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Research on Behaviorist versus Cognitive Theories of Learning

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2979 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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What is learning? Are there different types of learning? What affects a students learning? Why do some learn differently than others? These are just a few of the questions that educators, parents, and students themselves have posed for centuries. It is without a doubt a very complicated topic. The author of this paper attempts to alleviate some of these questions by addressing the differences between behavioral and social learning theory along with the necessity of using cognitive strategies to aid in the learning process.

Name of Theorist

Name of Theory

Main Concepts

Research Conducted

Ivan Pavlov

Classic conditioning

Neutral stimuli + unconditioned stimuli = a learned conditioned response (Slavin, 2009)

How it may look in a classroom: students should be given many opportunities to master a task before moving on to another task. For example, if they are learning to multiply single digit math problems, a student must master this before moving on to multiplication of two-digit problems.

Research was conducted in 3 stages

Stage one: An unconditioned stimulus (US) (food) solicited an unconditioned response (UR) from the dog (salivation) (Slavin, 2009).

This stage further showed that a neutral stimulus (NS) (bell) would elicit no response from the dog.(Slavin, 2009)

Stage 2: A conditioned stimulus (CS) (bell) was paired with the dog food (US) which caused the dogs to salivate (UR) (Slavin, 2009).

Stage 3: The dog was trained to salivate (CR, conditioned response) at the sound of a bell ringing (CS) (Slavin, 2009).

E. L. Thorndike

Law of Effects

Favorable consequences to behavior elicit petition of this behavior (Slavin, 2005)

Unfavorable consequences likewise will result in the behavior less likely being repeated (Slavin, 2005)

How it may look in a classroom: teachers should use real-life experiences to teach and connect concepts for students. For example, life skills students will learn the importance of money buy actually participating in purchasing things from vending machines and stores.

This can also apply to science concepts. Students can better connect with it through experiential activities (Slavin, 2005).

Cats were placed in puzzle boxes; on accident the cats learned how to escape (Slavin, 2005).

After repeatedly getting out they learned that if they went through the puzzle boxes, they gained freedom (Slavin, 2005).

B. F. Skinner

Operant Conditioning

Reinforcement of behavior = frequent repetition of this behavior (Slavin, 2009)

Unrewarded (punished) behavior = decrease in repetition of the behavior (Slavin, 2009).

How it may look in a classroom: students that are on time to class receive class bucks; tardy students do not. I have found that those students that receive the class bucks that they can spend on things like free time, homework buyouts, and restroom passes, strive to earn more bucks.

Skinner boxes used to train animals. The boxes consisted of a bar that the animals had to press to dispense food (Slavin, 2009).

What are the differences between the behavioral learning theory and that of the social learning theory? Which theory offers the best insight into how developing children learn? To determine answers to these questions, the factors of behavioral learning theories must be weighed against those of social learning theories.

Behavior learning theories are centered on the idea that learning takes place because of numerous opportunities to experience a particular event. This event is believed to permanently change the said behavior. Behavioral theories fall under one of two categories: classical or respondent conditioning and operant conditioning.

The classical/respondent conditioning theory, as demonstrated and made famous by Pavlov’s experiment, believes the behaviors that we exhibit are one’s that are learned by associating one thing to another (Cherry, 2005b). This idea of reflexive conditioning was happened upon by Pavlov as he studied dog’s digestion (Cherry, 2005b). . Within his study of how much a dog salivated at the sight of various things, food and non-food items, Pavlov and his assistant noted the amount of saliva that was produced (Cherry, 2005b). . In doing so they found that dogs automatically or reflexively responded to the item placed in front of them, food or non-food, after being presented with them intermediately for some time (Cherry, 2005b). This response he believed was based on conditioning or automaticity, which made it purely physiological (Cherry, 2005b). . His idea of conditioning was extended to human conditioning by James B. Watson (Cherry, 2005b). .

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Watson and his associate Rosalie Rayner wanted to test the theory of classical conditioning on humans in regards to phobias, to see if they would elicit similar results. Watson’s experiment was based on a little boy name Albert (Beck, 2001). When Watson and Rayner, first met Albert he was not afraid of a white rat, after a short time with them he was afraid of mice and other furry items (Beck, 2001). The experiment introduced a loud noise that startled the young boy as he played with the rat. This sound scared the young boy so much that he started to cry and subsequently exhibit fear when he saw a rat or anything furry. This proved for them that Pavlov’s idea that an unconditioned stimulus would cause an unconditioned response and finally that this unconditioned response paired with a conditioned stimulus would elicit a conditioned response, or a reflexive action (Beck, 2001). They believed this made the Pavlovian theory of conditioning plausible and accurate for humans as well.

