Preparing for the Experiment, By Levorian - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Behaviourism At-a-Glance

Behaviourism is a learning technique that was popular from the late 1800’s until the mid-1970’s. Behaviorism got a bad rap in the 1990’s, when actress Mariette Hartley wrote about her bipolar disorder, her father’s suicide, and family dysfunction stemming from her maternal grandfather’s applications of Behaviourism. (Hartley’s grandpa was the infamous J.B. Watson, discussed below.)  

Behaviorism is appropriate for maintaining discipline in the classroom, but instructional designers are more likely to use behavioural design for corporate clients, rather than schools. Corporations and government prefer Behaviourism for legal reasons: It provides documented, objective observations by a Subject Matter Expert. For example, a driving examiner documents what she saw during a test on a standardized observation checklist, and determines if the subject met the passing standard. The examiner would not issue a driver’s license based on a subjective self-report, where the subject estimates on a Likert scale from 1 to 5 how competent he feels about driving. Corporations demand results-based learning that follow SMART rules, meaning a goal must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. We confirm learning actually occurred through test measurements. Corporations only have time to change observable behaviour, rather than motivation. Human Resources conditions staff by reinforcing good behaviour and weakening bad behaviour through feedback at annual performance reviews, like raises and promotions.

Does old-fashioned Behaviourism ever have a use for modern Instructional Designers?

The answer is a resounding YES! Behaviourism is still a suitable design choice for Skill and Drill teaching. Choose Behaviourism when the lesson involves psychomotor skills, when time is of the essence, and the student’s feelings and motivations are relatively unimportant. For example, when nurses must recertify their CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) skills in 4 hours to maintain their registration, the CPR instructor need not provide much motivation for the nurses. The employer declares CPR is a job requirement for nurses, and the hospital must ensure all nurses maintain the standard of care for accreditation. Coaxing by the CPR instructor is almost unnecessary, unlike a film director, who is expected to provide motivation for a cast of method actors.

Does research support Behaviourism?

If you do opt for a Behaviouristic design, then at least its long history of scientific research will bolster your decision. Let’s briefly examine the origins of Behaviourism:
  1. Russian doctor Ivan Pavlov performed behavioural research from about 1878 until 1936. Pavlov is best remembered for his dog experiments demonstrating the conditioned reflex. He taught dogs to salivate when they heard a certain sound cue, in anticipation of food. Pavlov won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1904.
  2. American psychologist Edward Thorndike was active from about 1898 until 1944. He is remembered for the Law of Effect, based on his observations of cats escaping from puzzle boxes. Thorndike’s law stated a positive reinforcement will make the subject repeat the behaviour, and a negative reinforcement will extinguish, or at least diminish, the behaviour. Thorndike authored The Teacher’s Word Book, a popular series for teaching children to read with Behaviourist methods.
  3. American John Broadus Watson (grandfather of Mariette Hartley) was active from 1903 until 1944. Watson conducted the infamous “Little Albert” fear experiment, which would be considered most unethical today. Watson also designed the stimulus-response Kerplunk experiment with rats in mazes. In his influential book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, Watson encouraged parents to treat children as adults, and not to display overt affection.
  4. Burrhus Frederic Skinner was active from 1931 until 1974. Skinner is remembered for showing the importance of immediate reinforcement in learning, demonstrated during operant conditioning experiments with pigeons and rats in Skinner boxes. Skinner’s major writings are: Behavior of Organisms, Walden Two, Verbal Behavior, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and Are Theories of Learning Necessary?

When can I use Behaviourism?

Use Behaviourism to teach psychomotor skills, such as keyboarding, driving, playing a musical instrument, or CPR.

Behaviourism is inappropriate when creativity, novel problem-solving, speculation, or intuitive decision-making is demanded, or if there is more than one correct answer. For example, Behaviourism is inappropriate for a “blue sky” lesson requiring engineering students to invent a new method of transportation.

So, to recap: Three pros of Behaviourism are that the outcome is (1) observable and (2) measurable and (3) conditioned by feedback. The instructor doesn't have to worry about what the students are thinking and feeling, but just needs to manipulate their behaviour. Behaviourism is good for teaching psychomotor skills within tight deadlines. 

How do I make a Behaviourist lesson?

  1. Specify the task to be learned, the conditions under which it will be performed, and the pass/fail criteria.
  2. Break the task into small easy steps, from simplest to most complex.
  3. Let your student perform each step in sequence.
  4. Reinforce your student’s correct performance.
  5. Adapt your training so your student continuously succeeds until reaching the final goal (mastery).
  6. Reinforce the learning intermittently to maintain performance.

Behaviourist Scenario

Mel is a zoo educator. Mel’s job is to encourage visitors to engage with docile animal species and discourage them from touching threatened species. Bob is a zoo visitor who likes to show off in front of his friends. The zoo’s administrator tells Mel there are too many baby rosy-legged tarantulas from a recent hatching, and they must be sold to raise money.

Mel plays mood music (Rauscher, 1993and a light show (Mannel Grangaard, 1995) in the Creepy Crawlies Pavilion to entice visitors. Mel wants Bob to touch a rosy-legged tarantula to encourage him to purchase one from the zoo’s gift shop. The stimulus for Bob is his desire to impress his friends during Mel’s demonstration (Karmarkar, 2011). 

When Mel asks for a volunteer, Bob’s response is allowing the tarantula to crawl up his arm. A positive reinforcement for Bob is the pleasurable silky feeling of this docile tarantula when he touches it (Wells, 2014). A negative reinforcement for Bob is Mel’s teasing that Bob is too cowardly until he touches the tarantula. Mel praises Bob enthusiastically in front of his friends for his bravery and open-mindedness when touching Rosie the Tarantula. If Bob subsequently buys a tarantula at the gift shop, then the lesson was successful (Nebenzahl, 2000).

On the other hand, Mel does not want Bob to touch a regal horned lizard because it is a threatened species. A positive punishment is the lizard shooting foul-smelling blood from its eyes when Bob touches it. A negative punishment is that the educator immediately turns off the mood music and light show everybody was enjoying when Bob touches the lizard. So, our unhappy Bob is left stinky, bloodied, and without a soundtrack for his life. His friends laugh at him. If, understandably, Bob later avoids horned lizards while on a hike, then the lesson was successful (Deci, 1999).

What jargon will make me sound knowledgeable about Behaviourism?

Try the following terms at

Classical conditioning; conditioned reflex; respondent conditioning; unconditioned stimulus; unconditioned response; conditioned stimulus; conditioned response; extinction; spontaneous recovery; discrimination; generalisation; deconditioning; desensitization; reinforcement; operant conditioning; Skinner Box; stimulus-response-reinforcer; chaining; negative reinforcement; positive reinforcement; fixed interval schedule; variable interval schedule; continuous reinforcement.

Where can I find out more?

  1. Deci, E. (1999, January 1). A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. American Psychological Association. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from
  2. Karmakar, U. (2011, September 19). Note On Neuromarketing ^ 512031. HBR Store. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from
  3. Mannel Grangaard, E. (1995, April 1). ERIC - ED382381 - Color And Light Effects On Learning., 1995-Apr. ERIC Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from
  4. Nebenzahl, I. D., Jaffe, E. D., & Kavak, B. (2000). Consumers’ Punishment and Rewarding Process via Purchasing Behavior. Teaching Business Ethics, 5(3), 283–305. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from
  5. Rauscher, F. (1994, August 1). Music and Spatial Task Performace: A Causal Relationship. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from
  6. Wells, V. (2014, January 1). The influence of behavioural psychology on consumer psychology and marketing. Journal of Marketing Management. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from
  7. Torre, D. M., Daley, B. J., Sebastian, J. L., & Elnicki, D. M. (2006). Overview of Current Learning Theories for Medical Educators. The American Journal of Medicine, 119(10), 903-907. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from 10.1016/j.amjmed.2006.06.037
  8. (n.d.). B. F. Skinner - Biography, Facts And Pictures. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from
  9. (2018, November 26). Ivan Pavlov and the Theory of Classical Conditioning. Exploring Your Mind. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from
  10. (2019, October 9). Edward Thorndike - Law Of Effect | Simply Psychology. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from
  11. (2019, October 9). Behaviorism | GSI Teaching & Resource Center. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from
  12. (2014, January 17). Examples Of Behaviorism. YourDictionary. Retrieved October 12, 2019, from
  13. Cherry, K. (2019, October 9). What Was The Little Albert Experiment?. Verywell Mind. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from
  14. Keramida, M. (2015, May 28). Behaviorism In Instructional Design For ELearning: When And How To Use - ELearning Industry. ELearning Industry. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from
  15. Skinner, B. (1950, January 1). Classics In The History Of Psychology -- Skinner (1950). Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from

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