Behaviorism is a school of psychology that views all behaviors as learned. Classical conditioning is a form of behaviorism in which a specific stimulus produces a predictable response. The most common example is when dogs smell food that causes them to salivate. When a bell is rung at every meal, the dogs will begin to salivate in response to the bell, even when food is not present. Classical conditioning can play different roles in the classroom.
Teachers looking to use behavioral techniques to reinforce learning are more likely to use operant conditioning techniques. Operant conditioning involves punishments and rewards. This could be done quite simply by a teacher offering a reward (for example, praise) for a job well done or punishment (extra homework) for failure to do well. Classical conditioning may not be used as directly, but often can work along with operant conditioning to reinforce learning. For instance, if the overall tone of a teacher’s classroom is one of praise and enjoyment in learning, the student will associate this pleasure with the specific class and will be more likely to attend.
Students who have learned to associate threatening or fearful situations with classroom experiences can have a more difficult time. For instance, students often pair mathematical exams with test anxiety and pressure. This conditioned response may be based on early experiences in grade school, where a child was, for instance, given a high-pressure, timed exam. Even when she is older, the student may have autonomic responses, such as sweating and increased heart rate, when simply thinking about taking an exam or when faced with difficult math problems. In the classroom, teachers can be cognizant of the effects of classical conditioning on test anxiety and create a learning and test environment that reinforces a feel of calm and focus. When a student takes tests in a low pressure, positive environment over time, the classically conditioned response will become “extinguished,” or disappear.
Other functions of Classical Conditioning
It is important to remember that unlike operant conditioning, classical conditioning cannot be suppressed by will power alone. Reactions connected to classical conditioning are involuntary. It is possible to suppress behaviors, but not the urges associated with them. For instance, if a teacher uses candy to positively reinforce correct answers, students will (classically) pair success with the taste of sugar. If the teacher then stops using candy, even if she explains the reasoning of the change to the students, they will likely still crave sugar when giving positive answers.
- University of Georgia College of Education: Behaviorism
- “Journal of Instructional Psychology,” Rethinking conditioning strategies: Some tips on how educators can avoid painting themselves into a corner; Joycelyn G. Parish & Thomas S. Parish; 1991.
- Education.com: Classical Conditioning
- Psychology Today: Classical Conditioning in Everyday Life
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