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Learning Theories

3. Operant Conditioning

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about operant conditioning, a form of learning through reinforcement and/or punishment. We begin by exploring Edward Thorndike’s Animal Intelligence Study (1898), which showed that the provision of a reinforcing stimulus contributes to an increased rate of learning in cats (cf. the Law of Effect). We then move on to discuss the example of Ham the ‘Astrochimp’, the first hominid to be launched into space by NASA in 1961. The experiment involved Ham performing a series of conditioned tasks on a space flight and demonstrated the effectiveness of operant conditioning across different contexts and environments.


In this course, Mr Martyn Quigley (University of Nottingham) discusses some classic psychological theories of learning. We begin, in module one, by thinking about the research of Ivan Pavlov and his theory of classical conditioning as a form of associative learning. The second module takes a closer look at factors affecting classical conditioning, focussing in particular on the processes of extinction and generalisation. In module three, we move on to discuss operant or instrumental conditioning and the research of Edward Thorndike. In module four, we think about the mechanisms of reinforcement and punishment in operant conditioning, while module five takes a closer look at how the rate at which reinforcement occurs can influence learning. Module six concludes the course with a discussion of Social Learning Theory as an alternative to the behaviourist approach to learning.


Martyn Quigley is a Teaching Associate in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham. His research interests include the mechanisms which underpin learning in a whole manner of circumstances, and how these can be linked to applied settings (e.g. educational and medical settings). He is also interested in the philosophy of science and how this relates to psychology and the replication crisis.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Quigley, M. (2019, September 27). Learning Theories - Operant Conditioning [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Quigley, Martyn. "Learning Theories – Operant Conditioning." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 27 Sep 2019,

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