My Personal Experiences with Behaviorist Learning Theory

Over the years, I’ve had many experiences with Behaviorism, both as a student and as an instructor or facilitator. One learning scenario that presents the Behaviorist learning theory in practice is when I was taking a college course on sustainability and environmental studies.

Interestingly enough, the professor for this course took a Constructivist approach to learning. Some highlights included class debates, during which he would present topics such as global warming, carbon footprints, and political beliefs, and would challenge us to think differently about these topics:

  • What do you believe?
  • Why do you feel the way that you do?
  • What if you considered it from this perspective instead?
  • What is the problem with this scenario?
  • What behaviors or actions created this situation?
  • Are these actions and behaviors sustainable long-term? Why or why not?

This class also included a lot of field work using the Constructivist model. From touring solar farms to looking at pollution levels in local streams and soil samples, we would experience things for ourselves and ask open-ended questions. These chances to explore the world around us and develop our own perspectives through critical thinking remain some of the most memorable experiences from my college career, and profoundly shaped who I became as a person.

Although the majority of this class was taught using a Constructivist approach as outlined above, there were times when the professor switched to an approach that more closely aligned with Behaviorism. As discussed in my blog post on Behaviorism, Behaviorism has some key features, including: learning is observable, and behaviors are influenced by positive and negative reinforcement.

For instance, the professor used Behaviorism to teach use scientific approaches to measuring the acidity levels (pH) of soil and water in our local college town. These are scientific standards and there is a “correct” and “incorrect” procedure for collecting the samples as well as measuring their pH level. Doing this incorrectly would have negatively impacted our data for the class research project during our field study, so we practiced before we departed. The professor observed us, offering words of encouragement if we were doing it correctly as well as assisting those who were struggling.

Our final project consisted of us reading required learning materials and preparing a presentation for the whole class on why a particular person, belief, or topic was aligned with sustainability¬†or was in fact “unsustainable.” This is also known as the “discrimination” approach (Keramida, M.Ed., Marisa, 2015). We used our knowledge of statistics, scientific data and research, modern technology (thanks to our field studies) and mathematical formulations to make our determinations. The positive “reward” for correctly determining whether our particular research topic was sustainable or unsustainable was a high grade from the professor and approval or agreement from our classmates. In this situation, negative reinforcement would have included feelings of shame or embarrassment, a lower grade from the professor, and possibly even having to respond to challenging comments from disapproving/disagreeing classmates.

To this day, this particular class stands out as one of the most long-term beneficial (and interesting) classes of my entire college career. I’m grateful that my professor took a blended approach to learning. I think his class would have been much different if it had been solely Constructivist or Behaviorist. By skillfully using Behaviorism to help us understand scientific methods, memorize terminology, and grasp new information, he helped us gain knowledge that would allow us to better approach the Constructivist parts of the course.

If my own experience is to be used as an example, it shows just how much the blending of these methods allowed me to retain the information from the course. Over 15 years later, I still remember some of these facts, discussions and presentations as if they were yesterday!

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