Behavioral Theories Of Learning English Language Essay

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Learning can be defined as a change in behavior/performance that results in an inferred change in memory. Learning is the result of experience and is relatively permanent.

Example: Paul (pseudonym that will be used for students throughout my examples, because these examples are being taken from personal observations and I wish to protect the privacy of those involved) becomes anxious every time he sees a balloon. This anxiety is a learned behavior. He has learned to associate the balloon with a loud noise. This anxiety started when he was about three years old at a birthday party, several balloons were burst by other children close to him and he became very frightened. Although now 15 years old, he stills gets very frightened and upset if he sees a balloon.

There are two theories of learning: behavioral and cognitive

Behavioral learning theory- explains learning by looking at observable behavior

Cognitive learning theory-explains learning by concentrating on the mental processes that take place during learning

What Behavioral Learning Theories Have Evolved?

Learning theories were not really studied until the 19th century when Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike begin to do research on how people and animals learned; they were later joined by B.F. Skinner who wanted to know the relationship between behavior and consequences.

Pavlov: Classical Conditioning

In Pavlov's experiment he rang a bell as he fed some dogs several meals. Each time the dogs heard the bell they knew that a meal was coming, and they would begin to salivate. Pavlov then rang the bell without bringing food, but the dogs still salivated. They had been "conditioned" to salivate at the sound of a bell. Pavlov believed that humans react to stimuli in the same way as animals do.

So classical conditioning can be defined as a type of learning in which a stimulus can evoke a reflexive response that was originally evoked by a different stimulus. There are three different types of stimulus: unconditioned, neutral, and conditioned which evoke either an unconditioned or conditioned response depending on whether they happen before, during, or after conditioning.

Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS): a thing that can already elicit a response.

Neutral stimulus (NS): a thing that has no effect on a response.

Unconditioned Response (UCR): a thing that is already elicited by a stimulus.

Conditioned Stimulus (CS): a new stimulus we deliver at the same time we give the old stimulus.

Conditioned Response (CR): the new stimulus-response relationship we create by associating a new stimulus with an old response.

Pavlov's Experiment

Before Conditioning

During Conditioning

After Conditioning

Type of Stimulus or Response
















No response

So a UCS causes an UCR, when paired with a NS it becomes a UCS, that becomes a CS which causes a CR

Example: When I was young my family's home was robbed at gun point by a man I thought was my uncle. It was an unexpected and frightening experience. This event occurred at night and although a long time ago I often experience moments of dread at night, which result in insomnia. Even though I am safe in my home now, the night is so strongly associated with the fear I experienced in the robbery that I still sometimes can not sleep at night.

Example: Many beer ads prominently feature attractive young women wearing bikinis. The young women (Unconditioned Stimulus) naturally elicit a favorable, mildly aroused feeling (Unconditioned Response) in most men. The beer is simply associated with this effect. The same thing applies with the jingles and music that accompany many advertisements.

Thorndike: The Law of Effect - Thorndike's concept that behaviors followed by positive outcomes are strengthened, and that behaviors followed by negative outcomes are weakened. 

Example: I use an umbrella whenever it rains, because I have learned through experience that holding up an umbrella over my head in the rain keeps me dry, and that I don't use a pail or galoshes over my head to keep me dry in the rain, because I have learned that using them doesn't keep my head dry.

Skinner: Operant Conditioning-

Skinner believed that we behaved the way we did because the behavior had a certain consequence in the past.

So we can define operant conditioning as a form of learning in which the consequences of behavior produce changes in the probability that the behavior will occur.

Examples: If a girlfriend gives her boyfriend a kiss when he gives her flowers, he will be likely to give her flowers when he wants a kiss. He will be acting in expectation of a certain reward.

What Are Some Principles of Behavioral Learning?

Principles of behavioral learning include: the roles of consequences, reinforcers, punishers, immediacy of consequences, shaping, extinction, schedules of reinforcement, maintenance, and the role of antecedents.

The Role of Consequences

The rules of Consequences describe the logical outcomes which typically occur after consequences.

Consequences which give Rewards increase a behavior.

Consequences which give Punishments decrease a behavior.

