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Thinking inside the box: behaviourist principles in training design: Susan Iacovou looks at how to incorporate the principles of behaviourism into training packages.

When Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov carried out his groundbreaking experiments on conditioning in animals, he could have had little idea of the impact his work would have over the next 100 years in fields as diverse as psychology, sociology, criminology, education and training and development.

In his best-known experiment, Pavlov rang a bell as he fed dogs their meals. After a while, each time the dogs heard the bell, they recognised that food was coming and would begin to salivate. Pavlov then rang the bell without bringing food, but the dogs still salivated--they had been conditioned to salivate in response to the bell.

Pavlov's work inspired early behavioural psychologist, J. B. Watson, to argue that humans learn by reacting to stimuli in a similar way. According to Watson, learning was nothing more than the acquisition of new behaviours, all of which resulted from certain stimuli in the environment producing certain results. His work led, in the early 20th century, to the foundation of behaviourism, and to the development of what its proponents called the 'scientific' study of human beings.

Behaviourism today is associated with the name of B. F. Skinner, an American psychiatrist who tested Watson's theories in the laboratory, using an ingenious invention which became known as a 'Skinner Box'. Skinner's studies led him to conclude that there was more to learning than reflexes and conditioning. While he agreed with Watson's assertion that people respond to their environment, Skinner noted that they also operate on the environment to produce certain consequences. His theory of 'operant conditioning' suggested that we behave the way we do because this kind of behaviour has had certain consequences in the past.

For example, if your boss gives you Friday afternoon off every time you work late in the office, you are likely to work late whenever you fancy an early start to the weekend. Like Watson, Skinner denied that the mind or feelings play any part in determining behaviour. Instead, he proposed that our experience of reinforcements is the key--we act in expectation of a reward.

Skinner also developed the idea of 'shaping'--by controlling rewards and punishments, you can shape the behaviour of another person. Whilst behaviourists like Skinner and Watson worked in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, they wanted behaviourism to be the basis for managing and shaping the behaviour of patients, employees, students, trainees and whole societies.

The popularity of behaviourism as a force in psychology and psychiatry has waned (owing largely to later work demonstrating its gross over-simplification of the origins of human behaviour), but many of its principles remain firmly embedded in the educational system and can be seen in action in training rooms across the country. Though you might not realise it, you almost certainly incorporate some fundamental behaviourist principles in your training design and delivery.

Behaviourism and learning

Behaviourism is the basis of a model of training which goes something like this: 'I'll tell you the facts as I know them. Then I'll demonstrate the best way to do something, while you listen or watch. Now you repeat it all back to me, then do it again for reinforcement's sake. If you can repeat what I know, and do as I do, I'll reward you with praise--and a certificate.'

Sounds familiar? Systematic training design, training objectives, programmed learning, computer-based training and competencies are all grounded in behaviourist learning theory. Three basic assumptions underlie behaviourist learning theory:

1 You know when learning has taken place because there is a change in the trainee's behaviour. The focus of learning should therefore be on observable behaviour (things your trainees do), rather than on internal thought processes (things your trainees think or feel). To behaviourist trainers, the trainee's perceptions and motivation are not important.

2 The environment shapes behaviour and therefore you, the trainer, must work hard to create the optimal learning environment for your trainees.

3 Contiguity (the idea that two things are more easily remembered if they occur together) and reinforcement are central to the learning process. If you reinforce or reward trainees' positive behaviours, they are more likely to occur again in similar conditions. Reinforcement can therefore be used to shape behaviour.

Behaviourism and training

The most popular behaviourist approach to training is 'direct instruction' (sometimes called 'explicit training' or 'trainer-led instruction'). The underlying philosophy of direct instruction is that if your trainees have not learned, then you have not trained effectively. You are expected to keep your trainees constantly engaged in learning, by designing effective sessions, using corrective feedback and providing opportunities for practice. In addition, as a behaviourist trainer, you would be expected to do the following:

* Focus all your training activities on the acquisition of specific skills/knowledge, by designing the sessions around the achievement of behavioural objectives ('by the end of the session you will be able to ...') and de-emphasising affective and social objectives such as team-building/ interpersonal skills.

* Make all the instructional decisions--such as how much material will be covered at one time, whether trainees work individually or in groups, and what they will work on and when.

* Keep the trainees on task: for example, focused on the new skill/knowledge area without unnecessary departures from the subject.

* Create and maintain a positive learning environment by emphasising positive reinforcement and using rewards (such as praise or recognition) to shape trainees' behaviour.

In practice, many behaviourist trainers incorporate these principles in their training by following the six-phase model below. You may well find that you recognise many of the techniques outlined here, as core features of your own approach to training.

Phase 1: Planning

First, identify the training subject and determine the depth at which you will address it. Then identify the changes in behaviour you expect from your trainees, define behavioural objectives and decide how you will measure achievement of them.

Phase 2: Orientation

Provide an overview of the session and explain why the trainees need to develop the skill/gain the knowledge. Relate the information to be covered to things learned earlier in life, explain what the trainees will need to do to learn the material, and tell them the level of performance expected of them.

Phase 3: Presentation

Next, explain the material, illustrating it visually where possible and using demonstrations if appropriate. Ask the trainees if they have any questions and give additional explanation where necessary. Importantly, stay on track and avoid digressing.

Phase 4: Structured practice

When you are satisfied that the trainees are ready, lead the whole group through each step (thus minimising incorrect responses). Reinforce correct responses/behaviours and correct incorrect ones.

