Improving Study Habits with Psychology

In the early 1900’s, psychologists B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson developed a new branch of psychology they called behaviorism. Both scientists believed that human behavior was shaped by their environment and their reactions to it. They called this behavioral shaping “conditioning”. This article briefly describes the two types of behavioral conditioning and how parents, tutors, and teachers can use them to improve a student’s study habits.

Two Types of Conditioning

Skinner and Watson identified two types of conditioning in human behavioral studies: operant and classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is probably the most familiar to readers due to psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments with his dogs (he actually used about 60 different dogs in his experiments).

The differences between the two types of behavioral conditioning (or “training”) are in the kinds of behaviors each one targets. In classical conditioning, the trainer targets involuntary, or reflex, behaviors such as eye blinking or flinching. Pavlov’s conditioned his dogs to salivate when a flashlight was turned on by turning the light on and immediately giving them a piece of food. Salivating is a reflex response; the dogs couldn’t control this. After a few repetitions of the “light, then food” trials, Pavlov found that the dogs salivated when shown the light with or without the food.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner developed the operant conditioning procedure, which deals with learned behaviors. In his experiments, he used either rewards or punishments to shape the trainee’s behavior (usually pigeons or rats in his experiments). His experiments were much more elaborate than Pavlov’s and sometimes involved using rats in mazes. He developed a complex system of rewards and punishments that required precise timing to train the desired behavior.

In operant conditioning, rewards and punishments can either be “positive” or “negative”. “Positive” means that something was applied or added to the situation to encourage the behavior. “Negative” means that something was removed from the situation or environment to encourage a specific behavior.

Operant conditioning is easier to understand using a few every day examples. Think about why people use umbrellas. People use umbrellas because the rain is “removed”; it is no longer soaking them! This is an example of a “negative reward”. The rain is removed (“negative”) and the person is rewarded with dry clothes and belongings during a downpour!

Behaviorism and Study Habits

Parents, tutors, and students can use the principles of behaviorism to improve a student’s study habits. Although it’s the hardest to do, operant conditioning is the most useful of the two for shaping studying – related behaviors. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow to use operant conditioning to improve a student’s study habits:

1. Use a powerful reward. One of the most important things to know about the student is what they consider a great reward. If the reward isn’t meaningful, behavior will not change. (Rewards have been found to be much more powerful in shaping behavior than punishments.)

2. Set a specific behavioral outcome. You must be very specific in your goal description. Describe exactly what you want the student to do before getting started.

3. Set a reward schedule. Decide when you will reward the student. In operant conditioning, trainers reward “successive approximations” of the target behavior as well as the behavior itself. “Successive approximations” are behaviors that are a step toward the goal but are not the goal behavior itself. Will you reward the student every time they perform the target behavior, or will you reward them every third or fourth time? “Continuous” reinforcement schedules are best for teaching entirely new behaviors. “Partial” reinforcement schedules are better for fine-tuning behaviors that the student is already doing. To learn more about reinforcement schedules, visit the website

4. Stick with the plan. Once you start training the student’s study habits, you must stick with it. Trainees will stop exhibiting the desired behavior almost immediately if the reinforcement is stopped before they are performing the behavior consistently.

5. Reward less frequently when the goal is reached. Once the student’s behavior is exactly what you want, reward them less frequently. If they are appropriately conditioned, the student will keep doing the behavior without needing the reward. Rewarding them less frequently will help maintain the student’s training. At that point, you will only need to reward them about once or twice a month.

Summary: Psychologists John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner developed a new branch of psychology called behaviorism in the early 1900’s. Two types of behavioral conditioning were identified: classical and operant conditioning. In classical conditioning, trainers attempt to get their trainees to perform reflex behaviors (like blinking their eyes) in response to a stimulus (like ringing a bell or blowing a whistle). In operant conditioning, trainers attempt to shape non-reflex behaviors­ using a system of scheduled rewards or punishments until the trainee eventually performs the desired behavior consistently. Parents, tutors, and teachers can use these principles to help students improve their study skills. Operant conditioning, which requires knowing what the student views as an important reward, is the best procedure for shaping study behavior. Care should be taken to continue rewarding the student for performing the desired behavior until they do it consistently.

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