress through a graphic tally.  After using this website and another website, Brain Pop, to support grade level skills, my students confirmed Hartley’s theory.  When asked why they were engaged, their response was that they liked the challenge of a time limit to respond to the content and the repetitive practice inherent in the game content.  Furthermore, they enjoyed being able to monitor their progress as they answered questions and the immediate feedback and support they received after answering a question.

In addition to student engagement, Pitler, Hubbell, and Kuhn (2007) assert that the degree of effort a student puts forth has a direct correlation to that individual’s success. As a teacher, it is my job to help my students understand this principal and provide motivation to increase their effort.  I can use an Excel worksheet to support this endeavor.  As recommended by Pitler, Hubbell, and Kuhn (2007), students record their effort grade and correlating achievement grade using a point scale on an Excel spreadsheet.  Next they plot their results on a comparison bar graph.  As the proponents of behaviorism suggest, by providing this visual stimulus, students are then motivated to increase their effort to improve their grade. 

Repetitive practice is an integral component of behaviorism.  Hubbel, Huhn & Malenoski (2007), report in order for students to reach proficiency, they need 24 practice sessions with a skill in order to achieve 80 percent competency.  Student engagement is often lost through boring, laborious repetitive paper/pencil practice. Well planned student or teacher created Power Point games that include hyperlinks and action buttons ascribe to the behaviorist theory of how students learn best.  One example of this is the BattleGraph PowerPoint Game created by Sarah Grabowski Lodick in which students identify and graph x- and y-coordinates to find enemy ships and defeat the opponents.   The Starfall website is another excellent example of how drill and practice can be engaging for students while targeting specific phonics skills. 

My new understanding of the behaviorist theory supports my present practices of providing incentives for my students to become active participants in their learning.  Through my research, I have acquired a new arsenal of strategies and technology based tools to ensure best effort, engagement, and positive attitudes toward learning.

Brain Pop (1999-2011).  Brain Pop - Animated Educational Site for Kids. Retrieved March 9, 2011 from

Grabowski, L. (n.d.).  Battlegraph PowerPoint Game.  Retrieved from

Online Basic Skill Games. (n.d.). Jefferson County Schools, TN. Retrieved March 6, 2011, from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Smith, K. (1999). The behaviorist orientation to learning. In The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from

Starfall's Learn to Read with phonics. (n.d.). Starfall's Learn to Read with phonics. Retrieved March 6, 2011, from


  1. I use the spreadsheet model in my classroom to track our progress with learning math facts. We take a math facts test three times a week, which consists of every operation, and how many facts they can do correctly in four minutes. The tracking and visualization of the tracking is a good motivator for the students, as they like seeing visual proof of their progress.

  2. As part of teaching graphing, my students engage in a stock market unit. Each student picks a stock, records its profits and losses weekly and graphs it using a line graph. Rather than do this by hand, we could use an Excel spread sheet. We could also do comparison bar graphs of the competing stocks.

  3. Keeping track of progress is an excellent strategy related to behaviorism. Although I don't use an Excel spreadsheet, my students record their scores in a bar graph every day after completing a timed math fact practice. Seeing their score in a graph form is a great way for students to visually see their progress. The program our district is currently using, Saxon Math, is an excellent program that greatly focuses on repetition of material as well as a daily drill and practice. So far, testing has shown this program to be highly effective and the constant revisiting of material is excellent for students. Also, receiving that immediate feedback each day serves as a motivator to do better the next day.

    I enjoyed reading your in-depth explanation of the resources. I look forward to incorporating some into the curriculum!