October 1, 2020

Behaviourism, What is it?

Behaviorism is a learning theory that sees in our surrounding the greatest teacher. According to this theory, the learner is conditioned by external stimuli to learn. A common example is how we train dogs, when we want to teach them something, we give a command, they execute what we ask and then they receive some appraisal or a little snack.
Learning theory concept
In education, learning becomes the transmission of information from teacher to learner as the transmission of the appropriate response to a certain stimulus.

The learner associates a "stimulus" with a behavior/response. This can be an involuntary response taking the name of classical conditioning or a voluntary response, named as operant conditioning. The difference between the two can be seen as the latter guiding the learner through conscious reinforcement by appraisals or punishment linked to certain behaviors. An example of operant conditioning is our school system in which we associate high grades with a reward or lower grades as incentive to study more.

Why did behaviorism start?
Observing behaviours in response to introspective psychology.

In the first half of the 19th century, psychology was highly introspective therefore difficult to scientifically observe and prove by the researcher. Skinner, the main author of behaviorism, argued that only behaviors were worth studying in psychology as you could not perceive the internal process of the mind since being highly subjective. Currently, this theory is considered old fashioned and not many educators are in favor of behaviorism. Since a behavioristic approach does not allow much "freedom of choice". How to disagree? Most behaviorists think that there is no much difference between a human and a dog when learning. However, it is still highly used when designing education in e-learning environments, and it can be powerful when teaching specific knowledge.

Learnings and assessment

Nowadays, a behavioral approach is used when the knowledge is objective, which means when there is only one correct answer or a specific approach/behavior to follow. In a behaviouristic approach we can easily recognize and assess the learnings.

Examples of content suitable to the behaviouristic approach is transferring knowledge about standards procedure in a company. Commonly, a behavioristic approach is used when the learnings are considered low-level learning and do not involve higher level learning such as decision making or judgments.

These low-level learning exercises are common in app for learning new languages, since grammar and words for beginners are mostly sets of rules. For example the app Duolingo provides a series of exercises in which the learner by trial and error understands, repeated and proves the learning by selecting the correct answer.

Repetition becomes key for knowledge transfer.
Duoling repetition and chaining

Below, I show four types of exercises in e-learning environment based on behaviorism:

  1. Discrimination The learner needs to identify whether a concept belongs to a specific category or not.
  2. Generalization The learner identifies attributes of an item belonging to one category and assigns the same attributes to all items within the category.
  3. Association The learner links a specific stimulus to a specific response. This means that the learner can connect the learning to a practical application of it based on the association.
  4. Chaining The learner is asked to perform an automatic response following a specific procedure. In eLearning, the designer presents the theoretical model first and then asks the learners to repeat the procedures by actually repeating the steps involved in the same order these are presented.

4 types of behaviouristic exercise in e-learning platforms

Nevertheless, a behaviouristic approach does not only relate to learning content but can also relate to student management.


Behaviorism reflects its approach not just on learnings, but also on reinforcing or discouraging behaviors related to student management.
Learnings and Motivation

The idea of positive or negative reinforcement through rewards or punishments, it is not new in education and design. The concept of positive reinforcement is used in several educational apps or UX designs. Let’s go back to the Duolingo App. The design focuses on a reward system made of collectible tokens which are spent later on rewards. In several designs, the concept of reinforcement is used for extrinsic motivation for behavioral change.

Example of tokens as extrinsic motivation in the app Duolingo

How I use behaviorism in UX

I am working on a project to increase hand washing practices in the African context. My work focusses on teaching when to wash hands and how to wash hands to users with a high rate of illiteracy. The app will be available in the coming year.

The app has two main function:

  • To teach how to wash hands I created some drill tasks: I show the procedure of hand-washing hygiene and then I provide a fill-in exercise to fill the correct procedure in their hands. I use trial and error and thus, repetition to make sure our users understand how it is appropriate to wash hands. This method is explained above under the name chaining.
  • To teach when to wash hands (thus wrong and right behaviors) I ask the users to classify the visualised behaviors between two categories: correct and dangerous. In this case, I use generalisation (three pictures above) to support the understanding of the basis of safe behaviors.

The reinforcement in this app is two-fold: 1) the learner receives immediate positive reinforcement when the learning is proved and 2) the learner afer every step get closer to become a 'qualified' wash practitioner who protects his/her community.

Using a behavioristic approach in this educational app provides a great positive aspect, it is easy. Since the users are mostly illiterate, simple and repeated tasks (identifying right/wrong, temporal procedures) work efficiently and effectively.
First step of the app

However, in other parts of the app in which is required more cognitive processes, simple tasks become ineffective. Teaching the importance of washing hands with a behavioristic approach is reductive. Despite washing hands being recognized as highly important for reducing the spread of diseases, every learner has personal reasons and beliefs. For this reason the app develops in 3 stages. The first one roots in behaviorism, the other two incorporate concepts as decision making, inner motivation and learning communities.



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