The operant conditioning theory of B.F. Skinner focuses on learning based on the behavior and the consequences of the behavior. Skinner’s beliefs were greatly influenced by E. L. Thorndike’s idea of Law of Effect. The Law of Effect, also a conditioning theory, was based on the premise that if an unconditioned stimulus’s response is paired with a pleasant event than the response is stronger and more likely to be repeated. Likewise if the stimulus result is paired with a negative event, then the event is weaker and less likely to be repeated. Skinner found this a useful tool in understanding reflexive behaviors that occurred and further strengthened his idea that behavior was strengthened by a reinforcer or weakened by a punisher (Cherry, 2005a).

Reinforcers are either positive or negative. Positive reinforcers occur after said behavior and are positive outcomes for the behavior; whereas negative reinforcers are negative outcomes as the result of a behavior (Cherry, 2005a). Whether negative or positive the behavior will increase. Punishers whether negative or positive will decrease a behavior (Cherry, 2005a). Positive punishers employ using an unfavorable event to decrease behavior; negative punishers happens when the event is taken away in order to weaken the behavior that has occurred (Cherry, 2005a).

Social learning theories contrary to behavioral theories focuses on learning that takes place due to the observation and modeling of behaviors, attitudes, and emotions exhibit by others around them. Albert Bandura, considered one of the authorities within this theory, believed that behavioral learning could not explain all the types of learning (Cherry, 2005c).He said, “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do (Cherry, 2005c).”. He further argued that learning had to have some social element to it to be successful. He stated that, “Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action (Cherry, 2005c).” The ideals of Bandura and other social theorists are broken down into three basic concepts that explain the various types of behavior: observational learning, modeling process, and intrinsic reinforcement (Cherry, 2005c).

Observational learning states that learning takes place through observation (Cherry, 2005c).The author’s three-year-old nephew learns much of his mannerism and behaviors by watching his family around the house and others at church. He has learned to work on a computer by watching her do her work weekly, to the point of imitating exactly how she holds her hands when typing and the tapping of her fingers at her desk when she is in deep concentration. This idea of observational learning is so strong according to theorists that it can be achieved through live observation, verbally through instruction, or symbolic (displayed through another media) means.

Intrinsic Reinforcement goes against the ideal that behavior is reinforced by extrinsic reinforcement only (Cherry, 2005c).Social theorists believed that a great deal of behavior and learning will be based on intrinsic factors, which give the learner a sense of pride and accomplishment. Bandura believes this is one of the most important factors that separates the social learning theory from behavioral theories and makes it more of a cognitive social approach (Cherry, 2005c).

The Modeling Process hinges on the person that is doing the modeling of a said behavior and the observer and must follow certain steps. Firstly, in order for a person to learn they must pay attention to the model otherwise there will be negative ramifications. Therefore the modeling must be memorable and hold the attention of the observer. Next, the observer must have the ability to retain the information that is observed. Thirdly, one must be able to pull the information from their memory in order to practice the skill further. Lastly, the learner must be motivated enough to use the behavior they saw modeled (Cherry, 2005c).This step models show some similarities to behavior thoeries in that the use of reinforcers and punishers are cruicial to motivating the learner. For example, if a students observes another student receiving class bucks for participation they are more likely to participate as well (Cherry, 2005c).

Social theories and behavioral theories are similar yet different. Both of the theories believe that learning and behavior are connected yet each feel differently about whether the learning that each elicit is permanent. Social theories disagree that all learning leads to a change in behavior, in fact they believe that new things can be learned without forming new behaviors (Cherry, 2005c).




Picture walks –

Students are guided by their teachers through a compilation of pictures that illustrate the story line. This allows them to connect to the text as they read.


Students predict what they believe will happen in the story and read to test the factualness of the prediction (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).


Students take the new information that they have learned and combine it with their prior knowledge to come up with a new idea or new thinking about the subject (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).

