Thursday, March 10, 2011

Behaviorism in Practice

Edward Thorndike called it the stimulus-response theory of learning. Skinner labeled it operant conditioning. Still others refer to it as the theory of behaviorism.  No matter what name you choose to use, the conditions are the same: engage a learner in a concept, repeat the concept in various forms, and positively reinforce students when objectives are obtained (Smith, 1999).

Introducing a new concept, and having students retain that information, can be challenging for teachers. The variation of learning styles and levels in the classroom can increase the difficulty of successful retention.  According to Marzano, “students need about 24 practice sessions with a skill in order to achieve 80% competency (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007). With this in mind, it is evident that a student’s success is based on the amount of time spent connecting back to the initial concept.  A coach always emphasizes that practice makes perfect.  A teacher should base their emphasis on the fact that practice makes permanent.  Practice trains the brain to connect this knowledge to future concepts.

Teachers must provide time for students to apply what they have learned.  This practice can be obtained in various ways.  The traditional homework assignment gives students the opportunity to practice what they have learned independently. Allowing time in class to begin homework assignments allows teachers to monitor the understanding of their students. This initial feedback can limit any immediate misunderstandings that a student may have.  To accommodate the different styles of learning, teachers must build homework assignments that fit the needs of each individual, while still working to achieve the established goals of the lesson. Incorporating collaborative work sessions with specific group structure can accommodate the special needs of various students.

Technology is a tool that can enhance skills by implementing various styles of practice.  The internet has a variety of resources that accommodate multiple disciplines.  This can be found in a gaming format, tutorial sessions, interactive simulations, or a set of drills, such as math equations.  The benefit of using these sources is the immediate feedback that is given to a student.  The other benefit is that students can continue to use this practice outside of the classroom, and it engages them in media tools that they are familiar with. This familiarity to technology engages students in their learning and motivates them to continue practicing their skills. Other forms of practice that technology assists with are student projects. Research and presentation are ways for students to continue to apply the concepts that they have learned.

With any sort of practice comes reinforcement of learning. This reinforcement is a critical component to successful and accurate retention.  Teachers are faced with many responsibilities that sometimes postpone the immediate feedback given on homework assignments. Technology minimizes this delay. The quicker a student is able to see their success, the easier it is for them to begin to retain the new concept. The theory of behaviorism is a strategy that can be implemented by every teacher, not just for classroom management, but as a way to achieve successful retention in learning.


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

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


  1. In reading through your outline of the steps involved in behaviorist learning in the first paragraph, do you think that it should also first involve breaking down a concept into its basic parts, after which the process requires following the steps of learning each of these parts through repeated and varied practice, then connecting the parts into a much larger whole? The learning process in any subject seems to be a gradual addition of more and more information and skills through practice and reinforcement, which is then interspersed with connecting the new information in useful ways and as you progress into higher skills/content the previous ones form a part of the foundation for the next level. For example, the brain surgeon did not start out learning how to master brain surgery. His learning began long before he even knew about brains, but the various pieces of information that he learned throughout his educational life eventually come together to assist him when he is operating. In fact, many of these skills and content have become so ingrained through repeated use and practice that people many times do not even realize they are using them.

  2. Jennifer,

    "Teachers must emphasize that practice makes permanent." I really like this quote. It reminds us as educators that students need many opportunities to actively participate before learning connections are made. According Dr. Patricia Wolfe, educational consultant, the brain is good at connecting with things its seen and experienced versus things only heard (Laureate Education, Inc. 2010). This emphasizes the need for us to ensure that learning be active!

    You are correct, homework allows students to independently practice but I have always wondered how to address the issue of correcting misconceptions when it is not always feasible to check homework immediately the next day. Your suggestion of having students begin their homework in class is wonderful! Some educators may criticize and say that there is not enough time in the day to begin with so using precious time to start homework is irresponsible. To those critics, I say this can be done the last 5-10 minutes of the day or during bus call. We need just enough time to make sure students understand the concept. If you identify a misconception and do not have enough time to correct it before the student leaves I would either tell that student not to do the homework that night or call the parents to let them know what I discovered and give them ideas how to help their child with the misconception at home. Either one of those decision would be better than having a student practice something the "wrong way" because as you pointed out they will make wrong connections which will hurt them in the long run.



    Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2010). Program two. Brain research and learning [Webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Baltimore, MD: Author.

  3. Behaviorism is part of our daily lives. We have been conditioned to stop at red stop lights and go for the green ones long before we sit behind the wheel of the car. This is the 'homework' of driving, in my opinion. As you stated from the text, students need at lease 24 practice sessions in order for at least 80% mastery to take place. I feel, however, at the third grade level assigning technology homework is next to impossible. This is due to the fact that many of my students are not allowed to access the internet as much as I once thought. I sometimes spend much of my time convincing parents that it is a part of the assigned homework and their child must complete the task. So, I have taken this technology practice piece and incorporated it into my lessons. I spend time in the computer lab providing my students with drill and practice sessions on (I have referenced it on my blog in depth- in case you are interested.) These practice sessions allow for a higher motivated learning opportunity to occur, all the while students are participating in practice for their learning.

  4. Many times, in the area of science, concepts build from each other. A lecture that incorporates a new concept will later become the basis for a particular process. It is essential that information is repeated and practiced frequently to prepare for larger concepts. In class practice is ideal for maintaining a clear understanding of the information. Although all assignments cannot be completed in class, supportive resources can be supplied through a teacher website or textbook site. The use of podcasts that emphasize key concepts from daily lessons can be beneficial to the extended learning and practice of the student. In order for students to have access to this technology at home, parents must be supportive and recognize the internet as a positive tool that can expand the knowledge of their students. Teachers should recognize the dangers of the internet and educate their students on the proper use of class resources at home. This behavior should be learned in the classroom, yet it should be practiced at home with the support of the parent. Technology can support all learners if all support systems work together towards a common goal: the future success of our children.