Phase 5: Guided practice

Allow the trainees to work on their own activities of the type explained or demonstrated by you. Circulate around the group, checking and correcting errors.

Phase 6: Independent practice

When the trainees can do things right/get questions right at least 85 per cent of the time, move on to independent practice. You should continue to provide feedback, but on a more infrequent basis.

Behaviourist models of training such as this can be very effective, particularly with practical skills. If you are training computer operators, for example, in a task never done before, you can demonstrate the correct way to do it, encourage them to have a go with your help and then, finally, encourage them to have a go on their own.

Making best use of behaviourist training techniques

Most trainers agree that some material should be taught in a behavioural way--for example, any information for which there is one right answer and for which that answer is relatively simple. So how do you use behaviourism most effectively in your training sessions? Here are some ideas:

* Make sure the topic/skill is suitable for training in a behaviourist way (remember that it should be simple and practical).

* Use the six-phase model to shape learning by systematically moving trainees from structured, to guided, to independent practice.

* Make the training environment as similar as possible to the environment in which trainees will have to use the skill or demonstrate the knowledge.

* Emphasise specific performance objectives, breaking the learning into small steps.

* In any session longer than 40 minutes, give the trainees activities to complete. Keep these activities simple to start with, going on to combine several simple tasks that encourage the trainees to work on more complex problems.

* Have several short but intense practice sessions (this produces more learning than fewer, longer sessions).

* Monitor carefully the accuracy of responses during structured practice, reinforcing correct responses and correcting incorrect ones. If you don't correct incorrect responses, they can quickly become part of your trainees' behavioural repertoire.

* Use the 85 per cent rule--don't allow trainees to proceed from guided to independent practice until they have got at least 85 per cent of the task right.

* Distribute practice sessions over several months (for example, hold regular training follow-up sessions). Space them out more and more as you proceed through the three types of practice session.

* Finally, trainers cannot teach unless students pay attention. Use multimedia methods to enhance what you're saying, gain attention and generate responses.

Behaviourism--the pitfalls

By following these suggestions, the behaviourist approach to training and development can be made very effective. However, you should bear in mind some of the disadvantages that arise from overuse or misuse of these techniques. Most of the criticism of the use of shaping and reinforcement stems from the fact that it represents an extrinsic motivation for learning. That is, the learner agrees to take part in the activity to earn a reward that is not inherently related to the activity (such as to earn praise from the trainer, get a certificate, or gain credibility with the boss). By contrast, people who are intrinsically motivated study a subject or learn a skill because it produces inherently positive consequences, such as becoming more competent or knowledgeable, or being better able to carry out their work.

Extrinsic motivation is widespread in society (at times we all do things in order to win public recognition, admiration from friends and family, prizes, medals, certificates or badges). However, there are a number of potential dangers in relying on behaviourism in the training and development setting:

* The behavioural method of training is often perceived as rote learning--boring and dehumanising. There is certainly an element of Orwell's 1984 in some of Skinner and Watson's suggested uses for behavioural techniques: people are stripped of their free will and responsibility, and human behaviour is reduced to a purely biological phenomenon, that can be shaped and manipulated by those able to use the tools of behaviourism.

* Changes in trainee behaviour may be temporary. As soon as they finish the course or get the certificate, they may revert to earlier behaviours. For example, a manager may demonstrate excellent performance-appraisal skills in the training room but fail to apply these in the work setting. This is particularly likely to occur when trainees have not struggled with an issue themselves, but have merely listened to a trainer talk them through both problem and solution.

* Trainees may develop a materialistic approach to training: 'What's in it for me if I do this course?' 'Will I get more money for having undertaken this training?'

* Extrinsic rewards may undermine any intrinsic motivation trainees may have for developing their skills and knowledge. This is especially true when reward comes for mere attendance, as is the case with training programmes that offer certificates of attendance.


Today's work environment is constantly changing and putting demands on us to change with it. If we are to respond to these changes, we will need to be flexible and adaptable, and able to think differently about the way in which we train and develop people.

Your approach to learning needs to encourage people to take a dynamic and innovative approach to their roles and responsibilities at work. Strictly applied behaviourist training techniques do not allow for the relevance of thoughts, feelings or motives in the learning process, treating learning as merely a series of conditioned responses.

Rather than basing much of your training on behaviourism (which comes from research on the behaviour of animals inside a box), you need to think outside the box and develop more responsive, integrated training philosophies that meet the needs of a diverse employee group.

Key learning points

* The origins and key principles of behaviourism.

* The terminology of behaviourism.

* The implications of behaviourism for trainers and training design.

* Ways of using behaviourist ideas effectively in the training setting.

* The potential pitfalls of behaviourist training techniques.



ROAR = Repetition, Objectives, Activity and Reinforcement.

Repetition: practice makes perfect and practice makes permanent. If you want your trainees to develop a new skill, you must give them plenty of opportunities to practise. Repeat key learning points a number of times to help trainees to memorise them.

Objectives: formulate your objectives in behavioural terms--for example, 'By the end of this session trainees will be able to ...'

Activity: learning is more effective hen the trainee is actively involved, rather than passively listening. Learning by doing is best.

Reinforcement: reinforce your trainees' learning through feedback, practice, reward and testing.


Susan Iacovou is a business psychologist, trainer and writer. She can be contacted at
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Author:Iacovou, Susan
Publication:Training Journal
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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