Have you ever wished that you could just ring a bell or sound a gong and your students would all become magically silent and give you their undivided attention?
Would you enjoy the opportunity to have students quietly transition between activities with little disruption?
For any teacher, these scenarios sound like a dream. With classical conditioning, we can make them a reality.
Pavlov and the salivating dogs is the notorious classical conditioning experiment. Although it seems primitive, this research has practical applications in the classroom. Read on to hear how an old theory has the potential to breed new tricks in the classroom.
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Learning Theory and Classical Conditioning Explained
“Every existing organism must in some way or another be sensitive to both meaningful as well as more coincidental relations between events in the environment.”
Eelen, 2018, p. 197
To understand this concept is to understand the premise of classical conditioning.
As learning can be described as an adaptive change in an individual’s behavior, learning theory is the approach, either physical or mental, responsible for changing the behavior (McLean & Christensen, 2017).
Learning theory includes both non-associative and associative learning. Classical conditioning is considered associative learning, as there is an association between two stimuli or events that cause the change in behavior.
To gain a better understanding of learning theory and classical conditioning, let’s explore the infamous experiment involving the salivation of dogs. Pavlov (1927) noticed that his research dogs began salivating around mealtimes, which is a natural response to eating; however, the salivation began even before the dogs ate.
Observing this phenomenon, Pavlov theorized he could elicit the salivation of dogs by presenting another stimulus to produce the same response. Pavlov introduced a bell tone before the dogs were given their food, and the dogs salivated at the tone of the bell.
Watson’s controversial experiment involving Little Albert is also an example of classical conditioning (Powell, Digdon, Harris, & Smithson, 2014). Little Albert was a young boy who was introduced to a white rat. At first, he enjoyed playing with and petting the rat; however, Watson began pairing the furry rat with a loud sound. Soon, Little Albert associated the rat with the loud noise, which made him cry.
Watson could eventually present the white rat without the loud noise and elicit a cry from Little Albert. It was theorized that Little Albert would develop a phobia of furry animals.
Simply put, classical conditioning is learning associations between two events (Eelen, 2018). To change a behavior using classical conditioning, you must pair the conditional stimulus (CS) with an unconditional stimulus (US), and then the conditioned response (CR) now comes to be elicited by the CS, with many opportunities for practice of course (Bouton & Moody, 2004). This process may be better understood with a few examples.
Conditioning in the Classroom: 4 Examples
The last class before lunchtime can be difficult for students and their growing bodies. They may sense that lunchtime isn’t far off, and their tummies begin to rumble.
Perhaps students have music class before lunch every day. Halfway through music class, their stomachs may begin to rumble, similar to the salivation of the dogs in Pavlov’s experiment. The children may actually start to associate music class with hunger.
- Neutral stimulus (NS): After music class
- Unconditional stimulus (US): Eating lunch
- Unconditional response (UR): Feeling hungry
- Conditional stimulus (CS): Music class
- Conditional response (CR): Feeling hungry
As a child, perhaps you were given a special treat or privilege upon earning good grades on report cards or progress reports. You may have begun to associate good grades with a special treat.
Research has shown that parents’ perceptions have a stronger influence over children’s sense of self and task perceptions, even more so than their own grades (Frome & Eccles, 1998). Let’s break it down in the following example:
- NS: Good report card grades
- US: Going for ice cream
- UR: Feeling excited
- CS: Good report card grades
- CR: Feeling excited
It comes as no surprise that mistreatment, which can include public humiliation, may lead to student burnout and poor mental health (Markman, Soeprono, Combs, & Cosgrove, 2019).
Being humiliated by a teacher could still be haunting you today. Let’s say that a math teacher embarrassed a student. That student may develop a dislike for the subject that follows them even into adulthood.
- NS: Student performs poorly in math class
- US: Getting lectured by the math teacher
- UR: Feeling embarrassed
- CS: Math
- CR: Feeling embarrassed
Classical conditioning can also be exhibited in forms of technology. Computer games that play different sounds when you get the correct or incorrect answer are prime examples. Baccus, Baldwin, and Packer (2004) designed a study that demonstrated that implicit self-esteem can be increased using a computer game that repeatedly pairs self-relevant information with smiling faces.
- NS: Getting the correct answer
- US: Hearing a high-pitched “ding!”
- UR: Feeling pleased with yourself
- CS: The high-pitched “ding!”
- CR: Feeling pleased with yourself
How to Apply Classical Conditioning in the Classroom
Attention-getters such as turning off the lights, rhyming, student callbacks, hand signals, a bell, music, or when the teacher simply stops talking could be used to obtain students’ attention.