KWL charts

It allows they information to be organized before, during, and after reading

Making Inferences

Students are able to use their prior knowledge to think outside the box and draw conclusions about the text for deeper meaning (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).

Making Connections

Students draw upon their own schema to understand the text they are reading (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).

Text-to-self allows the reader to connect to their own lives and experiences to draw meaning

Text-to-text allows the reader to call upon their knowledge from other text to show understanding of content

Text-to-world allows the reader to make a connection with more global and bigger issues within the text and the real world


This strategy allows students to skim or scan the text when they are looking for specific information and are uncertain if the text contains it (Harvey, 1998).


Allows students to better understand the text or problem solve by forming a picture in their minds.

Students are able to understand more of the text as they go along with the support of their teacher (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994).

Alternate ending

Students prove that they have comprehended the various parts of the story by writing an alternate ending which fits in with the rest of the story nicely (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).


This strategy is a relevantly simply one in that it allows students to write down, call out or categorize the things that they know about a particular concept or idea.

The process allows all students of all levels process time to develop these ideas.


Readers are able to move through the text and interact with it more as they search for answers to their questions (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).

Allows students to monitor their comprehension and construct meaning (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000).


Learning is a complex process by that requires much of the learner. All of the learners’ behaviors, attitudes, knowledge and gained information factor into whether true learning has taken place. The study of cognition aims to help us understand how learning takes place and the various processes that we go through to achieve it. Students may not understand the how and why of cognition, so it is the teacher’s job to teach them strategies to make certain that they have good cognitive skills or skills for thinking about learning. The chart above has outlined the various strategies that students can use before, during, and after reading to strengthen comprehension, but how does this cognitive strategies in general help students learn?

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In order for strategies to work for students they must be aware of why they need to think about the thinking that takes place as they learn (as cited in Purdue, n.d., ch.7). Simply put, it is the way that they can take ownership of their own learning and it is what makes them good and great learners. Garner further establishes that setting purposes for learning, solving problems, self-regulating, monitoring, and self-assessment of their learning are all ways in which students can show that they have good cognitive skills (as cited in Purdue, n.d., ch.7).. The above strategies are just some of the ways that Garner says that students are able to organize, study, review, practice, and finally master various skills (as cited in Purdue, n.d., ch.7). Teachers must show them how to use these strategies to their advantage to learn. There are some things that educators can do to help them students develop these cognitive skills, thus helping them become independent thinkers and learners.

Garner believes that the first thing that they can do is to teach students to monitor their thinking effectively (as cited in Purdue, n.d., ch.7). This can be done through showing them how to analyze the process of thinking as they work. They teach them to questions themselves on ways that they can improve upon their thinking as they try to accomplish their goal or whether or not they need help to accomplish these goals. According to Garner, students must know when they are learning and when they are not learning (as cited in Purdue, n.d.). Furthermore, Garner says that when they realize that they are not learning they should be able to choose another cognitive strategy to help them achieve their goal (as cited in Purdue, n.d., ch.7).

Secondly, Garner believes students need to be taught to use more sophisticated strategies to show that they are thinking (as cited in Purdue, n.d., ch.7). Teachers should not accept the simply retelling of the text, they should require that student synthesize the information and are able to offer legitimate summaries of the material (Purdue, n.d.).

Thirdly, teachers must teach students the appropriate strategies to use with the various texts and content (Purdue, n.d.). This is pertinent since it sets the stage for student learning. Think of it like building a house, if there is no foundation the house will not stand; with a solid foundation the house could burn done, but the base from which to start over is still there. Students might need to reevaluate the strategies that they choose, but they can start over if they have the foundational knowledge of the strategies (Purdue, n.d.).

Fourthly, students must be taught to set personal goals for their learning. When students set their own goals they are more likely to carry through with the strategies to see the success with them. Borkowski, Carr, and Pressley say “students with low self-esteem who attribute success and failure to something other than effort are unlikely to initiate or persist in the use of cognitive strategies” (cited in Purdue, n.d., ch.7). If they do so, they fall into not using their metacognitive skills to comprehend the concepts (Purdue, n.d.).

Lastly, when teachers model for students how to use cognitive strategies they are helping them develop higher order thinking skills. When they are taught to engage in higher order thinking, they are taught how to identify how they learn, think about textual problems as they learn about them, figure out how to solve them, and finally synthesize all the information at the end of the text.


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