Consequences which give neither Rewards nor Punishments extinguish a behavior.

Example: A student that finds math exciting will probably want to do more mathematics, however if they find it difficult or boring they will not want to it more often.

Reinforcers -a consequence (either positive or negative) that increases the probability that a behavior will occur.

There are two types of reinforcers primary and secondary.

Primary Reinforcers - a reinforcer that is biologically pre-established to act as reinforcement

Example: Food, water, and procreation are all primary reinforcers because they satisfy biological desires.

Secondary Reinforcers - are things that are paired with a primary reinforcer to the point where they have the same meaning as the primary reinforcer.

Example: In my class a saying "good job" has become a secondary reinforcer because it has been paired with the giving of a piece of candy.

Within the areas of primary and secondary reinforcers we have positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement occurs when something is added to the environment after a behavior that will increase the occurrence of a behavior.

Example of positive reinforcement of smiling: Stephan and Cody were two mentally disabled boys who seldom smiled at other people. Their teacher's aide would take them for walks, and if they smiled at passers by, she would give them some pieces of M & M's candy. This caused Stephan and Cody to smile much more often than they had before.

Negative reinforcement is when an aversive is applied, and then eliminated to increase the occurrence of a behavior.


The choke collar is loosened when the dog moves closer to the trainer.

The ear pinch stops when the dog takes the dumbbell.

The reins are loosened when the horse slows down.

The car buzzer turns off when you put on your seatbelt.

My nephew stops crying when his mom feeds him.

Premack principle- principle that states that a person is more likely to finish activities that they like than they are one's they don't like

Example: Ms. Johnson has been teaching for 20 years. She has learned that it is best to structure her class so that students complete the projects and activities that they really do not like first; only after completing these "disliked" activities can they engage in the projects and activities that they do like.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Reinforcers

Intrinsic reinforcer- these reinforcers come from within a person.

Example: It could be as simple as taking pride in finishing a task or a woman trying to finish an exercise routine feeling a sense of accomplishment, not because she receives a reward but simply because she is motivated enough to finish.

Extrinsic reinforcer- these are reinforcement that comes from an outside source, usually in the form of a reward.

Example: Our kids receive a sticker at the end of a good behavior day. This sticker is put on a sticker board which allows them to get a special treat at the end of the week.

Punishers- are consequence that decreases the probability a behavior will occur in the future.

Punishment - a consequence that follows an behavior that decreases (or attempts to decrease) the likelihood of that response occurring in the future

Types of punishment

Presentation punishment occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by an aversive stimulus, an unpleasant consequence, resulting in a decrease in that behavior.


The peeing on the rug (by a puppy) is punished with a swat of the newspaper.

A dog's barking is punished with a startling squirt of citronella.

A driver's speeding results in a ticket and a fine.

The baby's hand is burned when she touches the hot stove.

Walking straight through low doorways is punished with a knock on the head.

Removal punishment occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a favorable stimulus resulting in a decrease in that behavior.


Taking away a child's toys for fighting with his sister.

A parent telling their children that the car isn't getting any closer to Disneyland while they are still fighting.

A teenager being grounded for misbehavior.

Time-out -a type of removal punishment that involves removing a student from a situation that reinforces their misbehavior

Example: A student in our class escalates in her behavior whenever the other kids are laughing, so she has to have time-out in a room away from her audience.

Immediacy of Consequences-

The most important factor of behavioral learning theories is not how large, expensive, harsh or severe a punishment is put how close it occurs to the target behavior.

Immediacy of consequences requires that immediate feedback be supplied; in my class we use behavior charts to deal with the behavior, the actual consequence is given at a predetermined time interval (daily, weekly, monthly), the behavior can be dealt with almost instantly.

Shaping- teaching new behaviors by reinforcing small steps to a specified target behavior.

Example: Parent use shaping when potting training their children. They praise them profusely the 1st they use the pot by themselves, then each time after the child uses the pot by himself they only complement them.

Extinction- a decrease in the frequency of a response when it is no longer reinforced.

Example: One of my students' liked to pass gas loudly in class; the other students would laugh at this. We told them not to laugh and over time this habit has been extinquished.

