Classical Conditioning and E-Learning

Classical conditioning is a concept that was first coined by Ivan Pavlov in 1903. Anyone who has taken a Psych 101 course has studied Pavlov’s dogs, where he was able to condition dogs to salivate on hearing a buzzer sound, even before seeing or smelling the treat, establishing the knowledge that they would receive a treat afterward.

“It’s an automatic/reflexive type of learning that occurs through associations between environmental and natural stimuli with the use of a neutral signal before the latter.”

Classical conditioning is one of two forms of associative learning, which basically means learning via associating two occurring events. The other form of associative learning is called “operant conditioning,” which “focuses on using either reinforcement or punishment to maximize or minimize a certain behavior.” source

The four principles of classical conditioning are:

  1. Unconditioned stimulus - this is a stimulus that provokes a reaction automatically. For example, the smell of food can make us hungry.
  2. Unconditioned response - this is the automatic reaction that is created by the unconditioned stimulus. Using the previous example, hunger is the unconditioned response.
  3. Conditioned stimulus - this is a neutral trigger that, when paired with an unconditioned stimulus, creates a conditioned response. So if we heard a bell every time we smelled food and thus triggered hunger, the sound of a bell would eventually become the trigger that would produce the conditioned response (i.e. hunger).
  4. Conditioned response - Per the above example, the conditioned response would be hunger without the smell of food, upon hearing the bell.

What does classical conditioning have to do with e-Learning?

Classical conditioning, also known as behaviorism, is used innately in many effective e-Learning paradigms. “...A behavioristic approach focuses on guiding learners reach pre-established learning outcomes. Learning is considered to take place when learners manage to reach these expected outcomes designed to meet the learning objectives of the e-Learning course.” source

This implies that knowledge must be the objective in order to apply classical conditioning. In other words, that there is only one right answer to any given question. This isn’t true in many cases, but it’s true more often than not. In a work environment, for example, there are standard procedures and policies that create a “right answer.”

How can I use behaviorism in my e-Learning course design?

If we assume that there is a right answer to questions, then e-Learning has the advantage of providing immediate gratification to e-Learners. Tests where an answer must be chosen (multiple-choice) would allow the student to see immediately if they are correct or not, and if not, they could be immediately provided with a resource to review the concept. If they are correct, a positive reinforcement message is provided.

This immediate feedback, a form of classical conditioning, is the most obvious way that e-Learning surpasses traditional learning environments. Over time, the student will be conditioned to want to learn more because of the instant feedback received.

A major technique of behaviorist theory is association, and as we have discussed in previous posts, associating new information to an existing, practical and real-world scenario will result in higher retention rates for the student. E-Learning is conducive to creating these associations because they can be very specific and created quickly and effectively, addressing specific gaps in the knowledge of a worker.

Classical conditioning, or behaviorism, relates learning to innate human behaviors and, as such, is very often used in e-Learning paradigms without anyone realizing it. The effectiveness of positive and negative reinforcements is clear and demonstrably easy to utilize in an e-Learning environment.

Do you have some tips or experience to share about using classical conditioning in e-Learning? Share them in the comments below!

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