Operant conditioning is a form of behaviorism put forth by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner theorised that all behaviour is created in reaction to environmental stimuli. He believed that this occurred in conjunction with a series of punishments and rewards. That is, when a person is rewarded for a behaviour, it is more likely to occur again. However, when a person is punished, she is less likely to repeat the behaviour. Operant conditioning has practical advantages, specifically in the area of education.
Operant conditioning is based on the premise that actions or behaviours that are reinforced will be repeated. Reinforcement involves providing rewards or positive consequences for a specific behaviour. This can be done through shaping, when positive reinforcement is used to reward good behaviour in a series of steps. For instance, a child who is being potty trained can be taught through shaping. That is, each step the child takes that gets her closer to independently using the toilet earns her a reward. A reward in this case could be something tangible, such as a new toy or an emotional reward, such as positive praise from an important adult.
Implications for Positive Reinforcement
Advantages of positive reinforcement and shaping include many real-world applications. These techniques are particularly useful in a classroom setting. Teachers can use many types of rewards to reinforce behaviour that is conducive to learning. Grading systems, for example, are forms of positive reinforcement. Similarly, teachers can encourage student participation by offering praise or class credit for students who lead classroom conversations.
Extinction in operant conditioning is when a behaviour that is undesirable is ignored or unrewarded. Unrewarded behaviours will disappear over time. For example, teachers often inadvertently reward students who act out in the classroom. These students may be seeking the attention of the teacher or of the other students. When the teacher responds to this, even if the response is negative, the student may find it rewarding, thus reinforcing the behaviour. However, if the teacher ignores the behaviour and it is not rewarded, over time the behaviour will disappear.
Schedules of Reinforcement
Reinforcement of a behaviour does not have to happen every time the behaviour occurs in order for operant conditioning to work. According to Skinner, conditioning is actually accomplished most successfully when done on a specific schedule. The most successful schedules are those called variable interval and variable ratio. Variable internal schedules involve rewarding behaviours after a certain amount of time has passed, but the time intervals are unpredictable. Similarly, variable ratio schedules involve rewards that are offered after a number of correct responses, but this number varies. Variable interval and ratio schedules are the same as those used in gambling, which in terms of operant conditioning, is why many people find it so addictive.
- Miami Dade College: The Basics of Behaviorism, Brenda Mergel
- PBS: People and Discoveries: Ivan Pavlov
- Prince George's Community College: Learning and Memory Module: Operant Conditioning, Deborah Harris OBrian, Ph.D.
- Educational Psychology Interactive: An Introduction to Operant (Instrumental) Conditioning, W. Huitt, J. Hummel, 1997