Difference between 'Classical Conditioning' and 'Operant Conditioning'

Prepared by: Gospel Songate


'Classical Conditioning' and 'Operant Conditioning' are both an important concepts in  the study of behavioural psychology. While their main purpose is same, the two concepts of learning process have similarities and differences in nature and practice.

Classical conditioning was first discovered and experimented by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov during 1890s, and it was later developed by John Watson. The experiment was carried out with the behaviour of a dog while feeding.
Classical Conditioning

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, was the work of an American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (B. F. Skinner) and is popularly known as "Skinner's Theory". Skinner concluded his experimentation with the behaviour of an animal (rat) which he put in a puzzle box, the process which was similar to Thorndike's puzzle box.

Operant Conditioning


The points of differences between the two theories i.e. Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning - may be highlighted as follows : -

A. In classical conditioning, a dog, out of control, silivate when food is given. The dog undergoes the process of associating an involuntary response and a stimulus. Food has great influence in the behaviour of the organism (dog).
While, operant conditioning is about associating a voluntary behaviour and consequence. The organism kept inside puzzle box acts voluntarily so as to find its way out.

B. Classical conditioning involves mental, brain, thought and imagination. These factors lead to news behaviour or the process of association while physical action is the central point of operant conditioning. Since, the organism (rat) acts without any influence, reinforcement or the process of repetition is frequent.

C. The organism (dog) is passive is classical conditioning. This means that the teacher plays a major role in teaching-learning process. On the other hand, the organism (rat) is kept to actively participate inside the puzzle box. The rat voluntarily find its way to get out of the box. In the same way, operant conditioning is the process in which teacher and the taught should actively take part in the learning.

D. Classical conditioning involves forming an association with some sort of already naturally occuring event. It works by paring involuntary response with stimulus and then unconditioned response becomes conditioned response. On the other hand, in operant conditioning the subject must first display behaviour which may be rewarded or punished. The two major concepts- Reinforcement and Punishment - play a vital role in the rate of behaviour to increase or decrease.

E. In school, if students are allowed to play outside in the absence of a teacher in a particular class/period, the next day when the class was vacant due to the absence of teacher, the students will again think of playing outside. This is one clear  simple example of classical conditioning.

But, if, studenst who do not behave well in the class are detained in the classroom or debarred from playing outside and that obedient students are rewarded . Those detained students are likely to behave well in the next class. This strategy, when applied in the right time can reduce the number of unbehaved students. Reward and Punishment can change learner's behaviour as well as the classroom environment. This is a kind of operant conditioning.

F. In simple term, classical conditioning is based on association and adaptation between influence (stimulus) and reply (response) whereas in operant conditioning, the behaviour has consequences and tends to be repeated.


To sum up, classical conditioning and operant conditioning are the two forms of learning. The two concepts made great contribution in the study of teaching-learning process or psychology. Based on the experiment, it is evident that the animals/organisms come to reflect the environment around them. Likewise, learner's behaviour changes according to the environment prevailing around.

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