Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: How Students Learn - A Review of Some of the Main Theories
Page: 3b - Behaviouralism

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Origins of behaviourism lie in the Russian psychologist, Pavlov's, work with dogs. At about the same time as Freud was developing his basic ideas of psychoanalysis in Vienna, an American psychologist, John Watson, was laying the foundations for the development of Pavlov's and Freud's work into what was to become a whole new - and highly influential - school of psychology. Watson argued that the Freudian approach based on self-observation (introspection) had yielded poor results, and that if psychology was to be considered to be a true science, its data would have to be both observable and measurable, like Pavlov's. His approach, which was later to become known as 'behaviourism', thus adopted the systematic study of observable behaviour as its focus. Behaviourists argue that nearly all behaviour is learned, and that the main function of psychology should be to seek to discover what the basic laws of learning are. Largely because of the work of the later American behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner during the 1950's, behaviourism has had a tremendous influence on educational thinking.

Behavioural psychological theory is based on what is commonly referred to as stimulus/response or S-R learning. It assumes that learning has occurred if a specific response is elicited from a learner when he or she is placed in a particular situation and is given a particular stimulus. Learning of relatively complex behaviour can (it is claimed) be achieved through an appropriate series of stimulus-response situations. At each stage, the learner must actively participate by performing a set task, after which he or she is then supplied with immediate feedback in the form of the correct answer. This is known as successive reinforcement. Skinner also argued that each successive stimulus-response step should be small enough to ensure that the learner is almost always correct in their response. Use of these small steps, plus successive reinforcement, led to what behavioural psychologists believed was an efficient way of 'shaping behaviour'. Skinner's original work was with animals, mostly with pigeons. His later work, which evolved from this, was with humans, and was largely responsible for triggering the bandwagon programmed learning movement that so dominated progressive educational thinking during the 1960's and early 1970's. This, in turn, led to more recent developments such as open learning, distance learning, computer-based learning and multimedia. Although Skinner's original behavioural model of learning has since been rejected or at least greatly modified by many educational psychologists, he has probably had a greater influence on educational thinking than any other psychologist. Indeed, every teacher who makes use of individualised learning methods today owes him a very real debt.



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Once you have completed Exercise 2, proceed with the module.

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