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Using Classical Conditioning in eLearning for Success

About a hundred years ago, psychologist John Watson did something he wouldn’t be able to get away with today: he purposefully created a fear of rats in a baby named Albert.

In a now-famous experiment, Watson introduced one-year-old Albert to a white rat, whom Albert loved. After a while, Watson began making a loud noise each time Albert reached for the rat. You can guess what happened next: baby Albert, who had just an hour ago been fond of touching his new pet, now wanted to be nowhere near it.

The circumstances of the experiment might shock us today, but Watson’s confirmation of the ways that unconditioned and conditioned responses guide our behavior has far-reaching implications in many areas, including eLearning. In fact, you can use what we now call “classical conditioning,” an innate learning process, in the online course environment — no babies or rats required.

What is classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning has two major components. Unconditioned stimuli are those that arise automatically and naturally — like the way your mouth waters when you smell cookies baking, or the way a baby cries at the sound of a loud noise. Conditioned stimuli, on the other hand, are reactions that can be controlled by manipulating the unconditioned ones. For example, Albert’s fear of the rat was conditioned — he learned to be afraid — because he associated it with his unconditioned response to loud noises.

Marketing professionals have long understood the inherent nature of classical conditioning. You’ll notice that people’s unconditioned responses to gratification are intentionally provoked by advertising, social media platforms, and apps — and it’s how they get people hooked. The same can be done in eLearning.

Classical conditioning and eLearning

Of course, you could use fear and aversion to manipulate your learners, but that’s not what we’re going to discuss here. Conditioning learners to fear the negative impact of wrong answers is not only unethical, it’s ineffective. What you want is to condition your learners to engage with the learning material in a meaningful way through positive reinforcement.

Consider unconditioned stimuli that might automatically invoke interest, gratification, and pleasure in learners:

Here are some ideas for ways these stimuli might be incorporated into your online course:

  • Add a gratifying sound to elements of the course that you want learners to engage with, such as the “next” or “submit” button.
  • Provide instant feedback for interactive elements, such as pop-up windows that discuss the learner’s answer to an assessment question.
  • Use expressive pictures of faces in feedback. People respond to pictures of faces as if they were real, so a smiling avatar can boost a sense of relationship and engagement with the course material when a live instructor is not present.
  • Gamify elements of the course to satisfy learners’ desire for autonomy and competence. Offer rewards for achievements, such as “bonus levels,” that motivate them to do well.
  • Use the learner’s name throughout the course. Most e-authoring tools have programmable variables that can be reproduced on each screen, enabling you to call out a learner by name when you want to focus their attention.

Classical conditioning in eLearning also has a generalizing effect. Poor Albert learned to fear not only rats but rat-like objects, such as stuffed toys and other animals. The same principle applies for positive associations. By stimulating learners’ unconditioned responses to satisfying stimuli, you can create a broader response in which learners are prompted to seek new information on their own. In this way, classical conditioning happens not just in the learning environment, but extends beyond the scope of the course and leads to lifelong learning.