Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Behaviorism in the Classroom

This week I have been reading about the behaviorist learning theory and how it relates to reinforcing effort and homework and practice. Dr. Michael Orey explains the behaviorist learning theory as being focused on changes in behavior that are caused by stimulus-response associations (2001).

In Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, it is suggested that students keep track of the amount of effort they put into their work through the use of a rubric and excel spreadsheet (Pitler, 2007). Now, I think this is a great idea! Not all students come to school ready to put in hard work, so it is important that schools teach these skills and traits to our students. The idea of monitoring success on an excel spreadsheet directly correlates with the behaviorist learning theory. The sample rubric used in Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works has categories such as class notes, attention, and participation, in which students rate their effort. They then keep track of this information on an excel spreadsheet, along with their academic grades on quizzes and tests, to see the correlation between the two. In this case, students are under going operant conditioning, which is when satisfying responses are learned to be repeated and unsatisfying responses are not (Orey, 2011). (See a funny clip from the Big Bang Theory that illustrates operant conditioning at:       

If students see that as their effort goes up, so do their grades, they are more likely to repeat their actions when it comes to effort. If they see that a lack of effort correlates with low grades, they may desire to change their behaviors. I think this activity has great potential. While I believe there will still be students out there who do not gain a positive outlook from this approach, it will be more beneficial than not. As an educator, it is our job to give students tools for success in order to become life long learners, and this activity would be a great way to help students engrain the idea that effort goes with success. Has anyone tried teaching effort? Was it successful?

As for homework and practice, the very idea of giving homework aligns with the behaviorist learning theory. The behaviorist learning theory promotes repetition. According to Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, in order for students to reach eighty percent proficiency on a skill, they need to practice the skill approximately 24 times (Pitler, 2007, p.188). Pitler suggests using multimedia and web resources to enhance homework and practice. (An example of a multimedia website schools can sign up to use is First in Math. Whereas, an example of a web resource is Math Playground.) Multimedia and web resources allow students to complete skill and practice type activities through technology. In return, technology can allow for differentiation and monitoring of student progress. While I do not use technology as a required part of homework since some of my students do not have access, I assign math homework practice nightly. My worry is that some students practice skills incorrectly, thus internalizing the skill incorrectly, as Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works explains can happen if teachers do not provide feedback quickly (Pitler, 2007). While I review concepts before assigning homework and immediately the next day, I know some students are learning concepts incorrectly. How do other teachers handle homework and avoid internalizing of incorrect methods?

Orey, M. (Ed.). (2001). Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from

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


  1. First of all, love the addition of the Big Bang Theory clip. Classic. Second, I concur with your analysis that while the textbook makes this behaviorist approach sound flawless and appealing, there are dents in the armor. Some high school students will not respond to certain attempts at operant condition no matter how hard we try. There are students that will never become fully invested in school because the lack of support at home prevents them from doing so. However, like you said, there is no harm that can come from attempting this approach. There is little risk and high reward. Great post!

    1. I agree with you, support at home is so important for student success. Some students will not respond to behaviorism ever (such as students with oppositional defiance disorder). I think the post important thing about learning theories, is that we need to use multiple theories to reach all of our students, since everyone is different.

  2. The clip from The Big Bang theory was a perfect addition to your blog. I also like that you mention there might be some students that will not gain from this. Although it may not work for everybody, as educators we frequently need to attempt new ideas and then revise them for our own classroom environment. It is importnat that even thought these ideas sound great in theory, we need to keep in mind that each student is an individual. Currently, I have four students that I work with on a behavior chart. Each student has different goals throughout the day and is required to achieve a different number of stars. For one of these students, he does not have a set rewaard. It started off with a piece of candy, but I have foudn that he does not always work towards that goal. It has been determined that each day if he chooses his own goal, we have a much more successful day. The behaviorist theory is a great idea, but flexibility is the key to having it work.

  3. I loved the You Tube video clip from The Big Bang Theory! I actually could relate to some degree and feel we do the same type of operant positive conditioning with our students. The positive verbal affirmations we give students each day is a lot like the chocolate from the video clip.

    I believe if you are giving students feedback everyday for the previous night's homework you are catching incorrect methods very early and then can work a few more practice problems in class that day. You could then spot check students work in class to check for misunderstandings. My daughter is in Algebra II this year as a freshman and her class grade is only based on assessments (24 total for the year) which are broken down by skill. They can continue to take the assessments until they pass them with an 80%. She receives no grade for her homework and at first I was concerned she would not complete it if she received no credit, however, she completes it every night because she has observed her success on her assessments are directly related to the practice her homework provides. This is a perfect example of behaviorism in a math classroom.