Behaviourism is an objectivist learning theory that stems from the idea that all human behaviour is learned and focuses on observable and measurable behaviours. It states that behaviours are gained by ‘conditioning’ which happens through interaction with the environment.

Key Researchers

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)
Known for: Classical Conditioning, the stimulus-response model.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who fundamentally advanced our understanding of learning through his experiments with dogs.
His work established the principles of classical conditioning which demonstrated how behaviours are learned through associations between stimuli. In classical conditioning, a conditioned response is a learned response to a previously neutral stimulus. This process shows how behaviours can be influenced and modified through learned associations.

Pavlov’s work with the stimulus-response model, particularly through his experiments on classical conditioning, laid the foundations for Behaviourism.

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949)
Known for: The Law of Effect

Edward Thorndike developed the Law of Effect which observes that behaviours leading to positive outcomes are more likely to be repeated, while those leading to negative outcomes are less likely to be repeated. Through his experiments, he demonstrated that animals learn by trial and error, with successful behaviours reinforced by positive outcomes.

Watch: ‘Thorndike’s Puzzle Box’ [YouTube]

John B. Watson (1878-1958)
Known for: Being the founder of behaviorist theory, The Little Albert experiment

John B. Watson was an American Psychologist who emphasised observable behaviour over internal mental states and by analysing behaviours and reactions objectively was the best way to understand human behaviour.Watson also researched animal behaviour.
He coined the term Behaviourism and popularised its approach.

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990)
Known for: Operant conditioning

B.F Skinner introduced the concept of response rates in his theory of operant conditioning, where behaviours develop through consequence, emphasising reinforcement and punishment in learning. Operant conditioning, in contrast to classical conditioning, focuses on an individual’s self-initiated actions and how these behaviours are either reinforced or punished.

There are four key quadrants of operant cpnditioningh that shape behaviour:

  1. Positive Reinforcement
    This occurs when a behaviour is followed by a reward or positive outcome. For example, praising a student for answering a question correctly encourages them to participate more actively in class.

  2. Negative Reinforcement
    Here, a behaviour leads to the removal of an unpleasant stimulus. For instance, if a student studies diligently to avoid the stress of failing an exam, they are negatively reinforced.

  3. Positive Punishment
    In this case, an undesirable behavior results in an unpleasant consequence. For instance, a child touching a hot stove experiences pain, discouraging future stove-touching behavior.

  4. Negative Punishment
    This involves removing a desirable stimulus as a consequence of unwanted behaviour. For example, a teenager losing phone privileges due to breaking curfew serves as negative punishment.

Key Behaviourist concepts applied to learning design

The process through which behaviours are learned by association.
In learning design, it involves creating stimuli that elicit desired responses.
There are two types:

Classical Conditioning (learning through association)
Where a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a meaningful stimulus, eliciting a similar response. For instance, in Pavlov’s experiments, dogs naturally salivated at the sight of food (an unconditioned stimulus). By pairing this with a neutral stimulus (the ringing bell), Pavlov showed that the dogs learned to associate the two. Eventually, the bell alone triggered a conditioned response or reflex.

Operant Conditioning (learning through consequences)
Where behaviours are strengthened or weakened based on rewards or punishments.

A strategy to encourage a desired behaviour by offering positive reinforcement (rewards) or negative reinforcement (removal of an unpleasant stimulus). This is crucial in eLearning to motivate learners and reinforce positive behaviours.

This involves introducing an adverse outcome or removing a positive one to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring. While less common in learning design, it is used to discourage undesirable behaviours.

This concept is fundamental in behaviourism, where a stimulus (an event or object in the environment) triggers a response (the behaviour). Learning design utilises this by creating specific stimuli to evoke desired learning responses.

This occurs when a response to one stimulus is elicited by similar stimuli. In eLearning, this can be used to help learners apply knowledge to different but related contexts.

This involves learning to respond to specific stimuli but not to others, which can help in focusing learning efforts on particular areas or skills.

This is the process of linking two stimuli or a stimulus and a response together, which forms the basis of learning through classical conditioning.

The implications of behaviourism
for instructional design

Learning objectives
Behaviourism promotes the setting of measurable learning objectives which guide instructional content and assessment design.

