Learning can be regarded as a hypothetical construct—
a process that cannot be directly observed, but that can be inferred from observable behaviour.

The study of how human beings learn has been dominated by behaviourism. Behaviourism developed simultaneously in Russia and in the United States, becoming a major force in psychology in the first part of the 20th century.

Traditional behaviourists believed that all organisms learn in the same way, and that all learning could be explained by the processes of classical and operant conditioning. Psychologists working within this perspective have investigated the ways in which behavior changes, usually using laboratory experiments and often using non-human animals.

The behaviourists, with their emphasis on environmental factors, focused on the situational aspects of behaviour. Behaviourists claim that behaviour is determined by environmental contingencies, and suggest that personality is the result of conditioning history. Many psychologists have portrayed behaviourist research as being reductionist and lacking in ecological validity.

Alternative theories have been developed that challenge traditional learning theory. These alternative theories have put forward the idea that learning is more than a series of stimulus-response associations. Consequently, many psychologists have moved away from purely mechanistic assumptions about the origins of learning, and now include cognitive, biological and environmental factors in the highly complex set of behaviours that is involved in “learning”.

Learning theories are influential in many areas of research and occupy an important role in psychology.

(Source: IBO Diploma Programme, Psychology, For first examinations 2005)

Learning outcomes

Students should expect questions asking them to:
  • Describe and evaluate the four content topics as they relate to the learning perspective
  • Describe and evaluate theories and empirical studies within this perspective
  • Explain, where appropriate, how cultural, ethical, gender and methodological considerations may affect the interpretation of behaviour from a learning perspective
  • Compare theories, empirical studies and the four content topics of this perspective with those from other perspectives
  • Identify and explain the strengths and limitations of learning perspective explanations of behaviour
  • Explain the extent to which the concepts of free will and determinism relate to this perspective
  • Assess the extent to which learning can be explained by alternatives to traditional behaviourist approaches
  • Assess the extent to which cognitive and biological factors have been added to traditional explanations of behaviour within the learning perspective.

(Source: IBO Diploma Programme, Psychology, For first examinations 2005)
Back to top


We will cover the following areas, some in more detail than others.

Development and Cultural context
Historical and cultural context
  • reaction to subjective study of the mind
  • emphasis on scientific study of observable behavior

Contribution of the learning perspective to the scientific study of behavior
  • experimental testing of hypotheses
Key concepts
  • classical conditioning
  • operant conditioning
  • observational learning
  • cognitive maps
  • biological preparedness
  • critical periods in learning

Assumptions on which key concepts are based
  1. Only observable, objective behaviour should be studied to explain how human and non-human animals operate or behave. This approach is concerned only with external and observable behavior.
  2. All behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning theory - stimulus-response connections develop and build to create complex behaviors. Conditioning implies a lack of conscious thought.
  3. Environmental determinism - all behavior is learned; we form stimulus-reaction units of behavior in reaction to the environment THUS we are determined by the environments which surround us

Evaluation of assumptions
  • comparison with other perspectives to explain strengths and limitations (cognitive, biological and environmental factors)
  • empirical studies that challenge or support

Theoretical explanations of behavior

Later theorists and connections to cognition (alternative explanations)

Current research
Overview (covers comments on Seligman, Tolman and Skinner)
  • experiments
  • observations
  • case studies
Strengths and limitations of methods
  • replicability
  • ecological validity: does it apply to the real world?

Ethics and controversies of research
  • use of human participants for research
  • use of non-human animals for research
Effectiveness (relative strengths and limitations of the perspective in explaining psychological or social questions)
  • examples of psychological questions - dysfunctional behavior, aggression, stress, developmental issues, gender roles
  • examples of social questions - educational systems, urban violence
  • comparison with other perspectives on these questions (cognitive, biological and environmental factors)

Application of theories and findings of empirical studies from the learning perspective
Contribution of learning theories to areas such as:
  • education (for example, programmed learning),
  • work (for example, modelling of behaviours) or
  • therapy (for example systematic desensitization, dealing with stress)

(Source: IBO Diploma Programme, Psychology, For first examinations 2005)
Back to top

Definitions of learning

A relatively permanent change in an organism's behavior due to experience (Myers p.313)
A relatively permanent change in behaviour which occurs as a result of prior experience (Whetham et. al., p.113)

The key words are:
  • change
  • experience

Not all behavior is learned.
Some is innate.



A quick overview

Have a look at this review from an IB Psych student. It will help to consolidate the material we have explored in class.
Learning Perspective 2008
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: psychology ib)


Do you need to memorize everything? NO.
Keep in mind that exam questions are all derived from the Learning Outcomes listed at the top of this page and study smart.

So what should you know?

In relation to the learning outcomes, have detailed knowledge of the following:
  • key vocabulary
  • how at least THREE specific aspects of the historical/cultural context affected the development of this approach (with examples)
  • relevant case studies

Use the note-taking guide to review your information. If your notes are comprehensive, you will be able to retrieve the relevant information for short and extended responses

Revision exercises

Link to Glassman resources on The Behaviourist Approach


Practice questions

More questions from another IB Psych teacher (scroll down to the bottom of that blog page)