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Comparison Between Behaviorism and Cognitive Theories in Tesol

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After decades of development of learning theories, many approaches have been inspired and researched basing on the two most popular theories, behaviorism and cognitive theories. Because of their diverse significant devotion at a certain period in pedagogical history, these theories have been brought on debate over and over, to answer the fundamental question of what is learned (Navarick, 2002). “The primary difference between these two theories is the emphasis on overt behavior in behavioral theory and in cognitive theory, the focus is on cognition or individual thought processes” (Corey, 2009, as cited in Stone, 2012). Many studies have been carries out to distinguish the differences as well as similarities between these two traditions in order to have a closer view on their affection on human behavior in learning foreign languages. Initially developed by J. B. Watson (1878-1958) and more prominent later by B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), behaviorism though has different versions which have certain valuable influence, it still remains the principle of viewing human behaviors and theirs relation to environmental stimuli and reinforcers (Wikipedia, 2012).

External motivations are explained as positive and negative reinforcements; therefore, obtaining enough helpful experiences stimulates learners to react with appropriate responses. For example, learners tend to be encouraged by positive praise to keep performing well more effectively; they on the contrary try to avoid poor grade or mistake after being scolded or punished (University of California, n.d., para. 4). Furthermore, it goes on to explain that the transmission of information from instructor to learner is positive and appropriate. In addition, authentic reinforcements are required to help learners maintain positive responses which are easily extinct after time (University of California, n.d., para. 3). Cognitive theories imply that mental processes which concentrate on viewing how learners understand, reason and adapt new knowledge, not only behaviors, make learning easier and store information more effective with authentic reinforcements (Sincero, 2011,  para. 2).

Unlike behaviorism, cognitive theories define motivation mostly as intrinsic factors so that learners have to motivate themselves and encounter limitations when adapting new knowledge. When learning takes place, students link the new information to the old one, deciding to modify or abandon the existing knowledge to learn new things. For that reason, extrinsic reinforcements such as rewards and punishments are less appreciated (University of California, n.d., para. 4). The Graduate Student Instructors Center of University of California goes on to say that learning is a process of active knowledge input and the role of instructor is significantly emphasized. It means teachers are required to create suitable environments where only proper behaviors are encouraged. As a result, learners are able to assimilate previous knowledge and accommodate the new one (Peters, n.d., para. 1).

For those reasons, what makes cognitive theories different from behaviorism is that cognitive theories put learner as center and forces them to be more active in learning process. Although being developed with opposite features, behaviorism as well as cognitive theories shares some similarities which support each other in some ways, like what Atkisson stated, “though the two movements are different, cognitive does not escape all of behaviorism’s criticism” (2010). Obviously, the very first purpose of research is to provide implications on viewing human behavior in learning and teaching foreign languages. Moreover, they use subjective mechanism to device objective study. Behaviorism uses stimulus and response mechanism to explain how learners react to certain conditions while cognitive theories use mental processing to understand how learners perceive and remember information.

Nowadays, when the need of learning foreign languages increases, educationists more concern on how to support teachers with appropriate learning theories and teaching approaches. Deeply studying on the different features of behaviorism and cognitive theories allows them to understand wider and provides them enough information to develop more supportive teaching methods. The fact that more and more approaches are conducted and implemented effectively ensures further exploration on these traditional theories which will act as foundation for more pedagogical innovations in future.


Navarick, D. J. (2002, February 10). Behavioral vs. Cognitive Theory. Retrieved December 17, 2012 Peters, M. (n.d.). Teachers and Behaviorism. Retrieved January 03, 2013, from ED 703 Applying Learning
Theory to Instruction and Assessment: http://spearfish.k12.sd.us/west/master/peters/page2.html Sincero, M. S. (2011). Cognitive Learning Theory. Retrieved January 03, 2013, from Explorable: http://explorable.com/cognitive-learning-theory.html Stone, D. (2012, April 17). Comparison and Contrast of Behavioral and Cognitive Theories. Retrieved January 03, 2013, from Psychological Musings: http://psychological-musings.blogspot.com/2012/04/comparison-and-contrast-ofbehavioral.html University of California. (n.d.). Theories of Learning Cognitive Constructivism. Retrieved January 03, 2013, from Teaching Guide for Graduate Student Instructors: http://gsi.berkeley.edu/teachingguide/theories/cognitive.html University of California, B. (n.d.). Theories of Learning Behaviorism. Retrieved Decmeber 30, 2012, from Graduate Student Instructor Teaching Resource Center: http://gsi.berkeley.edu/teachingguide/theories/behaviorism.html Wikipedia. (2012, December 17). Behaviorism. Retrieved January 04, 2013, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behaviorism

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