“A cat comes running at the sound of the can opener, that’s classical conditioning, right?” No, no it is not. “Remember,” you say to the student who asks this question, “classical conditioning is involuntary. Since running is a voluntary behavior, it’s operant conditioning.” (The sound of the can opener is a discriminative stimulus that cues the cat. “If I run in there right now, my voluntary running behavior will be reinforced with cat food!”)

After explaining to his students that classical conditioning results in an involuntary response and operant conditioning needs a voluntary behavior, but before getting into the specifics of each, Bart Thompson (Salem Hills High School in Salem, Utah) gives his students practice at sorting involuntary responses from voluntary behaviors.

Thompson divides his class into small group. Each group gets 40 slips of paper; each slip of paper includes an example of classical or operant conditioning. Students are tasked with sorting the examples into two stacks: involuntary response and voluntary behavior.

There are two things that I really like about this approach (which I’m using next term!). First, it gets students thinking in terms of involuntary responses and voluntary behaviors immediately. This seems to be such a sticking point for some students later, that (literally!) sorting this out early should help that. Second, it’s a wonderful application of interleaving. If we want students to know the difference between classical and operant conditioning – and we do – students need practice seeing both kinds of learning and identifying which is which.

If you don’t have 40 examples of classical and operant conditioning, you can scour the internet. Be careful though. There were some examples I found that the author said were classical conditioning but were actually operant conditioning. Alternatively, ask your students this term to submit, say, three examples of each. You could ask students to label the classical conditioning components and identify whether the operant conditioning examples are positive/negative reinforcement/punishment (and explain their choices). This could be an extra credit assignment or an optional for-points assignment.

Once groups have their 40 slips of paper sorted, ask groups to pair up and compare their sorts. Were there any that they had sorted differently? Can they resolve their differences? Circulate among the groups. For any that groups appear to be stuck on, make a note to discuss as a class.

As you move your coverage into the specifics of classical and operant conditioning, you can come back to these 40 examples.