Breaking down complex tasks
When applied to instructional design, behaviourism involves dividing complex tasks into a smaller, more practicable steps and by providing immediate feedback following a response.

Positive reinforcement
Using positive feedback to encourage learning.

Repetitive practice
To reinforce desired behaviour, instructional designers can provide learners with opportunities to practice through various activities.

Strengths and limitations of behaviourism
in self-directed eLearning


Clear objectives
Establishing specific learning objectives and assessment criteria will provide a clear understanding of the knowledge and skills that should be acquired through undertaking the eLearning.

Structure and sequence
By ‘chunking’ learning content into sections/topics should make the content more manageable for the learner.

By defining desired behaviours and conditions, behaviourism focuses on what is observable and measurable which facilitates monitoring of progress and evaluation.

Behaviorism encourages the use of feedback to inform learners about their performance.

Behaviourism emphasises practice to consolidate learning and facilitate its transfer to new contexts


Limited Focus on Higher Cognitive Skills
As behaviorism predominantly focuses on observable behaviours and external stimuli-response connections, it may overlook essential higher cognitive abilities like critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

Learning Scenario

With behaviourism as the primary learning theory

Objective: Teach high school teachers to use a range of differentiation techniques in their classrooms through an eLearning platform.

Stimulus: Teachers access an interactive eLearning module that presents various differentiation strategies (e.g. tiered assignments and activities, flexible grouping and learning stations). Each strategy is explained with examples and short video demonstrations.

Response: Teachers engage in interactive exercises where they apply each differentiation technique. They also complete quizzes and reflective activities to reinforce their understanding.

Observable Behaviour

To assess learning, observe the following behaviours:

  • Teachers correctly implementing differentiation techniques in the virtual simulations.

  • Completion of short assessments in the form of quizzes, demonstrating comprehension of differentiation concepts.

  • Participation in discussion forums where teachers share their insights and experiences with differentiation strategies.

Types of Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement

Teachers receive immediate feedback on the quizzes, highlighting correct implementation of differentiation techniques.

Negative Reinforcement

Teachers who struggle with quizzes or simulations receive hints and additional resources to enhance their understanding.

Personalised feedback is provided to guide improvement in applying differentiation techniques effectively.

Detailed Example

Interactive Module

  • Teachers learn about tiered assignments through an interactive presentation (stimulus).
  • They then apply this technique in a virtual classroom scenario (response).
  • Immediate feedback indicates successful implementation, reinforcing correct application (positive reinforcement).

Quiz and Reflection

  • Teachers take a quiz on learning stations after watching a video demonstration (stimulus).

  • Those who score below a certain threshold receive additional study materials and can retake the quiz (negative reinforcement).

3. Discussion Forum

  • Teachers discuss their experiences with flexible grouping in a forum (stimulus).

  • Positive feedback from peers and moderators reinforces successful application of the technique (positive reinforcement).

By leveraging positive reinforcement through immediate feedback and negative reinforcement by providing additional support, the online course ensures effective learning and application of differentiation techniques among high school teachers.

Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction is a framework designed to enhance the learning process by following a structured sequence of nine steps.

  1. Gaining Attention
    Capture the learners’ interest through stimuli such as a surprising fact, question, or multimedia.

  2. Informing Learners of the Objective
    Clearly state the learning goals and expectations.

  3. Stimulating Recall of Prior Learning
    Help learners make connections by reviewing previous relevant knowledge.

  4. Presenting the Content
    Deliver the new information in a structured and comprehensible manner.

  5. Providing Learning Guidance
    Offer strategies to assist learners in understanding and retaining the new material.

  6. Eliciting Performance (Practice)
    Encourage learners to apply the new knowledge through exercises or activities.

  7. Providing Feedback
    Give immediate, constructive feedback on learners’ performance.

  8. Assessing Performance
    Evaluate learners’ understanding and skills to ensure they have achieved the learning objectives.

  9. Enhancing Retention and Transfer
    Use activities that reinforce the learning and facilitate the application of knowledge in different contexts.


Learning Theory


Instructional Design Models


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