Explaining The Concepts Of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a multistep procedure that initially involves presenting an unconditioned stimulus(USC) which elicits an unconditioned response(UCR) (Shunk,2012,p.79). Thus this essay will firstly focus on explaining the concepts of classical conditioning, secondly, it will focus on outlining Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning and will conclude by explaining how Pavlov’s theory can be applied in the classroom.

An unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is a stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response, for example when Pavlov was doing his experiment he used food as a USC because he did not need to condition it, it triggers response naturally. A Conditioned stimulus (US) is an originally neutral stimulus that after being paired with a UCS comes to trigger a conditioned response(CR), for example, When Pavlov paired the bell (neutral stimulus) with UCS (food), the bell ringing became CS because it triggered the Conditioned response.

Unconditioned reflex is a natural response to the UCS, for example, if you present the dog with food, it will salivate in response to the food (USC), salivation, in this case, is a UR because it is something that you are born with and you do not have control over it. Conditioned response(CR) is a response that is learned from a previously neutral stimulus, for example, if you associate light (neutral stimulus) with food and you get a response from the dog, then you remove the food and turn on the light( now a conditioned stimulus ). If the dog salivates in response to the light, it means that it has been conditioned to respond to light.

In one of the experiments (Pavlov, 1928, p.104, as cited in Crain, 2011, p.185), Pavlov used 3 phases to explain his experiment. In the first phase, he presented a dog with meat powder that caused the dog to elicit salivation(UCR). In the second phase, he placed a dog in a restricting harness in a dark room and turned the light on, the dog did not salivate in response to the light because light is a neutral stimulus therefore it has no effect. After 30 seconds, he placed meat powder in the dog’s mouth, and the dog elicited salivation(Unconditioned reflex). He repeated this procedure several times and each time, he paired meat powder with light. In the last phase, he removed the meat powder, and the dog elicited salivation(CS) in response to the light.

Extinction occurs when the CR( Salivation) begins to decreases, this happens when the UCS does not follow the CS (light). When Pavlov was doing one of his experiments, he found out that even though he could make a light a conditioned stimulus for salivation if he flashed the light alone several trials, it began to lose its effects. Drops of saliva became fewer and fewer until there were none at all (Pavlov, 1928, p.279, as cited in Crain, 2011, p.185). The drops saliva declining in amount shows that the conditioned stimulus has been established and it does not continue to work anymore, this means that extinction has occurred. Even though the conditioned reflex appears removed it shows some spontaneous recovery.

“Spontaneous recovery occurs when after a time-lapse in which conditioned stimulus is not presented and the conditioned response presumably extinguishes” (Shunk, 2012, p.79).

In one of Pavlov experiment(Pavlov, 1927, p.58), a dog was trained to salivate to the mere sight of food (conditioned stimulus), when the conditioned stimulus alone was presented at a 3-minute interval for six trials, and by the sixth trial, the dog no longer salivated. The response appeared to have been removed, but, after a 2-hour break in the experiment, the presentation of the CS alone once again produced a moderate amount of salivation, thus this response showed some spontaneous recovery (Crain, 2011, p.186)

When Pavlov presented the dog with the food, it did not salivate for the first 3- minute interval but after a 2- hour break, it began to salivate, thus this means that salivation(CR) has spontaneously recovered from extinction. While he was experimenting he noticed that the dog can also generalize stimulus.

Generalization is the tendency to respond to stimuli similar to the CS. For example, a dog that has been conditioned to salivate to a certain tone of a bell will also salivate to bells of different tones (Crain, 2011, p.186). If the dog salivates to different bell tones, while it was conditioned to salivate to a certain bell tone this means that the dog has generalized the stimulus of different tones. Even though the dog can generalize the stimulus of different bell tones, it can also discriminate them.

Discrimination is the process whereby the dog learns to distinguish between a conditioned stimulus and other stimuli that do not come with UCS (food).” if one continues to ring bells of different tones without presenting food, the dog will begin to respond more selectively, restricting its responses to the tones that most closely resemble the original CS” (Crain, 2011, p.186). This means that if you ring a bell without representing food, the dog will not respond to that certain bell tone because it has discriminated that certain tone.

Once a stimulus becomes conditioned, it can function as a UCS, and higher-order conditioning can occur ( Pavlov, 1927, as cited in Shunk, 2012, p.79). During one experiment, Pavlov’s student trained a dog to salivate to a bell and then paired the bell alone with a black square, after several trials, the black square alone elicited salivation (Crain, 2011, p.186). In this experiment, Pavlov’s student used the bell as an unconditioned stimulus because it was once conditioned to become a conditioned stimulus and used the black square as a neutral stimulus, pairing the two ( bell and black square) resulted in the production of salivation, therefore, the black square has become second-order CS.

There are many ways in which classical conditioning can be applied in the classroom, for example, the teacher tells her learners that they are going to write a maths test and she tells them that the test will not be hard it will be easy, and the learners write the test and find it difficult. Next time when the teacher tells them about the maths test, they will have anxiety and fear because they were told that the test is going to be easy but instead it was hard. In this case, the Maths test is a conditioned stimulus, and anxiety and fear are conditioned responses.

The other way is during the lessons when learners are making noise. The teacher tells them to keep quiet and they continue to make noise, she then bangs the table and tells them to keep quiet, and they kept quiet. Each time she bangs the table, the learners will keep quiet because they will know that they are making noise. In this case, the banging of the table is a conditioned stimulus and the silence is a conditioned response.

The teacher asks the learners a question, and they all answer at the same time. She then asks another question but this time she instruct the learners to raise their hands and she will pick one individual to answer the question. The teacher repeats this procedure 3 times and by the 4th time, she asks them a question and she does not instruct them to raise their hands, and they all raised their hands. The “question” in this case is a conditioned stimulus and the raising up of hands is a conditioned response. The learners have been conditioned to raise their hands when being asked a question.


  1. Crain, W.C (2011). Theories of Development: Concepts and application. (Third Edition)
  2. Englewood-cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-hall (Chapter 8: Learning Theory: Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner)
  3. Schunk, D.H. (2012). Learning Theories – An Educational Perspective. ( Sixth Edition ).
  4. New York: Pearson (chapter 3: Behaviorism)
07 July 2022
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