Facilitating learning in practice
Facilitating learning in practice

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Facilitating learning in practice

1.1 Behaviourist learning theory

The two principles of learning identified in behaviourist learning theory – ‘classical conditioning’ and ‘operant conditioning’ – demonstrate that:

  • people are influenced by their environment
  • contiguity and reinforcement, whether positive or negative, are essential for the learning process.

Both principles focus on reinforcing certain behaviours through repetition and practice.

Figure 1 summarises the work of Pavlov and his salivating dog experiments.

Described image
Figure 1 Pavlov’s dog – an example of classical conditioning (‘UCS’ = unconditioned stimulus; ‘UCR’ = unconditioned response; ‘CS’ = conditioned stimulus; ‘CR’ = conditioned response)

Activity 1 Classical conditioning

10 minutes

Look at Figure 1 and then watch this video on Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment, which gives an insight into the sequence of events that are involved in classical conditioning. Spend some time reflecting on how you learn and retain information, and provide an example of how the principle of this theory could inform the learning support you offer to others.

Download this video clip.Video player: classical_conditioning_ivan_pavlov.mp4
Skip transcript


Behavioral psychologists have come up with new views not only of animal behaviour but of human nature, as well, and these views all concern a process we all take for granted, learning, because we are all truly born to learn. Ironically, one of the most important figures in the study of learning, Ivan Pavlov, wasn't concerned with the subject, at all, at least, not at first. Pavlov, a noted Russian scientist won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1904. As this original footage shows, Pavlov was initially interested in digestion and the action of the salivary glands. By diverting the saliva of dogs into test tubes, he could precisely measure if and how much they salivated during digestion. When food was presented the dog salivated quickly, an inherited salivary reflex. But over repeated testings, a strange thing happened, the dog salivated before contact with the food. Just the sight of the food was enough to stimulate the drooling. Then, just seeing the food dish or even hearing the footsteps of Pavlov or his assistants was enough to trigger this built in reflex.

What was going on to illicit this response? Pavlov decided to find out by systematically varying the stimuli and measuring the dog's reaction. Metronomes, lights and bells were all used as stimuli and they all worked as stand-in's for the food. What mattered was not the kind of stimulus that was used but the fact that it reliably signalled that food was on the way. Pavlov had discovered a fundamental type of learning called classical conditioning an original stimulus illicits an automatic, unlearned response both stimulus and response happen naturally, they are unconditioned. Then, a second, neutral stimulus that never illicits the unconditioned response by itself, is introduced just before the presentation of the original stimulus. If the neutral or signalling stimulus is presented alone and a response occurs as if the original stimulus was still there, we say that conditioning has taken place. The arbitrary neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus. The reverse is also true. Pavlov and others studied the extinction over time, of such conditioned responses.

When the subject learns that the conditioned stimulus no longer signals a desired event, the acquisition process is reversed, as the learned connection is gradually weekend. Pavlov's work and the work of those who followed him led to a remarkable conclusion, and that is, any stimulus an organism can perceive is capable of eliciting any reaction the organism is capable of making This means that virtually any sound, sight or smell can influence the way or muscles tense or relax, our moods fluctuate, or even the way our attitudes are formed. For instance, if I say, ‘relax’, and then do this (the speaker raises a gun and shoots a blank) you're going to be startled and upset. After five or six pairings of this stimulus, just saying the word ‘relax’ is going to generate a negative response rather than its usual learned reaction.

End transcript
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


You may have noticed from watching the video that Pavlov believed we are born with certain innate, unconditioned responses, such as salivating at the sight of food. Before we are conditioned, there is no salivation; therefore, there is no conditioned response (CR). Dogs naturally salivate at the sight of food, so this is an unconditioned response (UR).

After conditioning, Pavlov discovered that if he rang a bell every time he fed the dog, he could make the dog salivate just by ringing the bell in the absence of any food. The bell became the conditioned stimulus (CS) and salivation the conditioned response (CR).

Applying this theory to teaching is rather simplistic, because individuals do not respond to stimulus in the same way as animals. However, its principles can be useful to consider: in an education context, the behaviourist teacher is perceived as being in control of the environment and so directs the student learning. In a practice setting, the teacher provides a prompt that acts as a stimulus for the learner to carry out the activity. An example of Pavlov’s theory is the automatic learned response that is observed when a buzzer, emergency bell or pager is activated in the practice setting and a staff member instinctively responds to it rather than ignores it.

You will now move on to consider the other principle of behavioural theories – that of operant conditioning.

Activity 2 Operant conditioning

Allow 10 minutes

Look at Figure 2.

Described image
Figure 2 A rat in a ‘Skinner box’ (McLeod, 2007)

Now watch the Harvard University video below, from YouTube, on Skinner’s operant conditioning. Skinner observed that rats that were rewarded with food when they accidentally touched a bar eventually learned to press the bar intentionally. Provide an example of how this principle would inform the learning support you offer to others.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


You may have observed that behaviour is either reinforced by reward or weakened by punishment. Skinner’s work has contributed to the idea of maximising learning through positive reinforcement with a reward such as praise. The reward has to be given immediately and consistently to be effective; any delay in giving it renders it meaningless, because the reinforcement is not linked to the operant behaviour.

In teaching, Hinchcliff (2004) suggests that ‘social enforcers’ are required, such as smiles, nods and verbal encouragement, all of which can be given to the learner during or immediately after a successful event. Such action will encourage the learner to repeat the behaviour, as well as promote self -confidence. Walsh (2014) suggests that behaviourist approaches to teaching are very useful for teaching specific clinical skills in practice – for example, interpreting diagnostic tests, conducting a cognitive behavioural assessment and taking blood pressure, where repetition enables the learner to master the skill.

Simulation is another method of learning that has its roots in behaviourist theory. This relies on the principles of feedback, which should help the student progress towards a desired goal (Hinchliff, 2004) – for example, a competent performance of cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a mannequin. Many universities with nursing departments have increasingly sophisticated simulated environments where learners can express themselves more freely in learning specific skills in safety.

The next section on cognitive theories explores the work of Bruner and Ausubel.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus