Saturday, July 11, 2009

Applying Behaviorist Learning Theory to the Classroom

Behaviorism seems inextricable from the classroom. One significant goal of education, no matter what content area is being taught, is to teach behaviors that will help students be successful after school. In Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, and Malenoski explain how to use spreadsheets to help students track their effort. The point is to help students see that more effort equals higher grades. Their grades, and later in life, successes, are not tied to an uncontrollable element like intelligence, rather to effort, which is entirely in their control. Effort is an observable and measurable behavior, the focus of behaviorism. The behaviors students record are note taking, paying attention, participating, doing homework, and studying. When students see their grades increase with the increase of these behaviors, it is a positive reinforcement. The behavior will continue or increase.

Applying this technology to increase these types of behaviors is a strategy that will be very useful to me. I teach a class everyone has to take, high school English. The biggest block for many of my students is a lack of motivation. Each year, I have students who do not trust themselves to be capable, so they do not try. By explicitly teaching them that effort will increase success and using technology to change their study behaviors, I can help my students overcome some of their motivation issues.

Chapter ten in Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works focuses on homework and practice. The strategies in this chapter advocate using online collaborative sites such as wikis. The help students can receive from each other as well as fast feedback from the teacher can be a positive reinforcement. The "fun" and engaging factor of using technology for homework can also be a positive reinforcement for students to continue working on assignments.

Negative reinforcement strategies can also be very effective in changing or continuing certain behaviors. In the article From Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching and Technology, Melissa Standrigde defines negative reinforcement as removing a consequence that students find unpleasant. She listed things such as turning in all assignments on time resulting in the lowest grade being dropped. I give out reward tickets when students complete five ungraded homework assignments. The tickets can be turned back in for a choice of one five point homework pass or one time detention pass from me (negative reinforcement), or an item in a grab bag, use of a cushioned chair for a week, or use of the reading corner for classwork (positive reinforcement). Before I came up with the idea of the reward ticket, I could not get my students to do practice assignments that were too small for a grade. Now, the majority do these assignments.

Behaviorism is very useful for classroom management, improving study habits, and helping students make the connection between effort and success.


  1. From: Molly Streator


    I like the diversity of the reinforcements you use in your class. The range of academic and physical comfort choices are a good idea. I know that different things are important to different people and this is an effective way to reach each different type of person. The removal of a detention struck me as an excellent idea. Once a student receives a detention they sometimes feel like "oh well, I might as well make this worth it!" Your process gives them something to salvage in the situation if they have earned it. Do many students take advantage of this option?


  2. I am glad to read about a successful high school "behaviorism" practice. I have not taught HS and was wondering how the idea of rewards would work with them. You have some great ideas! I love the idea about the cushioned chair. I would save my tickets for that!

  3. Molly and Integration,
    It is funny that you two mentioned the appeal of the detention pass and cushioned chair. Those two are rather popular with my students. I find it funny that students who talk about saving reward tickets for a detention pass never actually need it. The times I have had students turn it in for that have been great. When he/she gives me the ticket, we have a short discussion about the behavior that earned the detention, and I tell the student I do not expect to have this issue come up again. There is no drama, and we go right back to class as if nothing happened. The last two years I have had this, none of the students who used the pass had given me more problems.

    The cushioned chair is especially cool for students since it is also on wheels. The most popular use of the reward tickets is the homework points.

  4. Shannon,

    I absolutely love your 'reward tickets'. I love positive reinforcement and it is so tough for me to get my students to complete their homework as well. I feel the same that the assignments are too small for a grade, but practice that is important for their success. This is a great idea and I think I will try to incorporate something similar in my classroom this coming school year.

    Thank you for the great idea!