Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Behaviorist Learning Theory in the Classroom

This week's blog looks at how different instructional strategies from our text Using Technology with Classroom Instruction line up with behaviorist learning theory.  The two chapters covered this week were "Reinforcing Effort" and "Homework and Practice."

Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn & Malenoski (2007) make a generalization that not all students realize the importance of believing in effort.  In my own 7th grade class, we were discussing just last week how important effort is, and how effort (my students used determination instead of effort) really is the main driver of being successful.  An effort rubric is presented in after the generalization is made, and it is not only an excellent tool for students to become experts at recognizing their effort level, it is also an example of behaviorist theory, as following the rubric repeatedly will lead most likely lead to success.  I believe this because as Smith (2009) states, learning is helped when objectives are clear.  If a student knows exactly what effort looks like and is able to repeat a behavior over and over based on clear expectations, positive reinforcement is taking and will take place.

Also regarding effort, Pitler et al (2007) suggest using Microsoft Excel for students to track their own performance, showing another example of a positive behavior being reinforced.  Students will naturally aim to do better, and will be able to see visually their progress.  The only other suggestion here would be for struggling students.  Varying levels of difficulty or adding in a homework graph that correlates with a quiz graph may motivate students who typically score low on quizzes, and where showing quiz grades only, for example, may only reinforce a hopeless direction for the student.

Pitler et al (2007) shows in Chapter 10 "Homework and Practice" that mastering a skill requires focused practice.  This reinforcement of a concept through homework also falls in line with behaviorist learning, as the right process to solve a problem is reinforced.  As long as homework is relevant and is reviewed, the practice will help strengthen knowledge of a topic.  I give 10 points per homework assignment in my math class, checking student homework while they work on a "Do Now" activity each morning.  I scan the homework, focusing on a particular problem or looking for quick overall comprehension.  Students only need to attempt each problem to earn credit, and correct any problems when I give the answers.  Students seem to be conditioned to attempting the problems, and now I am working on students correcting the problems when I give the answers.  Students who follow my directions have a solid homework grade and do well on their weekly quizzes and unit tests.

Since I am a math teacher, I searched for any lessons or information linking math and behaviorism.  I came across this Green Beaners website that has some interesting math lessons and information on Skinner and behaviorism.  Check it out!!

You can navigate back to the Green Beaners home page and find more information.


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

Smith, K. (1999). The behaviourist orientation to learning. In The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from, K. (1999). 


  1. Hi,

    Having your students plot their efforts against the work they produce is an excellent strategy to track performances and to reinforce with your students that effort does in most cases correlate with success.

    I also think that this strategy will also quickly highlight strengths and weaknesses in teachers delivery of particular units and this process and can add student input to PLC's when discussing class performances. Do you plan on using the data that you collect from your students in this way?

    Best Regards,

    Tom Varnham

  2. Hi Tom,

    Absolutely. As students track their own performances, the next question would be why students are missing certain problems, and if there are consistencies across the class. It could very well be the case that a concept needs to to be taught a different way or was not quite effective the first time around.