Overview of Behavioral Theories

Behaviorism, along with several newer variations that have names like information processing theory, emphasize the learning of facts and skills that authorities, such as teachers or school boards, have decided are important. While these theories have many different names we will use the term behaviorism here. Names associated with behaviorism include John Watson, an American psychologist who was very influential in the 1920s and 1930s, and B. F. Skinner (, another American psychologist who had a tremendous impact on education in the 1950s and 1960s. Behavioral approaches to teaching generally involve the following:

General Implications of Behavioral Theories

Behavioral teaching and learning tends to focus on skills that will be used later. You learn facts about American history, for example, because it is assumed that knowing those facts will make you a better citizen when you are an adult. You learn basic mathematics computational skills because you may need them when you get a job. Behavioral learning does not, however, generally ask you to actually put the skills or knowledge you learn into use in a "real" or "authentic" situation. That will come later when you graduate and get a job.

The behavioral emphasis on breaking down complex tasks, such as learning to read, into subskills that are taught separately is very common in American schools today. In the elementary school classroom, for example, students may spend many lessons on phonics skills such as consonant clusters, vowel digraphs, and diphthongs. Other literacy skills such as appropriate uses of the comma may also be taught in separate lessons, often by whole class lectures followed by individual drill activities.

Types of Instruction of Behavioral Theories

Behavioral theories support a number of different approaches to teaching. Almost all of them fall under the general category of "direct", or "teacher-centered" instruction. The approaches include tutorials, drill and practice, behavioral simulations, and programmed instruction. An approach that combines all these teaching strategies into one "system" is called an "integrated learning system" or ILS.

The sections below explain several popular types of behavioral instruction. The explanations are, however, very brief. You may want to explore the links in each section that take you to examples of the different types of software. "Playing" with the software will give you a much better feel for what drill and practice or behavioral simulation software are.


Examples of Behavioral Theories Classroom Activities





Programmed  Instruction


Graphic Organizer/  Semantic Web 



Integrated Learning Systems 




Additional Information

Behaviorism As A Learning Theory

The author of this web page traces human behavior back to 'the beginning' - Aristotle at 400 BC. She then discusses the main ideas, impact of behaviorism on instruction, and impact of behaviorism on instructional technology.


Behaviourist Perspective

This web page provides information on the exponent/originator, overview, applications, examples, principles of operant conditioning.

URL: http://www.oltc.edu.au/cp/04j.html

Operant Conditioning

The theory of B.F. Skinner is based upon the idea that learning is a function of change in overt behavior. Changes in behavior are the result of an individual's response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. Reinforcement is the key element in Skinner's S-R theory. This web page includes a Quicktime video clip of Skinner discussing his theory.

URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~tip/skinner.html

B.F. Skinner

This web page covers the following topics:

URL: http://education.indiana.edu/~cep/courses/p540/skinner.html

Major Philosophical Paradigms as they are applied to education

In the "Comparing the Two Dominant Contemporary Paradigms" section of this web-based article, the author points out the following points:

URL: http://www.educ.drake.edu/romig/educ350/paradigms.html

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