Comparing Behaviourist and Experiential Learning Theories

An eclectic approach to learning and teaching can provide instructional experts with multiple approaches to enable efficient learning. Different learning theories can be employed depending on the objective of the lesson, the context of learning, and the nature of the learners. I compare behaviourist learning theories with experiential learning theories.


Perspective, Definition, and Learning Process

Behaviourist learning theory defines learning as “a change in the probability that a person will behave in a particular way in a particular situation” (Newby et al 2011). Newby et al. (2011) explain the perspective and learning process of behaviourist learning theory. The theory was developed in the early twentieth century and concentrates particular attention on the behaviour of human beings. One of the key researchers, B.F. Skinner, focused on the voluntary and deliberate behaviours of individuals, which he defined as “operants”. It is important to note that understanding behaviour is inextricably linked with understanding the environmental context of the behaviour. If this is taken into consideration, the learning process can be reduced to a simple A – B – C system. The environment presents an antecedent (A), which stimulates a behaviour (B), which results in a consequence (C) of that action. It can be argued that learning has occurred when students respond to their environment (the antecedent) in a specific manner.

Experiential learning theories propose that learning occurs through experience, specifically learning through reflection on doing. It is not enough to have the learning experience alone; it is also necessary to reflect upon that experience. This is an active process, in which learners incorporate what has been learned. Experiential learning has been influenced by the work of theorists such as Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Paulo Freire, Carl Jung, and Carl Rogers. Kolb and Kolb (2005: 194) explain that the theory is based on six propositions. Learning is a process, and in fact all learning can be viewed as relearning. Learning involves coming to terms with different ways of understanding the world. It is important to recognise that learning is a holistic process that results from interactions between a learner and her environment. Finally, learning is the “process of creating knowledge”. There are four stages to the experiential learning process: the concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract hypotheses, and active testing (Kolb and Kolb, 2005: 195). The foundation of the learning process is an experience, which the learner must observe and reflect on before thinking about ways to improve. As the learner continues this process, the previous experiences, thoughts and reflections influence the new attempt. Experiential learning can be viewed as looking beyond the objective, external process to which behaviourist theory limits itself. Instead, experiential learning explores how a subjective individual reflects on a learning experience.

Behaviourist and experiential learning theories have a similar focus on change as a primary aspect of the learning process. However, the theories have different ways of understanding and explaining that change. Behaviourism examines external behaviour and emphasises the role of the environment in the learning process. In contrast, experiential learning theory explores the internal changes that happen in an individual learner when that learner reflects on the learning experience. These different understandings can be used together to supplement different functions.

Role of Instructional Expert

Within a behaviourist approach, the A – B – C framework emphasises the influence of the environment on the learning process. Considering this, the primary responsibility of the instructional expert is to ensure that environmental conditions help students learn most effectively and efficiently. The instructional expert needs to consider which elements to include in the learning environment, such as how computers can be used in the lesson. Scheduling is an important aspect to be considered: will each student have access to a computer, or will students take turns, or work in groups? The context of learning will influence what decisions the instructional expert makes regarding use of technological resources.

If one employs an experiential approach, there are a variety of roles that the instructional expert fulfils depending on the specific approach taken. Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007: 169-171) examine the roles and purposes of educators within the differing theoretical orientations of experiential theories. Through a constructivist lens, instructional experts serve as facilitators of reflection who encourage learners to discuss and reflect on concrete experiences in an open and safe environment. Within a situative framework, educational experts encourage learners to become involved in a community of practice and provide assistance when learners encounter obstacles. If one employs a critical cultural lens, the instructional expert’s purpose is to help learners see the influence of power relations in their lives. If one employs a psychoanalytical lens, the instructional expert can facilitate analysis of learner’s psychological conflicts that may impede learning. Finally, the role of the instructional expert in a complexity theory approach is to be an interpreter, to help students understand the changes within the complex systems in which learners find themselves. Based on this, I would argue that the primary function of the instructional expert is to be a guide and facilitator of learning.

The primary function of the instructional expert in a behaviourist approach to teaching is to focus on the environmental conditions that facilitate learning. On the other hand, within an experiential framework, there are multiple roles an instructional expert may fulfil depending on the specific approach, however the main position is to facilitate learning.

