Learning Method Overview: Behaviorism

It was suggested by J.B. Watson that psychology be studied through objective, observable behaviors rather than subjective, internal thoughts and consciousness. This was in opposition to the historical development of psychology. In the late-19th and early-20th century, introspective psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt maintained that the study of consciousness was the primary object of psychology. Their methodology was primarily introspective, relying heavily on first-person reports of sensations and the constituents of immediate experiences. Watson proffered that experience and environment (rather than internal motivations or inherited traits) dictate who or what a person becomes (how he behaves).

Watson was expanding upon Ivan Pavlov’s findings of classical conditioning. Pavlov discovered classical conditioning or stimulus-response when he noticed that after presenting food and a normally neutral stimulus (ringing a bell) together repeatedly created the response to the stimulus (salivating for food) as a result of the neutral stimulus alone. Two separate conditions create new synaptic relationships to occur between the stimulus and response.

Behaviorism was popularized by B.F. Skinner in the 60s or 70s. Skinner had discovered operant conditioning, where the subject learns from the consequences (reinforcer or punishment) of its own behavior. Behaviorism supposes that psychology is more aptly studied through observing behaviors of individuals and making connections between their behaviors and their environments or prior stimuli.

As a learning method, behaviorism relies on “skill and drill” exercises to provide the consistent repetition necessary for effective reinforcement of response patterns. Other methods include question (stimulus) and answer (response) frameworks with gradually increasing difficulty, guided practice, and regular reviews of material. It relies heavily on positive reinforcement such as verbal praise, good grades, and prizes. Exam performance can assess the degree of learning because it measures the observable behavior. Behaviorism proves most successful in areas where there is a “correct” response or easily memorized material, like teaching facts or formulae, scientific concepts, and foreign language vocabulary. It however has questionable effectiveness in teaching comprehension, composition, and analytical abilities.

Methods of learning when there is one correct response to reinforce includes:

  • Discrimination: Identify whether a concept belongs to a specific category. Drag-and-drop exercises.
  • Generalization: After identifying the attributes of an item belonging to one category, assign attributes to all items within a category. Teaching through example.
  • Association: Link a specific stimulus to a specific response. Matching exercises.
  • Chaining: Sequence ordering exercises with a predefined and unique correct sequence that users must form. Very common to find through trial and error.

Feedback is important not just at the end of the eLearning course, but each time the learner interacts with the system. Positive comments, punishment, negative criticism (not quite acceptable today nor appropriate for adult learning), and negative scores are all examples. In gamification, examples include assigning points, grades, badges, leaderboards, removal of benefits like points, lives, etc.

Behaviorism has received a lot of criticism over the last few decades because it does not take into account other aspects of learning such as the mental processes involved or the environment in which learning takes place. However, I can still see behaviorism under a UX lens, for example, in the testing phase while using analytic tools that report on user behavior. The introspective methods prior to behaviorism could alternatively be seen while using surveys or interviews during user research.

Behaviorism as a learning methodology could be seen as showing a notification when a user receives a message. When the user sees the notification, their physical response begins to connect to that social connection, and we see a dopamine response begin to associate with the notification. When removing notifications, the response can become extinct and the user may no longer be addicted to their phone.

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