Behaviourism and Learning

I know that a number of psychologists will tell you that behaviourism and learning are just two names for the same thing, and they might be right is some way, but the learning I am talking about isn’t based on rats running a maze, but students learning higher thinking skills. After all, higher thinking skills is what the higher stands for in Higher Education. The rats running a maze is where the behavioural principle come from that I want to focus on. And for those who thought there was a cognitive revolution in psychology, behaviourism is still very much alive and kicking (as it should be – even though I am a party to the revolution). The principles are still as valid today as they were when they were articulated 50 years ago.

So what does behaviourism have to say about learning (as in education)? Actually, it can tell us quite a bit. I have been reading and writing about assessment this past year, and it astounds me that the assessment methods, for as much as we talk about innovation, are still very much based on tradition. Given how much we know about how we learn and master a skill, why are assessments still all done, basically, the same way?

Let me explain. Behaviourist interventions are the best interventions we have for changing behaviours (I’m not talking about a philosophy here, but about what the evidence says). The basic principle for a behaviourist intervention is as follows. Identify a behaviour that needs changing, isolate that behaviour, take a baseline measure of the behaviour, introduce the intervention, and then measure the effect of the intervention. It can be a bit more complicated than that, but not much. You could think of education and learning as changing thinking and behaviours. After all, that is essentially what we are trying to do. Looked at through a behavioural prism, we don’t do a very good job of changing behaviours and thinking. It isn’t that the students (our subjects) aren’t willing, it is just that they struggle to figure out what we want.

What I mean by that can be understood if you think about a student submitting an essay for grading. You might say that innovative assessment means that an essay is only one tool from a large toolbox that is available, however, the point I am making applies to most what is available and used. In an essay, we expect that the student will have a well structured argument, use strong sources, show evidence of critical thinking, throw in a bit of originality, write with an easy to read style, use proper spelling, punctuation and grammar, and get the content right. That means that we are evaluating (at least) nine dimensions on a single piece of work. We expect the student to produce a multidimensionally superb piece of work that we then take in for marking. We, in as little time as possible (given that there are 183 sitting on your desk due back next Tuesday), become an expert judge (a future blog on this concept) on a hypercomplex problem, providing a simultaneous evaluation on the multifaceted dimensions, and awarding an appropriate level of credit for the work. And then we wonder about the lack of reliability between markers

So much for isolating something that we need to change, introducing an intervention, and then measuring the outcome of the intervention. Why can’t we design a higher level learning environment that isolates the skill or content that is targeted, and then introduces an intervention that continues until a mastery level of achievement is reached before introducing something more complicated.

In my Science of Learning module, I focus the students on the providing evidence from an acceptable source for their blog entries and incorporating that evidence into a well structured argument. Two higher thinking skills that the students practise over and over (at least 14 times) during the semester. One of the criticisms that I faced the first time I taught this way is that final year undergraduates shouldn’t all be able to get top marks in a class, there needs to be more spread recognising their varying abilities. However, I asked, in our examination board, if the students meet the criteria that I set, and they meet it well, shouldn’t they receive full credit for having done so? The exam board agreed with me. They also agreed that the learning outcomes ( providing evidence from an acceptable source and incorporating that evidence into a well structured argument) for the module were more than appropriate for a final year class. Just because the bulk of the students master it shouldn’t make their accomplishment any less.

I think it is a shame that this kind of learning is so rare in education. It doesn’t have to be.

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