Classical and Operant Conditioning in Education

We’re all familiar with the famous Pavlovian dogs – ring a bell and the dog begins to salivate, because it’s been trained to associate the bell with food. This is an example of classical conditioning – a small example of what is called the behaviourist school in psychology. What is more interesting than dogs associating bells with food, however, is how these same principles also apply in education, whether we want it or not.

To improve your teaching technique, it’s important to understand how different stimuli can start to affect students after they’ve associated them with a particular reflex. And, in a further example, the same mechanism can also be used to enhance or suppress certain behaviours, in another type of conditioning: operant conditioning.

What are classical and operant conditioning?

We’ve already given the most famous example of classical conditioning: the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov training his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, by presenting them with first the sound and then promptly the food. The dogs learn to associate the sound (which before that has produced no effects) with the imminent pleasure of eating and, after a while, will start to salivate at the mere sound, without the food being present at all. This type of conditioning deals with reflexes and involuntary behaviour.

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, focuses on suppressing or encouraging certain voluntary behaviours through rewards and punishment. And, what Pavlov is to classical conditioning, Thorndike is to operant conditioning. In his famous experiments, he put hungry cats in a cage and placed food right outside of their reach. The cat wandered around in its cage until it happened to step on a lever that released it, so it could get to the food. When the cat was returned to the cage, it had learned to step on the lever somewhat quicker. The reward (food) it had received, had enforced the behaviour of stepping on that particular spot.

What’s the difference?

As we see from Pavlov’s example, classical conditioning deals with involuntary reflexes – salivation is simply what happens when mammals begin to eat, to help with the digestion process. It’s also important to recognise the order at which the process happens: first you present the stimulus that is to be conditioned (the bell, in our example) and then the stimulus that produces the reflex (the food). After repeated exposure (although sometimes it happens after the first try), the stimulus which was before neutral (bell) and produced no reaction, begins to elicit a conditioned response (salivation) because of its association with the unconditioned stimulus (food).

In addition to focusing on voluntary behaviours, operant conditioning also reverses the order in which stimuli are presented. In this case, the desired (or undesired) behaviour (stepping on the lever) is enforced by the consequence that follows (eating the food).

How is this useful in education?

Well, “useful” might be an overstatement. It’s just important to recognise that it happens.

In another, somewhat less famous and certainly less ethical experiment in classical conditioning, an experimenter managed to get a 9-month infant to be afraid of every type of furry critter by first demonstrating a rat and then clanging very hard with a steel bar to frighten the child. This shows that classical conditioning can also produce negative emotions and phobias (for example, test phobia in children).

So, it’s important to make sure you condition the children you teach to view you as a stimulus that brings positive emotions. Treat the people you teach with warmth, create an encouraging environment for learning, and cultivate a safe and respectful relationship with your students.

Whether or not we’re aware of it, we use operant conditioning in classrooms daily. Using rewards (praise and giving good grades) to encourage some types of behaviour and punishment (demerits and bad grades) to discourage others is what the modern school system is based on. While it’s been shown that this type of reward/punishment system is, in the long run, detrimental to student motivation, it is still a widely used way to produce obedient and hardworking students.


Many experiments with both animals and humans show that both classical and operant conditioning can be used to bring about changes in reactions to stimuli. From involuntary reflexes to more complex behaviours, both types of conditioning have wide ranging applications in and out of the classroom. However, as educators, it’s important to recognise the efficacy of these tools and make sure we use them ethically and effectively.