For example, a teacher may say, “Class, class!” and the class is expected to call back, “Yes, yes!” and then wait for the teacher’s next direction. Modeling this behavior will be crucial to beginning the conditioning process.
Transition notifications such as a bell, gong, chimes, music, or a clap may sometimes be used to notify students of a transition. As an example, a teacher may strike a gong to alert students it is time to switch centers and move on to the next activity.
Creating a procedure for quick transitions will grant the teacher additional instructional time. Just as with the attention-getter, the teacher will want to explicitly model the expected behavior and review the expectations often. Please see how to play a transition game below.
Positive feedback is an easy way to keep the students who are doing the right thing on track while motivating students who are off-track to switch courses.
The students who receive the positive feedback will associate the activity they are being praised for with a good feeling. Most students will continue to demonstrate the behavior.
The students who may not be showing the desired behavior may hear the positive feedback toward the other students and wish to receive the positive feedback as well. They will then, most likely, exhibit the desired behavior. Of course, there are always exceptions. This concept borders operant conditioning with positive reinforcement.
Answer cueing may be used to provide students a procedure for answering questions, as well as grant students additional “think time.” This technique prevents fast-paced students from shouting out the answers to questions before the other students can process the question and formulate an answer.
For example, a teacher may raise their hands up while asking the question, keep the hands up an extra few seconds, and then bring the hands down with palms facing upward, signaling students they are now permitted to answer the question.
While this “think time” typically lasts only 1.5 seconds, research has shown that waiting three seconds or more will benefit the students (Stahl, 1994). This additional processing time can encourage more students to contribute to the lesson and answer the question presented by the teacher.
Unfortunately, classical conditioning can also hinder learning. As demonstrated, a bad experience in a certain class or with a specific teacher may cause a student to dislike that particular subject in general.
To make classical conditioning more concrete for students or support the learning even more, classical conditioning can be paired with operant conditioning. The pairing of classical conditioning and operant conditioning would involve the use of reinforcements.
8 Worksheets and Games for Teachers
Classical Conditioning & Your Classroom
Behavior management is a particularly troublesome skill for many new and veteran teachers. Use this Classical Conditioning & Your Classroom worksheet to help condition your students to perform the desired action after you present them with a stimulus of your choosing.
Classical Conditioning Graphic Organizer
The Classical Conditioning Graphic Organizer is available on Teachers Pay Teachers for free. This is a helpful resource to understand Pavlov’s dog salivation experiment and record other conditioning examples you would like to try in the classroom.
Classical conditioning balloon pop game
This balloon pop game from Teachers Pay Teachers is an activity to demonstrate and help teach older students what classical conditioning is all about.
In this activity, the teacher walks around the room and randomly pops balloons. Then the teacher walks around the room without popping the balloons, noting to the class that students continue to flinch.
The students are conditioned to flinch as the teacher walks around the classroom popping the balloons; however, they continue to flinch even when the teacher does not pop the balloons.
Matching activities, such as Memory, are an excellent way to build focus, memory, and matching skills, while using classical conditioning to motivate the players.
In a matching game, the player chooses a card to turn over. The player then chooses another card to turn over, and if the card matches the first, the player keeps the cards. Discovering that the pictures or items on the card match, the player is conditioned to be more mindful of other cards’ locations as they are being turned over.
Activities such as Memory may also be found in digital form as a computer game; for many children, this may be their first exposure to Memory games (Nilsen, Lundin, Wallerstedt, & Pramling, 2021).
Pulse conditioning game
Pulse conditioning involves two students taking each other’s pulse. One student takes the other student’s pulse after they have been relaxing for two minutes. Then the pulse recorder taps their pencil five times, and the relaxing student must stand up and hop on one foot for 30 seconds. The pulse is taken again, and this act is repeated five times.
After the fifth time, the recorder taps the pencil five times and the other student does not get up. The recorder takes the student’s pulse, and the pulse should be as high as it was after the student was hopping (Leonard, 2018).
The cue-set activity requires the teacher to tap a desk three times with a yardstick and then tap the student’s head once. This is repeated three times. The fourth time, the teacher taps the desk four times, and the class should be able to witness the student’s anticipation of the tap on the head (Leonard, 2018).
Conditioned response buzzer
In the conditioned response buzzer activity, the teacher provides a text with some words that are in bold font. The teacher instructs students to tap their pencil every time the word “the” is read.
While students are reading, the teacher rings a bell when every bold word is read. Soon students will begin to tap their pencil whenever a bold word is read, in addition to all the instances of “the.” This activity shows how quickly classical conditioning can take effect (Leonard, 2018).
