The Implications Of Operant Conditioning In Teaching And Learning

Learning, according to psychologists, is a long-term change in behaviour that is based on experience. Since Operant Conditioning is a method adopted to impart learning in children, it becomes critical that both parents and teachers are aware of the important implications of Operant Conditioning in teaching and learning.

In this article:

  1. What is Operant Conditioning?
  2. Thorndike’s Law of Effect – A brief Look
  3. Skinner’s approach to Operant Conditioning
  4. Elements of Operant Conditioning
  5. Applications of Operant Conditioning

When we think about learning, we usually think of students in a classroom with their books open on their desks and listening intently to a teacher or professor. In the world of psychology however, learning means something else.

Two of the main types of learning are:

  1. Classical Conditioning
  2. Operant Conditioning (also called Instrumental Conditioning)

Classical Conditioning (which will be discussed in a separate article soon) describes an organism’s or an individual’s response to the environment. However, it does not talk about how the response gets influenced by the environment.

On the other hand, the importance of operant conditioning in teaching and learning lies in the fact that it lays emphasis on the organism’s or the individual’s activity in the environment.

What is Operant Conditioning?

The term Operant Conditioning was coined by the American Psychologist BF Skinner.

Operant conditioning is a method of learning, where the consequences (or the outcome) of a response determine the probability of it being repeated.

According to the theory of operant conditioning, a behaviour which is reinforced (rewarded) will likely be repeated, and a behaviour which is punished will likely occur less frequently.

Operant conditioning, similar to classical conditioning, is also a form of associative learning; where the behaviour predicts the likelihood of the occurrence of that behaviour.

The term “Operant” refers to the behaviour that is demonstrated by the child (or individual). The behaviour operates on the environment, and the environment in turn operates on the behaviour.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect – A Brief Look

Operant conditioning, in a way, is an expansion of Thorndike’s Law of Effect, named after the American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike.

So before we delve deeper into Skinner’s approach to Operant Conditioning, let us gain a quick insight into the experiment Thorndike conducted to study how cats learn by using a maze cage.

The Study

A hungry cat was placed inside a maze cage, and a piece of fish was kept outside it. To escape from the cage and get the fish, the cat has to release a latch kept inside the box.

To begin with, Thorndike observed many responses by the cat, but they were all ineffective. After sometime though, the cat accidentally placed its foot on the treadle that was meant to release the latch, therefore making it able to come out and have the fish.

When kept inside the maze cage again, the cat continues with the same kind of random movements until it somehow ends up stepping on the treadle.

Over repeated trails, the cat’s random attempts to escape declined and eventually stopped, as it knew it could come out of the cage by (deliberately) stepping on the treadle. What is important is that the cat’s behaviour to release the latch came voluntary, as it was influenced by a reinforcement (reward), which is the fish kept outside the cage.

Through this experiment, Thorndike’s Law of Effect states that behaviours followed by positive outcomes are strengthened, whereas behaviours followed by negative outcomes are weakened.

To put it in other words, whether or not an organism will repeat a particular behaviour depends upon the consequences that particular behaviour.

In the experiment, the cat stepping on the treadle to release the latch is the ‘Behaviour’, and getting the fish is the ‘Reinforcement’ or the reward.

In other words, appropriate Stimulus-Response connections (S-R Connections) strengthen, and an inappropriate S-R connection weakens the behaviour.

Skinner’s Approach to Operant Conditioning

The Operant Conditioning Theory by Skinner operated on the consequences (outcome) of an organism’s behaviour, to find out the effect they had on the behaviour that followed.

For his experiment, Skinner invented an apparatus called the Operant Chamber, which allowed him to manipulate with the consequences of the behaviour/s of the rat. The chamber was set in such a way, that the press of the lever (behaviour) by the rat would immediately be followed by delivery of a food pellet (reinforcement).

During the experiment therefore, as the hungry rat went around randomly investing the box, it inadvertently happened to step on the lever, and it resulted in the food pellet being dispersed.

Having understood that the consequence was positive across many attempts, the rat soon started to stamp on the lever deliberately, so that it could enjoy the ‘desired outcome’, which is the food pellet being delivered.

