Feedback and reinforcement are two of the most pivotal concepts in learning. Feedback involves providing learners with information about their responses whereas reinforcement affects the tendency to make a specific response again. Feedback can be positive, negative or neutral; reinforcement is either positive (increases the response) or negative (decreases the response). Feedback is almost always considered external while reinforcement can be external or instrinsic (i.e., generated by the individual).
Information processing theories tend to emphasize the importance of feedback to learning since knowledge of results is necessary to correct mistakes and develop new plans. On the other hand, behavioral theories such as Hull, Guthrie, Thorndike, and Skinner focus on the role of reinforcement in motivating the individual to behave in certain ways. One of the critical variables in both cases is the length of time between the response and the feedback or reinforcement. In general, the more immediate the feedback or reinforcement, the more learning is facilitated.
The nature of the feedback or reinforcement provided was the basis for many early instructional principles, especially in the context of programmed instruction (e.g., Deterline, 1962; Markle, 1964). For example, the use of "prompting" (i.e., providing hints) was recommended in order to "shape" (i.e., selectively reinforce) the correct responses. Other principles concerned the choice of an appropriate "step size" (i.e., how much information to present at once) and how often feedback or reinforcement should be provided.
Deterline, W.A. (1962). An Introduction to Programmed Instruction. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Markle, S.R. (1964). Good Frames and Bad. New York: Wiley.
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