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Educational Psychology. Define and contrast the three types of behavioral learning theories (contiguity, classical conditioning, and operant conditioning), giving examples of how each can be used in the classroom. Developed by W. Huitt & J. Hummel (1999). Behavioral Learning Theory.

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Educational Psychology

Define and contrast the three types of behavioral learning theories (contiguity, classical conditioning, and operant conditioning), giving examples of how each can be used in the classroom.

Developed by W. Huitt & J. Hummel (1999)


Behavioral Learning Theory

According to the behaviorists, learning can be defined as “the relatively permanent change in behavior brought about as a result of experience or practice.”

Behaviorists recognize that learning is an internal event. However, it is not recognized as learning until it is displayed by overt behavior.


Behavioral Learning Theory

  • The term "learning theory" is often associated with the behavioral view.
  • The focus of the behavioral approach is on how the environment impacts overt behavior.
  • Remember that biological maturation or genetics is an alternative explanation for relatively permanent change.







Behavioral Learning Theory

The behavioral learning theory is represented as an S-R paradigm. The organism is treated as a “black box.” We only know what is going on inside the box by the organism’s overt behavior.


Behavioral Learning Theory

The feedback loop that connects overt behavior to stimuli that activate the senses has been studied extensively from this perspective.


Behavioral Learning Theory

Notice that the behaviorists are only interested in that aspect of feedback that connects directly to overt behavior.

Behaviorists are not interested in the conscious decision of the individual to disrupt, modify, or go against the conditioning process.


Behavioral Learning Theory

There are three types of behavioral learning theories:

  • Contiguity theory
  • Classical or respondent conditioning theory
  • Operant or instrumental conditioning theory

Contiguity Theory

Contiguity theory is based on the work of E. R. Guthrie.

It proposes that any stimulus and response connected in time and/or space will tend to be associated.


Contiguity Theory


  • A baseball player wearing a certain pair of socks on the day he hits three home runs associates wearing the socks and hitting home runs.
  • A student making a good grade on a test after trying a new study technique makes an association between the stimulus of studying and the response of getting a good grade.

Contiguity Theory

Guthrie’s contiguity theory is one foundation for the more cognitively-oriented learning theory of neural networks.


Classical Conditioning Theory

Classical conditioning was the first type of learning to be discovered and studied within the behaviorist tradition (hence the name classical).

The major theorist in the development of classical conditioning is Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist trained in biology and medicine (as was his German contemporary, Sigmund Freud).


Classical Conditioning Theory

Pavlov was studying the digestive system of dogs and became intrigued with his observation that dogs deprived of food began to salivate when one of his assistants walked into the room.

He began to investigate this phenomena and established the laws of classical conditioning.

Skinner renamed this type of learning "respondent conditioning” since in this type of learning, one is responding to an environmental antecedent.


Classical Conditioning Theory

  • General model: Stimulus (S) elicits >Response (R)
  • Classical conditioning starts with a reflex (R): an innate, involuntary behavior.
  • This involuntary behavior is elicited or caused by an antecedent environmental event.
  • For example, if air is blown into your eye, you blink. You have no voluntary or conscious control over whether the blink occurs or not.

Classical Conditioning Theory

The specific model for classical conditioning is:

  • A stimulus will naturally (without learning) elicit or bring about a reflexive response
  • Unconditioned Stimulus (US) elicits > Unconditioned Response (UR)

Classical Conditioning Theory

The specific model for classical conditioning is:

  • Neutral Stimulus (NS) --- does not elicit the response of interest
  • This stimulus (sometimes called an orienting stimulus as it elicits an orienting response) is a neutral stimulus since it does not elicit the Unconditioned (or reflexive) Response.

Classical Conditioning Theory

The Neutral/Orientiing Stimulus (NS) is repeatedly paired with the Unconditioned/Natural Stimulus (US).


Classical Conditioning Theory

  • The Neutral Stimulus (NS) is transformed into a Conditioned Stimulus (CS).
  • That is, when the CS is presented by itself, it elicits or causes the CR (which is the same involuntary response as the UR.
  • The name changes because it is elicited by a different stimulus.
  • This is written CS elicits > CR.

Classical Conditioning Theory

  • In the area of classroom learning, classical conditioning is seen primarily in the conditioning of emotional behavior.
  • Things that make us happy, sad, angry, etc. become associated with neutral stimuli that gain our attention.

Classical Conditioning Theory

  • For example, the school, classroom, teacher, or subject matter are initially neutral stimuli that gain attention.
  • Activities at school or in the classroom automatically elicit emotional responses and these activities are associated with the neutral or orienting stimulus
  • After repeated presentations, the previously neutral stimulus will elicit the emotional response

Classical Conditioning Theory


  • Child is harassed at school
  • Child feels bad when harassed
  • Child associates being harassed and school
  • Child begins to feel bad when she thinks of school

Classical Conditioning Theory

In order to extinguish the associated of feeling bad and thinking of school, the connection between school and being harassed must be broken.


Operant Conditioning Theory

  • Operant conditioning is the study of the impact of consequences on behavior.
  • With operant conditioning we are dealing with voluntary behaviors.
  • The details of operant conditioning are presented separately.