Schedules of Reinforcements- when and how often a behavior will be reinforced.

Fixed-Ratio (FR) occurs when a response is reinforced only after a specified number of responses.

Example: Sales people who are paid on a "commission" basis may work feverously to reach their sales quota, after which they take a break from sales for a few days.

Fixed-Interval (FI) in which the first response made after a given time interval is reinforced.

Example: Mrs. Johnson gives her class an agenda that tells them the due date for all of their assignments is the first day of each month

Variable-Ratio (VR) occurs when a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses.

Example: playing the lotto or gambling

Variable-Interval (VI) occurs when a response is rewarded after an unpredictable amount of time has passed

Example: At unspecified times during a typical class, Mrs. Johnson praises Paul for staying in his seat and working quietly, unless he fails to do so.

Maintenance- after you have successfully made a change, you have to work to maintain this new behavior.

Example: After quitting smoking, it may be difficult for a person to be around people who smoke without being tempted. If a person is trying to maintain a new behavior, they have to look for ways to avoid temptation. They have to replace old habits with more positive actions, like exercising or taking up a hobby.

The Role of Antecedents what precedes a behavior is just as important as the consequences.

Cueing -


Different consequences may follow the same behavior in different situations. When we respond differently in those different situations, we have formed discrimination between the situations.

Example: Students are showing discrimination when they distinguish between behaviors that are appropriate for say the playing outside and playing inside.

Generalization- occurs when you respond the same to two stimuli that are not identical.

Example: My students are using generalization when they see a picture of a pit bull and recognize it as a dog and later while visiting the pet store they can also identify a poodle as a dog as well.

Techniques for Increasing Generalization

Writers Schloss and Smith describe 11 techniques for increasing the chances that a behavior learned in one setting, such as a given class, will generalize to other settings, such as other classes or, more important, real-life applications.

For example, math lessons on area can be transferred or converted to installing a deck on the back of the house or installing carpet into your room.

They further suggest that after initial instruction has taken place, there are many ways to increase generalization.

Repeat instruction in a variety of settings.

Helping students make a link between a new skill and a natural reinforcer in the environment so they can maintain the skill.

Directly reinforce generalizations.

How Has Social Learning Theory Contributed to Our Understanding of Human Learning?

Bandura: Modeling and Observational Learning

Observational Learning - Learning that occurs when a person observes and imitates someone else's behavior; also called imitation or modeling.

Phases of Observational Learning

Attentional Phase- if you are going to learn anything, you have to be paying attention. For example, copying someone else's style.

Retention Phase-you must be able to retain, remember, what you have paid attention to. For example, trying to draw what your art teacher has demonstrated for you.

Reproduction Phase- you have the ability to reproduce the behavior you have saw modeled. For example, continually trying to draw what your art teacher has drawn can possibly lead to an actual reproduction.

Motivational Phase- you have to have some reason for doing what the model is doing. For example, the art students will pay attention, retain, and reproduce the drawing because their teacher says good job and nice picture as they work.

Meichenbaum's Model of Self-Regulated Learning

Meichenbaum's model of self-regulated learning stresses the necessity of practicing modeled behavior by predicting the rewarding consequences of positive behaviors and the negative consequences of undesirable behaviors.

Meichenbaurn describes the steps of self-instruction as:

An adult model performs a task while talking to self out loud (cognitive modeling).

The child performs the same task under the direction of the model's instructions (overt, external guidance).

The child performs the task while instructing self aloud (overt self-guidance).

The child whispers the instructions to self as he or she goes through the task (faded, overt self-guidance).

The child performs the task while guiding his or her performance via private speech (covert self-instruction).

Similar to the Vygotskian approach to scaffold instruction, both approaches emphasize modeling private speech and gradually moving from teacher-controlled to student-controlled behaviors, with the students using private speech to talk themselves through their tasks. Encouraging self-regulated learning is a means of teaching students to think about their own thinking.

Strengths and Limitations of Behavioral Learning Theories

Firmly established basic principles

Limited in scope

Social learning theory as bridge between behavioral and cognitive theories