Behaviorism: Overview & Practical Teaching Examples

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  • 0:01 Behaviorism
  • 0:57 Rewards & Punishments
  • 4:00 Extinction
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How can teachers use rewards and punishments to guide student behavior and learning? In this lesson, we will look at how behaviorism applies to the classroom, including the concepts of reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.


Cynthia is a problem student. She doesn't do her homework, and when she does, it's only half-finished. She acts out in class, refusing to follow the rules and cracking jokes at the teacher's expense. Her teacher, Mr. Greene, is at his wit's end. How can he deal with Cynthia?

The answer to Mr. Greene's problem might lie with the psychological philosophy of behaviorism, which says that people's actions are driven by a need to gain rewards or avoid punishments. In the early and mid-20th century, behaviorism was the predominant theory in psychology. Behaviorists were interested only in observable behaviors, and they did all sorts of studies to see how different rewards and punishments affected people's behaviors.

Let's take a look at how Mr. Greene, and teachers like him, can apply behavioral principles to their classrooms.

Rewards and Punishments

Mr. Greene has a problem, and her name is Cynthia. She's rude, disruptive, and never does her homework. He's pulling his hair out to try to get her to do what she's supposed to. What can he do?

Remember that behaviorists believe that people learn behaviors through rewards and punishments, so perhaps Mr. Greene can use some of the behavioral philosophy to help him with Cynthia. There are two major categories of responses to a person's behavior, according to behavioral theory.

Reinforcement is meant to increase a good behavior; it's like a reward. So if Cynthia comes in and sits down quietly at her desk and Mr. Greene gives her a piece of candy, the candy is reinforcement for the behavior of sitting quietly. It's meant to encourage Cynthia to do that more often.

On the other hand, a punishment is meant to decrease bad behavior. For example, if Cynthia does not do her homework, calling her parents might be a punishment that Mr. Greene can do to discourage skipping homework in the future.

That all probably seems pretty straightforward, but that's not where the story ends. You see, according to behaviorism, each of those two categories (reinforcement and punishment) can further be divided into two subcategories: positive and negative. In this context, positive doesn't mean good; it just means giving something or adding something on. Negative means taking something away.

So, in the end, Mr. Greene is left with four ways that he can react to Cynthia's behavior: two reinforcements and two punishments.

Positive reinforcement involves giving the student something that he or she wants. For example, if Cynthia does her homework, even if the questions are wrong, Mr. Greene can give her an A for effort. He is giving her something that she wants (an A) to reinforce her good behavior (doing her homework).

He can also take something away that the student does not want, which is negative reinforcement. For example, if Cynthia does all of her homework assignments, Mr. Greene can drop the lowest grade. He is taking away something that she doesn't want (a low grade) to reinforce good behavior (doing homework).

Punishments, too, can be either positive or negative. A positive punishment is one that involves giving the student something that he or she does not want. For example, Mr. Greene can give Cynthia detention for failing to follow his classroom rules. He's giving her something she doesn't want (detention) to punish her bad behavior.

He could also take away something that the student does want, which is called a negative punishment. For example, he can ban Cynthia from going on a school field trip because she doesn't obey the rules. He's punishing her bad behavior by taking away something she wants (the field trip).

So, positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment, Mr. Greene has lots of options for how to deal with Cynthia!

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