Three key early behavioural scientists were Pavlov (1849-1936), Watson (1878-1958) and Thorndike (1874-1949). Behaviourism was coined as researchers tried to explain how learning took place, by investigating the observable mechanisms of learning. Focus was directed on observable forms of behaviour that included not only bodily movement as seen by an observer watching a subject, but also the internal physical processes related to overt bodily movement, and how these could be modified. Two key factors concerning behaviourism are noted here;

Classical Conditioning

The essentials are:
Conditioning: A process of learning
Stimulus: Any change in the physical world eliciting a response
Response: The response to the stimulus
Unconditioned Stimulus: A stimulus that produces a reflex or unlearned response
Conditioned Stimulus: A stimulus paired with an unconditioned stimulus that becomes capable of producing a response
Conditioned Response: A learned response resulting from pairing the unconditioned stimulus with the conditioned stimulus

Operant Conditioning

The essentials are:
Operants: The label to describe behaviour not elicited by any known or obvious stimulus
Shaping: The continuous reinforcement of operants that become increasingly closer approximations of the desired behaviour
Fading: The eradication of a response through the withdrawal of reinforcement
Positive Reinforcement: A stimulus that increases the probability of an operant recurring as a result of its being added to a situation after the performance of the behaviour. It usually takes the form of something pleasant
Negative Reinforcement: A stimulus that increases the probability of an operant recurring when it is removed from the situation. Usually taking the form of something unpleasant.
Punishment: The addition of an unpleasant stimulus to a situation as a consequence of behaviour that has occurred. The aim is to suppress behaviour rather than to establish new behaviour.
Reinforcement Schedule: The application of positive or negative reinforcement, continuously or intermittently, by time or ratio of responses

B.F. Skinner is now regarded as the leading proponent of Behaviourism.

Social Learning:

The Social Learning Theory, stemming from the works of Albert Bandura, and now known better as the Social Cognitive Theory differs from the traditional behavouristic theories in that it emphasises symbolic representation and self-regulatory procedures. It is reflective of constructivist principles.

The Social Cognitive Theory has 3 distinct principles:

1. Much of human learning is a function of observing the behaviour of others.

2. We learn to imitate by receiving reinforcement for performing a certain behaviour, and we then maintain this imitative behaviour through continued reinforcement.

3. Imitation, or observational learning, can be explained in terms of operant conditioning principles, provided it is correct to say that people can ‘imagine’ both the reinforcement and the behaviour of models.

These principles are governed by four processes: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

Information Processing:

Information Processing is the study of how humans perceive, comprehend, and remember, the information they gain from their environment.

The Information Processing Model of Learning has some very distinct steps:

1. External Stimuli bombard our senses that in turn send information to our sensory register for a very brief temporary storage. We make “sense” of the information through the processes of perception and attention.

2. Transformed into patterns of images or sounds (or perhaps other types of codes), the information can enter the short term memory. Here storage is limited and short: the information is used and is lost unless it is rehearsed.

3. Information to be retained for later retrieval is connected with already existing knowledge and thus encoded in long term memory. This is a permanent storage area.

Key words to note here:
Perception: Referring to the meaning attached to the information we receive through our senses; meaning that is constructed partly from objective reality and partly from the way we organise the information.
Gestalt Theory: This holds that people organise their perceptions into coherent wholes
Metacognition: Knowledge about our own thinking processes
Bottom-up Processing: Analysing basic elements and combining them into meaningful patterns
Top-down Processing: Understanding by inference


One definition of Constructivism is that – “experience is constructed rather than absorbed; knowledge is invented.”

Two forms of Constructivism are:

Personal – a focus on the individual’s internal mental state and transformations of understanding that occur within the individual, and

Social – a focus on the construction of knowledge in a social context, with the individual making personal meaning from socially shared perceptions.

Piaget argued that children construct their own understanding through interaction with their environment – that is, through their actions on objects in the world – this is constructivism.

Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory, on the other hand, is hinged on the idea that cognitive development can be understood as the transformation of basic, biologically determined processes into higher psychological functions. According to this theory, children are born with a wide range of perceptual, attentional and memory capacities that are substantially transformed in the context of socialisation and education, particularly through the use of cultural inventions such as tools, social structures and language, to constitute the higher psychological functions of the unique forms of human cognition.


All of the information on this page has been adapted from either

McInerney, D.M. and McInerney, V. Educational Psychology: Constructed Learning (Second Edition)

(Australia: Prentice Hall, 1998)


Woolfolk, A. Educational Psychology (Fourth Edition)

(Englewood Cliffs, USA: Prentice Hall, 1990)