Psychology and Learning Theory


Psychology is a critical field of knowledge that is becoming more important in the modern world. It is a science studying the human mind, its functions, and factors affecting individuals’ behaviors in different contexts. It means that most theories existing in this field can be applied to various aspects of human activity. Thus, the learning theory field also rests on some assumptions offered by psychologists. It is essential to understand the peculiarities of learning and how the human brain functions to achieve outlined goals.

The formation of a particular habit or skill depends on multiple factors, and psychology helps to understand how they are connected and can be employed in real-life settings to attain better outcomes. The paper focuses on investigating the ideas offered by Pavlov, Skinner, and Watson, their comparison, and analysis to understand how they can be used to promote behavior change in the modern world.

Pavlovian Conditioning

The first analyzed theory is the idea of classical conditioning offered by Ivan Pavlov. The framework was formulated in 1897 after a set of experiments with dogs. Pavlovian conditioning revolves around the concept of learning through association (Sweeney & Murphy, 2014). It implies that two various stimuli can be linked together to promote the desired response in a person (Sweeney & Murphy, 2014).

The classical experiment proving this idea implies a dog is fed every time a bell rings (Sweeney & Murphy, 2014). As a result, it starts to salivate after the sound, even if there is no food. The same patterns can be observed in human beings as they act in responding to a particular trigger or stimulus. From this perspective, learning can also be described as a process of forming specific and desired responses to factors affecting a student. The classical conditioning theory is viewed as one of the central frameworks to explain all aspects of human psychology (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). For this reason, it remains relevant and used in various fields.

Skinner’s Theory

Operant conditioning is another theory chosen for discussion and comparison. It was formulated by Skinner in 1937 in terms of reflex psychology. It can be described as a method of establishing a particular behavioral pattern resting on acquired results (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). In other words, the consequences of an action precondition the probability of new attempts to perform it (Sweeney & Murphy, 2014). It means that behaviors leading to the generation of benefits or rewards will be repeated as they are associated with positive emotions. At the same time, if a particular action fails to promote goal achievement, it becomes less attractive for a doer and will not be repeated (Sweeney & Murphy, 2014). The given idea is also applicable to the field of learning and motivation. Viewing positive outcomes of their actions, students become more involved in a learning process and are ready to put much effort into various spheres as it will be rewarding for them in the future.

Watson’s Behaviorist Theory

Finally, the third analyzed framework is the behaviorist theory formulated by John Watson. Being a fan of Pavlovian conditioning, he believed that all differences in behavior present among various people could be viewed as a result of different learning experiences (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). For this reason, in 1913, he formulated his paradigm, which later became known as classical behaviorism. He assumed that treated behavior could be viewed as the conditioned response to a particular environmental stimulus (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). At the same time, the innate and inherited factors are insignificant and cannot impact a person’s actions (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014).

This idea emphasizes the critical importance of factors affecting a person throughout his/her life and leading to the emergence and establishment of a specific set of responses (Sweeney & Murphy, 2014). The theory remains relevant today as its effectiveness is proven in different educational settings, meaning that it can be applied to the learning field and promote the achievement of the desired outcomes.


Comparing the analyzed theories, several factors should be emphasized. First of all, three paradigms focus on the appearance of a particular response or action and how this process can be modified. However, while Pavlov and Watson offered similar ideas, stating that the environment or external trigger is the most important factor preconditioning particular outcomes, Skinner focuses on inner processes and motivation.

Following his statement, operant conditioning revolves around the consequences of an action and the feelings linked to them. If they are pleasant, a person will likely repeat it, which is also explained by a correlation between behavior and satisfaction (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). The two other theories devote less attention to inner factors and triggers, as they are more focused on analyzing how a person cooperates with the environment and what effects can be seen as the result of this cooperation. However, all three theories can be used in the learning field to attain the desired outcomes and promote a particular behavior.


It is also possible to admit several impacts theories had on each other. As stated previously, Pavlov’s conditioning was introduced in 1897, showing that it was the first among the discussed paradigms. Watson accepted this perspective, saying that the observed behaviors result from numerous external triggers, meaning that this mechanism can be used for learning and forming the desired pattern.

However, cogitating on the major assumptions of Pavlov’s view, Skinner considered it too simple to explain the complex human behavior and all correlations emerging in the human brain due to daily interactions. For this reason, he switched the focus from the external stimulus to the internal one, stating that rewards and associated feelings are more potent factors influencing the formation of a particular response (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). In such a way, being the first among the discussed concepts, Pavlov’s theory served as the basis for new discussions of conditioning and learning.

Practical Applications

The relevance of the discussed theories can be proved by the fact that they remain applicable to the modern learning field. They can be used to promote behavior change by introducing specific factors and triggers that will help to attain the desired outcome. For instance, using Skinner’s view of operant conditioning, it is possible to increase learners’ motivation and readiness to alter their behaviors by emphasizing the benefits of such actions (Domjan, 2017).

It means that the learning process should be organized to emphasize its importance for achieving success in the future. Moreover, it should provide individuals with a chance to perform particular actions for them to feel satisfied with outcomes and acquire the desire to do it again (Houwer & Huges, 2020). It means that the success of the behavior change depends on the ability to affect the intrinsic motivation of a person and involve him/her in various activities. From this perspective, Skinner’s model remains applicable to different learning settings.

Another practical application of the discussed theories implies establishing a specific environment with multiple favorable effects on learners. Pavlov and Watson assumed that the existence of stimuli could produce a new learned response (Domjan, 2017). Moreover, all acquired behaviors are a result of effects caused by various external factors. For this reason, positive behavioral change can be promoted by organizing a structured and beneficial environment providing learners with stimuli they might need to perform certain actions and learn. This might imply external rewards, positive examples, or the formation of positive emotions to ensure the emergence of desired behaviors (Domjan, 2017).

Being focused on various external factors, these theories are used in different settings and remain relevant to the learning field. Altogether, all their analyzed paradigms have not lost their significance as they help to organize the learning process and ensure psychology is employed to realize how the human brain functions and affects it by using the most effective tools and methods.


Altogether, the analyzed theories were offered by Pavlov, Skinner, and Watson. The paradigms focus on factors that trigger the emergence of particular responses and how they can be used in learning. Pavlov’s idea of classical conditioning, or learning through association, was followed by Watson, who introduced the behaviorist approach. It states that external factors, or conditions, are critical for formulating particular behaviors, meaning that responses are learned through such interactions. Skinner introduced another idea of operant conditioning, shifting the focus on the result of an action that makes a person want to repeat it. These theories are used in the learning field to promote the desired change and influence students using effective and potent approaches.


Domjan, M. (2017). The essentials of conditioning and learning (4th ed.). American Psychological Association.

Houwer, K., & Huges, S. (2020). The psychology of learning: An introduction from a functional-cognitive perspective. The MIT Press.

McSweeney, F., & Murphy, E. (2014). Operant and classical conditioning. Wiley-Blackwell.

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