Elements of Operant Conditioning

The two major elements of Operant Conditioning are:

  1. Reinforcement
  2. Punishment

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is the Consequence (outcome/result) that follows an Operant Response (behaviour), that increases or attempts to increase the likelihood of that response occurring again in the future.

Let us understand what Reinforcement is in the form of examples of two children, A and B, reading a book.

Child A reads a book, because every time she reads one, she receives praise from her mother. In this example, reading a book is an outcome of a positive reinforcement.

Child B reads a book, because it gives her a sense of de-stressing, relief and relaxation after doing her homework; because she was warned and insisted by her mother to get the homework done if she wants to read. In this case, reading the book is an outcome of a negative reinforcement.

The end result in both the cases is a higher incidence of the book being read. However, the higher incidence happens as an outcome of two contradicting reinforcements – positive and negative.

The scenario with child A is Positive Reinforcement, because the frequency of reading behaviour increases as an outcome of a rewarding stimulus – the praise by the mother.

The scenario with child B is Negative Reinforcement, because the frequency of behaviour increases as an outcome of an aversive stimulus – the warning by the mother.

What is Punishment?

As children, all of us never wanted to be punished, be it at home or in school. But whether one likes it or not, punishments are always found to be one of the influential regulators of behaviour.

Punishment is an action which is carried out with the objective to either decrease (or eliminate) a certain kind of behaviour from being repeated.

Like reinforcement, punishment too is of two types:

  1. Positive Punishment
  2. Negative Punishment

In Positive Punishment, you add something unpleasant to bring out a desired behaviour, whereas in Negative Punishment, you take away something pleasant to bring out a desired behaviour.

Example of Positive Punishment

Just imagine a scenario where you did not clean your room, in spite of your mother having asked you to do it 3 to 5 times. I am sure that chances are that it’s just a matter of time when your mother will yell at you.

And what would you do when she does?

You would of course drop everything and clean up the room on priority. Isn’t it? And thanks to her yelling on a few occasions, over time, you will be cleaning your room even before she asks you to, since you don’t want to get yelled at again.

In this example scenario, your mother added something unpleasant (yelling), due to which the occurrence of your behaviour (not cleaning your room) decreases over time. This is Positive Punishment.

Example of Negative Punishment

In case in the very same scenario, if your mother were to tell you that you will not be allowed to join your friends to the movies this weekend if you don’t clean your room, what would you do? Won’t you get your room cleaned because you want to join your friends for the movie? Of course you would!

In this scenario, your mother took away something pleasant (joining your friends), due to which your behaviour (not cleaning) decreases over time. This is Negative Punishment.

Applications of Operant Conditioning

The two major applications of Operant Conditioning in our daily lives are:

1. Behaviour Modification

Researchers working in the field of behaviour modification consider that many emotional and behavioural problems are caused by inadequate and inappropriate responses and consequences.

Operant conditioning gains significance, as it can, with the right, adequate responses and consequences; induce a change towards the desired behaviour,

2. Education

Operant conditioning can be applied in classrooms to improve the level of learning among children in two ways:

a) Premack Principle

Named after the American psychologist David Premak, the Premack principle states that a high-probability activity can be used to reinforce a low probability activity.

In other words, a more preferred activity can be used to reinforce a less preferred activity.

For example, adopting the Premack Principle, a teacher may choose to say: “If you all get your assignment completed by this Friday, we can all go on a full day field trip on the very next day, Saturday.”

Here, the field trip is the more preferred activity, and is used as a reinforcement to carry out the less preferred activity, which is the assignment.

b) Shaping

Shaping is a process of rewarding approximations of the desired behaviour.

When the child takes time to learn and demonstrate a desired behaviour, the process of learning in operant conditioning can be shortened by rewarding an approximation of (something close or similar to) the desired behaviour.

For example, a teacher may have a student who never completes even 50% of his or her homework. To better this scenario, he/she may set the desired target behaviour at 100% completion of given homework.

However, the child can be rewarded for every successive approximation to the target; say for 70% to start with, then 80%, followed by 90% and finally 100% completion of the homework.