Conditioning and Learning

Published: 2023-02-02 12:00 |

Category: Grad | Tags: learning, habits, conditioning, process, thoughts

I don't think there's a question in my mind about the stages we go through as we learn new things. Much learning seems to be rooted in habits and routines, sometimes without us realizing it. Charles Duhigg (2012) quotes psychologist William James: "All our life, so far as it has a definite form, is but a mass of habits." Later in the same chapter, Duhugg notes a Duke University study that showed up to 40% of our actions every day are driven by habits, not decisions. Habits are learned behaviors - they're developed over time. A habit is simply an automatic response to a stimulus of some kind in order to reach a reward.

The good news is that these habits can be overridden. Bad habits can be replaces with good, but we need to be aware of what triggers those routines in the habit loop. When we're aware of our "normal" responses to situations, we're able to actively change our responses. So, where do our "normal" responses come from?

The idea of conditioning is that learning is based on the stimulus-response interaction (Resnick & Ford, 1981; Berkeley, n.d.). The more times the stimulus is associated with a behavior, the stronger the association becomes. The mechanism of conditioning depends on the situation. At times, we're responding to the stimulus (classical conditioning). Other times, we're more concerned with the result of the response (operant conditioning). The type helps us explain what is happening in the brain as part of the learning process but all forms of conditioning are deterministic. Simply put - the individual has no say in whether or not they are conditioned into learning a particular behavior (McLeod, 2012).

There are situations in which conditioning an individual to form an automatic response to a stimulus is appropriate - the military being a prime example of needing a workforce to act instantly and efficiently (see Duhigg, 2012, chap 3.1 for an example of classical conditioning in the NFL fo another example). With this in mind, habits are formed by conditioning. The habit loop, cue, routine, and reward (Duhigg, 2012), is a clear sequence of a stimulus causing some behavior to reach a goal. The routine - the habit itself - can be learned and conditioning can be the vehicle for learning.

I see Skinner and Thorndike's fingerprints in schools. Thorndike was convinced that learning was rooted in simply forming a strong enough stimulus-response bond in the subject's mind (Resnick & Ford, 1981). Strengthening those associations required practice. Lots of practice. So much so that he argued that schools simply needed to provide students the correct bonds, in the correct order, and in the correct quantity for them to learn the material. Skinner (1937) agreed that repeated interaction with a stimulus (or an idea) would form strong associations for learned behaviors, but he was more interested in the consequences of the behavior and its effect on learning (Cherry, 2020). Learning was a matter of finding the best reinforcement or punishment to form associations between a stimulus and desired response.

I work in technology and the great edtech promise of the last 15 years has been "technology will engage your students in learning." Audrey Watters (2021) notes Skinner's influence in educational technologies that persists today:

If behavior was controlled (and controllable) by the environment, then what better way to make adjustments to individuals — and, as Skinner imagined, to all of society — than by machine....And that is a legacy that is foundational for education technology. It’s not where the story of teaching machines begins, but it’s almost always how the story of teaching machines ends: deeply intertwined with Skinner and with his psycho-technologies. It is a foundation from which education technology has never entirely broken.

If life is a collection of habits acting out, where is there room for understanding? If our behaviors are driven by our own habits, we could infer that the end goal of schooling is to receive a passing grade. Students are given skills to practice and their performances on their tasks are rewarded. Students have learned that the grade is the desired end, not understanding.

But why? Particularly in the realm of learning, behaviorism and conditioning on their own are not enough to describe not only how we learn but why we're driven to learn. Moore (2011) asks why it is "that behavior should be explained without directly referring to mental processes." I want students to develop good habits, some of which are taught through content. At the same time, I want to have a learning environment where students are able to connect ideas to one another to truly form new knowledge.


Berkeley Graduate Division. (n.d.). Behaviorism. Graduate Student Instructor Teaching Resource Center.

Cherry, K. (2020, June 3). What is operant conditioning and how does it work?. Verywell Mind.

Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House.

McLeod, S. (2018). Classical conditioning. Simple Psychology.

Moore, J. (2011). Behaviorism. The Psychological Record, 61(3), 449-463.

Resnick, L. B., & Ford, W. W. (1981). The psychology of mathematics for instruction. Routledge.

Watters, A. (2021). The Engineered Student: On B. F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine. The MIT Press Reader.

Comments are always open. You can get in touch by sending me an email at