Module 3: Behaviorists and Cognitivists

March 15th, 2017

In our current Educational Psychology module, we are discussing the different theories of learning and their uses within the classroom. In this blog post, I will outline the differences between Behaviorism and Cognitivism, as well as their limitations and criticisms, how I personally can use them in my future teaching career, and where my own beliefs fall.


According to Woolfolk (2014) “Behaviorism is a learning theory that focuses on external events as the cause of changes in observational learning” (G-12). In short, behaviorism hinges on the “nurture” of  the “Nature vs. Nurture” discussion. The Behaviorist Movement began from the text, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” written by John Watson, in 1913.  According to behaviorism, learning is passive, which can be constructed through positive and negative reinforcement. Two known proponents of the Behaviorist theory are Skinner and Pavlov, who’s experiments work with conditioning in order to generate a desired outcome, though Skinner is considered to be an extreme Behaviorist.

A criticism of this theory is how it can negatively impact a child. When a student becomes accustomed to receiving extrinsic rewards or motivation, the student may loose interest without it. Another criticism of this theory is in regards to ethics; whether or not it is ethical to modify and control behavior. Also, punishments if given incorrectly, can harm the child or have lasting effect.



According to Woolfolk (2014) “Cognitivism is a general approach that views learning as an active mental process of acquiring, remembering, and using knowledge,” (G-2). The Cognitivist Theory came about to replace behaviorism. Contrary to Behaviorism, Cognitivism believes that learning is an active process, rather than passive. This theory involves the idea of complex memory structures that require attention and rehearsal, as well as continual usage in order to create and maintain memory. “Changes in behavior are observed, but only as an indication of what is occurring in the learner’s head. Cognitivism uses the metaphor of the mind as computer: information comes in, is being processed, and leads to certain outcomes.” (Merill, 2017)

The largest criticism of the cognitivist theory is that it refers to processes we can’t directly observe and it ignores biological factors.

Why is it necessary to apply these perspectives to learning instruction?

Understanding the behaviorist theory is imperative when looking to understanding certain aspects of one’s students. As it is proven that many behaviors are learned, certain behaviors that are displayed in the classroom can be understood to have been imitated from an outside influence, such as their parents, other family, or peers. If a student sees their parents display positive work ethics and a respect for authority, likely the student will also display those traits. Conversely, the same could be expected. If the child is not responding well within the classroom, their behaviors may be difficult to correct or alter due to those learned behaviors. Also, when applying Cognitivism in the classroom, the teacher takes on the responsibility of helping students actively engage with the information they are learning. The teacher is also modeling behaviors the students should replicate. For example, demonstrations during labs or art projects and discussing with the class examples of both good and bad writing, what makes them so, and how said examples can guide the students’ future writing.


Applying Theories:

A way to utilize behaviorism in the classroom could be through positive or negative reinforcement. If (a) students perform a desired behavior, a reward can be given to encourage that behavior in the future. For example, students who perform their classroom jobs correctly can be given a sticker. When enough stickers are accumulated, they can be traded in for a reward, such as a book or a positive note to take home for their parents. Students will have an extrinsic motivator to perform positively in the classroom.

A way to apply Cognitivism in the class is to create in depth flash cards to review material. Flash cards would include a word, the definition, a sketch or picture and a scenario. Visual cues as well as scenes a student can visualize can create a more well rounded understanding of the concept trying to be learned and remembered. Keeping and reviewing flashcards over the course of the semester or school year promotes deep learning and long-term memory formation.

Where Do I Fit? Which views reside within your beliefs in regards to the role of teacher peers and students?

On the spectrum, I do believe that I fall more into the Cognitivism category. I understand the benefits of Behaviorism and its uses within the classroom, but I prefer the idea of active learning rather than passive. I definitely see the question of ethics coming into play when dealing with changing or modifying behaviors to suit the needs of the classroom, rather than individually looking at the needs of the students to promote positive behavior. I also think that allowing students to do hands on work rather than rote memorization is far more beneficial when trying to make lasting long-term memories of information being learned. When looking at the chart, I don’t believe either Behaviorism or Cognitivism gives the role peers play the recognition it deserves when it comes to learning. I personally think they play a much larger role, as outlined by Constructivists and Social Cognitivists. Overall, I think that somewhere between Social Cognitivism and Social Constructivism falls most in line with my own beliefs on teaching and the roles of the parent, teacher, student, and peers.




McLeod, S. (1970, January 01). Saul McLeod. Retrieved March, 2017, from

Nature vs. Nurture Debate. (2015, August 12). Retrieved March, 2017, from

Merill, M. D., Reigeluth, C., Gagne, R. M., Brunner, J., & Schank, R. (2017, February 04). Cognitivism. Retrieved March, 2017, from

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lucas Popovich  |  March 29th, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    Karina- I think you did a very good job of being able to condense a lot of useful information to be clear and concise. I really liked the video which critiqued the behaviorism way of learning, and how it broke down the reason to why someone, such as a student, could be hurt by receiving rewards with damaging their ability to form, or keep a natural motivation or interest to accomplish something. I also liked your other video which talked about cognitivism, and how the theory came about, and how the brain/mind acts almost like a computer with how it processes and stores information. Also, you gave good examples of what behaviorism looks like in the classroom and what Cognitivism looks like in the classroom. I like how you said that you enjoy active learning instead of passive- I am the exact same way. I know the 2 are entirely different, but when I actively learn I feel like the chances of the learning instilling in my long term memory goes way up. Overall, I think you did a very good job and I agree with your viewpoints!!
    Ps- this is a little late because I had permission from professor Weber

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