Timely Transitions Game
The Timely Transitions Game offers students a class-wide reward for completing appropriate transitions (Yarbrough, Skinner, Lee, & Lemmons, 2004).
This activity allows teachers to consider several types of criteria, which may include the duration of the transition or the noise level of the students. The teacher discusses the expectations and posts them in the front of the room.
Demonstration and modeling of an appropriate transition are critical for student understanding. As the transitions occur, the teacher times the students using a stopwatch and writes the time on chart paper that is visible to the class. This strategy alone decreased the transition times (Yarbrough et al., 2004).
At the end of the day, the teacher randomly chooses a transition criteria (time or noise level), and if the students achieved this time or goal, a letter is written on the board.
The letters in this particular study spelled out P-A-R-T-Y, and once the students earned these letters, they received their group reinforcer: a party.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
For more information on classical conditioning, check out What Is the Classical Conditioning Theory? 6 Real-Life Examples.
To learn more about the social learning theory specifically, please refer to What Is Bandura’s Social Learning Theory? 3 Examples.
Although somewhat different, if you are interested in learning more about operant conditioning, you may want to reference Operant Conditioning Theory: Examples for Successful Habit Formation, and if your intention is to modify students’ behavior and improve classroom management, How to Get Your Desired Behavior Using Operant Conditioning would be a useful resource.
To dive deeper into classical conditioning studies, especially if you are interested in learning more about the specific types of stimuli and responses involved in the classical conditioning process, check out 4 Fascinating Classical Conditioning & Behaviorism Studies.
What Is the Classical Conditioning Theory? 6 Real-Life Examples includes a helpful diagram for understanding the conditioning process and may even help you develop your own classical conditioning exercises in your classroom.
17 Positive Psychology Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Like Pavlov’s dogs and Watson’s Little Albert experiments, children can be conditioned in the classroom. An educator can use this learning theory to improve classroom instruction and behavior management. Likewise, a school staff member will also need to be mindful not to condition children negatively, as it could lead to long-term effects.
It is important for educators to know that children’s self-esteem can also be altered by conditioning. In the study by Baccus et al. (2004), the participants who were exposed to combinations of self-relevant information and smiling faces showed increased implicit self-esteem compared to control subjects.
We gather from this research that self-esteem is malleable, and teachers have the potential to elevate students’ self-esteem through classical conditioning. Likewise, teachers have the power to apply extinction practices so that students no longer associate certain events with negative thoughts of themselves. Praising a student for even the slightest act cannot be emphasized enough for having a monumental impact on students’ lives.
We can observe classical conditioning through classroom behavior management, class routines, or even the educational games that students play. It is an excellent tool to reinforce learning, and learning can be delivered to an entire class. May this old learning theory bring a new light to providing instruction and managing your classroom.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Baccus, J. R., Baldwin, M. W., & Packer, D. J. (2004). Increasing implicit self-esteem through classical conditioning. Psychological Science, 15(7), 498–502.
- Bouton, M. E., & Moody, E. W. (2004). Memory processes in classical conditioning. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 28(7), 663–674.
- Eelen, P. (2018). Classical conditioning: Classical yet modern. Psychologica Belgica, 58(1), 196–211.
- Frome, P. M., & Eccles, J. S. (1998). Parents’ influence on children’s achievement-related perceptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(2), 435–452.
- Leonard, K. (2018). Classical conditioning classroom examples. Hello Motherhood. Retrieved August 31, 2021, from https://www.hellomotherhood.com/physical-education-games-for-elementary-children-6662731.html
- Markman, J. D., Soeprono, T. M., Combs, H. L., & Cosgrove, E. M. (2019). Medical student mistreatment: Understanding ‘public humiliation’. Medical Education Online, 24(1), 1615367.
- McLean, A. N., & Christensen, J. W. (2017). The application of learning theory in horse training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 190, 18–27.
- Nilsen, M., Lundin, M., Wallerstedt, C., & Pramling, N. (2021). Evolving and re-mediated activities when preschool children play analogue and digital memory games. Early Years, 41(2–3), 232–247.
- Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Oxford University Press.
- Powell, R. A., Digdon, N., Harris, B., & Smithson, C. (2014). Correcting the record on Watson, Rayner, and Little Albert: Albert Barger as “Psychology’s lost boy”. American Psychologist, 69(6), 600–611.
- Stahl, R. J. (1994). Using” think-time” and” wait-time” skillfully in the classroom. ERIC Clearinghouse.
- Yarbrough, J. L., Skinner, C. H., Lee, Y. J., & Lemmons, C. (2004). Decreasing transition times in a second grade classroom: Scientific support for the timely transitions game. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 20(2), 85–107.