Role of Technology

There are multiple ways in which technology can support the learning process, but I will only discuss a few examples. Within both a behaviourist and an experiential framework, technology can be used to facilitate discussion. This kind of collaboration is enabled by communication technology such as Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and SMART Meeting Pro. Technology can also be used to document the learning process with a wide variety of formats such as photography, voice, or video.

Technology can be used effectively as a means of establishing whether students have met lesson objectives. Using a behaviourist approach as a framework, programs can be devised to test students, such as online quizzes, which students and teachers can use to establish whether students have learned. Within a behaviourist framework, technology can be used to reinforce rote learning, which is practical for material in which students need to ensure understanding of lower order thinking activities that will form a foundation of more complex and complicated tasks. On the other hand, technology can be used to support various kinds of learning experience, which can be of great benefit to an experiential approach. There are programs that replicate real world conditions, which can provide learners with a safe platform on which to practice without the concerns they might have in a real-world experience.

Phase of the Lesson for Effective Use

It is my view that both experiential learning and behaviourist learning theories can be incorporated into a lesson in a variety of ways. I will limit myself to one example for each theory. Behaviourist theory can be employed during the assessment phase of a lesson to establish through observable actions whether learners have indeed learned. This is a means for the instructional expert to determine what learners have understood and with what they need more practice. Experiential learning can also be employed during the assessment phase of a lesson. In this case, however, the focus is more on the learners’ internal processes. Learners can reflect on the learning experience and take time to reflect on what changes have taken place within their individual contexts.

Classroom Arrangement

There are multiple ways to employ behaviourist and experiential learning in the classroom. For the sake of argument, I will focus on how to use these learning theories in collaborative learning to illustrate the similarities and differences between the two theories.  Behaviourist learning can work with groups of varying sizes, however, it is necessary to ensure that classroom is arranged in such a way as to facilitate learning appropriately. Experiential learning, on the other hand, may be better suited to small groups, so it the classroom needs to be arranged in such away as to ensure adequate space for various groups. It is important that students will be able to see the different members of their groups clearly.

Efficiency in your Field

Finally, it is necessary to consider the efficiency of behaviourism in my field. Behaviourism can provide general feedback, rather than account for each individual response to the learning experience. Although it cannot explain or account for the subjective experience of the learner, it can be used to examine efficacy of materials, curriculum, and teaching styles on the learning process. In my experience as an English Second Language lecturer (primarily in Middle Eastern and Asian countries), behaviourism tends to be a dominant learning theory. Curricula focus on external evidence of learning, and focus on test results rather than actual learning.

In my practice, experiential learning can be extremely effective in adult learning since each individual learner can reflect on the learning experience and play an active role in the construction of knowledge and the development of ideas. Experiential learning enables learners to engage intellectually, emotionally, and creatively with material. Learners are accountable for taking initiative and making decisions about the learning process. This fosters internal motivation and enables students to forge their own knowledge and incorporate that knowledge into their daily practice.

Despite the current focus in many English Second Language teaching on behaviourist learning, this approach is too one dimensional and can be enhanced and improved by the implementation of alternative approaches such as experiential learning.


One of the fundamental differences between behaviourist and experiential learning theories is their perspective on how to categorise learning. The behaviourist perspective focuses on external, behavioural changes whereas experiential learning emphasises the internalisation of and reflection on experience. Despite this difference, these theories can be used extremely effectively to support the learning experience. This can be demonstrated in how the different theories can be used to gauge the learning experience: behaviourist theory can be used in the evaluation of learning to use an external, objective assessment of whether students have indeed met learning objectives. The students, on the other hand, can use experiential theory, as a subjective reflection on the learning action. Thus it can be argued that their similarities and differences may complement each other to offer a more holistic learning experience for students.



Kolb, A.Y. and D.A. Kolb. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhanced experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4.2:193-212. Available from

Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. 2007. Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. Third edition. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Newby, T.J., Stephic, D.A., Lehman, J.D., Russell, J.D. & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A., (2011). Educational Technology for Teaching and Learning. Boston: Pearson. Fourth Edition.


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