The behaviourist orientation to learning

Acknowledgement: The picture - server farm - is by sugree and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. /sugree/3024637789/.

The behaviourist orientation to learning. The behaviourist movement in psychology has looked to the use of experimental procedures to study behaviour in relation to the environment.

John B. Watson, who is generally credited as the first behaviourist, argued that the inner experiences that were the focus of psychology could not be properly studied as they were not observable. Instead he turned to laboratory experimentation. The result was the generation of the stimulus-response model. In this the environment is seen as providing stimuli to which individuals develop responses.

In essence three key assumptions underpin this view:

  • Observable behaviour rather than internal thought processes are the focus of study. In particular, learning is manifested by a change in behaviour.
  • The environment shapes one’s behaviour; what one learns is determined by the elements in the environment, not by the individual learner.
  • The principles of contiguity (how close in time two events must be for a bond to be formed) and reinforcement (any means of increasing the likelihood that an event will be repeated) are central to explaining the learning process. (Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 126)

Researchers like Edward L. Thorndike build upon these foundations and, in particular, developed a S-R (stimulus-response) theory of learning. He noted that that responses (or behaviours) were strengthened or weakened by the consequences of behaviour. This notion was refined by Skinner and is perhaps better known as operant conditioning – reinforcing what you want people to do again; ignoring or punish what you want people to stop doing.

In terms of learning, according to James Hartley (1998) four key principles come to the fore:

  • Activity is important. Learning is better when the learner is active rather than passive. (‘Learning by doing’ is to be applauded).
  • Repetition, generalization and discrimination are important notions. Frequent practice – and practice in varied contexts – is necessary for learning to take place. Skills are not acquired without frequent practice.
  • Reinforcement is the cardinal motivator. Positive reinforcers like rewards and successes are preferable to negative events like punishments and failures.
  • Learning is helped when objectives are clear. Those who look to behaviourism in teaching will generally frame their activities by behavioural objectives e.g. ‘By the end of this session participants will be able to…’. With this comes a concern with competencies and product approaches to curriculum.

See, also: learning · the behaviourist orientation to learning · the cognitive orientation to learning · the humanistic orientation to learning · the social/situational orientation to learning


Hartley, J. (1998) Learning and Studying. A research perspective, London: Routledge.

Hergenhahn, B. R. and Olson, M. H. (1997) An Introduction to Theories of Learning 5e, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Skinner, B. F. (1973) Beyond Freedom and Dignity, London: Penguin.

Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge.

Watson, J. B. (1913) ‘Psychology as the behavourist views it’, Psychological review 20: 158.

Acknowledgement: The picture – server farm – is by sugree and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. See

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The behaviourist orientation to learning’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1999 

Last Updated on October 19, 2019 by