Definition: Behaviourism

As part of my Certificate in Emerging Technologies for Learning, I am studying 4 popular learning theories. The first theory I am discovering is behaviourism.

I have read an article by Melissa Standridge hosted on the Department of Eduational Psychology and Instructional Technology wiki, from the University of Georgia.  The article begins with a definition of behaviourism, which was stated as:

Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable and measurable aspects of human behavior. In defining behavior, behaviorist learning theories emphasize changes in behavior that result from stimulus-response associations made by the learner. Behavior is directed by stimuli. An individual selects one response instead of another because of prior conditioning and psychological drives existing at the moment of the action (Parkay & Hass, 2000).

The article then proceeds with a summary of the work from behaviourism advocates. Much of this work was conducted through experiments on animals.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think at this point.

Work conducted by Skinner involved an approach known as operant conditioning.  Melissa writes:

His model was based on the premise that satisfying responses are conditioned, while unsatisfying ones are not. Operant conditioning is the rewarding of part of a desired behavior or a random act that approaches it. Skinner remarked that “the things we call pleasant have an energizing or strengthening effect on our behavior” (Skinner, 1972, p. 74). Through Skinner’s research on animals, he concluded that both animals and humans would repeat acts that led to favorable outcomes, and suppress those that produced unfavorable results (Shaffer, 2000). If a rat presses a bar and receives a food pellet, he will be likely to press it again. Skinner defined the bar-pressing response as operant, and the food pellet as a reinforcer. Punishers, on the other hand, are consequences that suppress a response and decrease the likelihood that it will occur in the future. If the rat had been shocked every time it pressed the bar that behavior would cease.

While it seemed briefly amusing to think of students as experimental rats in a lab (classroom), the final sentence of this paragraph got me thinking:  “Skinner [B. F. (1904-1990)] believed the habits that each of us develops result from our unique operant learning experiences (Shaffer, 2000).”  I am currently reading Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University and so I am immersed in learning theories around constructivism.   Biggs’ (2007) states:  “All [forms of constructivism] emphasise that the learners construct knowledge with their own activities, building on what they already know.  Teaching is not a matter of transmitting but of engaging students in active learning, building their knowledge in terms of what they already understand.”  I wonder if these two learning theories compliment each other in some small way.  I’m not quite sure how to define or articulate the link at this point – its just getting too late.  Will need to give this further thought.

Reflecting on my own prior teaching activities, I have employed behaviourist tactics in my classes without even realising it. One of the key aspects of success with behavourism is to understand your learners desires and to select highly attractive and valuable reinforcers.  As Melissa puts it:  “They change behaviors to satisfy the desires they have learned to value.”

Some of the behaviourist designs I have employed include:

Chocolate bars

When I was teaching network security, there was a particular module of learning that students found difficult to remain engaged in.  Without the opportunity to make changes to the design of this learning module, instead I attempted to improve engagement in the material and the class activities through small rewards of the confectionery type.  The class activity was question and answer sessions where I would go around the room soliciting solutions from students.  Those who got the answers correct would receive a chocolate reward.

It was mildly effective.  In subsequent offerings, I redesigned the learning activity which proved more effective.

1Gb Memory sticks

Similar to the situation of the chocolate bars, I made a competition of the question and answer time and kept a tally of correct answers for students.  The top two students received a free 1Gb memory stick.  At the time, 1Gb was quite large, and being IT students, it was an attractive item.  This was more effective than the chocolates.  Seems it was a better reinforcer than the confectionery.

Access to a desirable learning activity

When I was teaching data communications, I included an activity that was popular with students.  The activity was for students to be hands-on with creating their own network cables using Cat 5e UTP cable, connectors and a cable crimper. I organised for network engineers and support staff from the university’s networking team to volunteer their time in my class, and assist with the learning activity.  I split students into groups, and then assigned them a mentor from the volunteers.  Each would then guide the students through the process of connectorising their computer cables. On completion, the students would then attach their cable to a tester and determine if the cable was connectorised correctly.

The first time I ran this activity, students were unable to recall the order in which the individual wires were to be connected, despite setting it as homework.  This delayed the activity and quite a few students resulted in faulty cables.

To improve on this situation, the next time I ran this activity, I set the homework to rote memorise the order of the wires.  They are colour coded.  The students were told that they would have to recite the order of the coloured wires from memory before they were permitted into the activity room.

On the day, I went around the room asking students the order – those who had it correct from memory were permitted into the adjacent room to commence the activity.  Those who couldn’t remember, would have time to revise, and after cycling through the class, I would return to them.  Three quarters of the group had it correct first time round.  The activity ran to schedule and there was only 1 faulty cable at the end.

Similar results were repeated in the following offering of the course. This proved to be an effective design.  Also on reflection, with the inclusion of the volunteer mentors, it was a form of cognitive apprenticeship. 🙂

Desire to win

It had been suggested to me that nothing will bring out the inner fire of a geek more than a little healthy competition.  This was in response to queries about how to improve engagement from the students.

When I was teaching System Administration, I was looking for a way for students to develop problem solving skills, and at the same time, gain a deeper understanding of how the UNIX shell parses and executes commands.  So I set a challenge and divided the class into two groups.  As teams, they were required to write a UNIX shell command that would perform a specified set of actions with the greatest efficiency, and the minimum exec system calls.  My apologies for the non-geek reader. 🙂

There was no prize but the glory of being the winner.  Boy were they right.  The students engaged with gusto, searching through documentation, man pages, howtos (even espionage) to come up with the ideal solution.  The winners had bragging rights for weeks to come.  It was also encouraging to see that the score difference between the two groups was by only 1 point, and the winning team’s score was only 1 point short of my own model solution.

It seems to me that behaviourism is not the trendy learning theory of the day, yet in certain circumstances, I believe they can be quite effective.  It is not something however I would use to underpin an entire course design.


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