What is behaviourism?

Reading time: 6m

AuthorCathy SivakChief Quality Officer
Reading Time6 minutes

In the competitive market of digital learning solutions, it’s easy for providers to fall into the trap of ignoring sound theories of learning and only give their users a taste of the flavour of the month. Here at Thinqi, however, we draw on a range of theories — from the past and the present — to form the method and practice behind our smarter learning system. In this blog, we look at behavioural science and its impact on learning.


What is behaviourism?

The following statement was made in 1924 by John Watson, who is often referred to as the founding father of behavioural science:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.” (Watson, 2009, p.82).

What’s important to understand is that the quote effectively sums up one of the key concepts associated with an early branch of behaviourism; that behaviour can be shaped by environmental stimuli. Modern behavioural science seeks to understand all human behaviours and the factors that influence them. Behavioural science today sees learners as active, responsive creators of their own learning and experience. Identifying influences on behaviour, such as language, emotions and internal feelings, is key to improving it.

Although modern behavioural science is almost unrecognisable from its origins in the early behaviourism of Watson and his peers, some elements have evolved into familiar teaching practice. Let’s summarise some of the key tenets of behavioural science before looking at how it can be applied to L&D.

Key principles of behavioural science

  1. Behavioural science focuses on shaping behaviour and how it can be changed or moulded by external and internal stimulus.

  2. In order to create behavioural change, learners repeat a desired behaviour until it becomes automatic. The desired behaviour is encouraged through reinforcement. Learners form an association between the desired behavior and the end result which leads to an increase in that behaviour.

  3. Some early behaviourists suggested that tasks should be broken down into small, achievable steps so that learners can work towards an end goal and demonstrate achievement. More recently, behavioural scientists have looked at how ‘nudging’ specific actions can help people to achieve an end goal.

  4. Behavioural science tells us that emotional reactions such as anxiety, avoidance and optimism can become conditioned responses to stimuli. This means that it’s important to create learning environments that promote positive emotional responses and encourage learning. For more guidance on how to do this, see our blog post ‘5 steps to build a culture of learning’.


How to shape behaviour in a learning environment

So, how can you actively shape behaviour in the learning environment? Here are a few simple steps you can take.

1. Give praise

Praise from a trainer is key to supporting learners in developing appropriate behaviours that enable learning. From a behaviourist perspective, praise given in response to appropriate behaviour is an extrinsic reward that reinforces that behaviour. John Woollard, in his book ‘Psychology for the Classroom: Behaviourism’, explains that praise, celebration, approval and token economy are all examples of interventions for behaviour modification through positive reinforcement.

Consider how you can build positive reinforcement in your training and development sessions or materials. For example, the Thinqi learning system enables you to easily provide frequent feedback and praise throughout formative and summative assessments.

2. Model positive learning behaviours

Modeling required behaviour is also useful. What can you do to exhibit the behaviours you are attempting to foster? Learning systems such as Thinqi allow you to reinforce desired outcomes by providing exemplar resources for learners to compare their own work against. This helps to familiarise them with good practice and to model it moving forward.

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3. Focus on learner experience

Knowing that behaviour is influenced by conditioned emotional responses means that it’s important to consider learners’ experiences of learning as well. Is the process supportive, accessible and enjoyable?

Thinqi helps you to create positive learning environments that enable learning; for example, ‘signposts’ at regular intervals to help users to find their way. These signposts take the form of learning outcomes, easily-accessible menus and section introductions. Along with bite-sized content, smart recommendations aligned to personal learning journeys and thriving discussion spaces, it’s a learning experience worth returning for time and again.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at more behavioural principles and explain why we ask our learners to ‘identify’, ‘summarise’ or ‘recognise’, rather than to simply ‘understand’.


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