One of the simplest ways to remember the differences between classical and operant conditioning is to focus on whether the behavior is involuntary or voluntary.
Classical conditioning involves associating an involuntary response and a stimulus, while operant conditioning is about associating a voluntary behavior and a consequence.
In operant conditioning, the learner is also rewarded with incentives,5 while classical conditioning involves no such enticements. Also, remember that classical conditioning is passive on the part of the learner, while operant conditioning requires the learner to actively participate and perform some type of action in order to be rewarded or punished.
For operant conditioning to work, the subject must first display a behavior that can then be either rewarded or punished. Classical conditioning, on the other hand, involves forming an association with some sort of already naturally occurring event.1
Today, both classical and operant conditioning are utilized for a variety of purposes by teachers, parents, psychologists, animal trainers, and many others. In animal conditioning, a trainer might utilize classical conditioning by repeatedly pairing the sound of a clicker with the taste of food. Eventually, the sound of the clicker alone will begin to produce the same response that the taste of food would.
In a classroom setting, a teacher might utilize operant conditioning by offering tokens as rewards for good behavior.6 Students can then turn in these tokens to receive some type of reward, such as a treat or extra playtime. In each of these instances, the goal of conditioning is to produce some sort of change in behavior.