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Operant Conditioning  (B.F. Skinner)

The theory of B.F. Skinner is based upon the idea that learning is a function of change in overt behavior. Changes in behavior are the result of an individual's response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. A response produces a consequence such as defining a word, hitting a ball, or solving a math problem. When a particular Stimulus-Response (S-R) pattern is reinforced (rewarded), the individual is conditioned to respond. The distinctive characteristic of operant conditioning relative to previous forms of behaviorism (e.g., connectionism, drive reduction) is that the organism can emit responses instead of only eliciting response due to an external stimulus.

Reinforcement is the key element in Skinner's S-R theory. A reinforcer is anything that strengthens the desired response. It could be verbal praise, a good grade or a feeling of increased accomplishment or satisfaction. The theory also covers negative reinforcers -- any stimulus that results in the increased frequency of a response when it is withdrawn (different from adversive stimuli -- punishment -- which result in reduced responses). A great deal of attention was given to schedules of reinforcement (e.g. interval versus ratio) and their effects on establishing and maintaining behavior.

One of the distinctive aspects of Skinner's theory is that it attempted to provide behavioral explanations for a broad range of cognitive phenomena. For example, Skinner explained drive (motivation) in terms of deprivation and reinforcement schedules. Skinner (1957) tried to account for verbal learning and language within the operant conditioning paradigm, although this effort was strongly rejected by linguists and psycholinguists. Skinner (1971) deals with the issue of free will and social control.

Application

Operant conditioning has been widely applied in clinical settings (i.e., behavior modification) as well as teaching (i.e., classroom management) and instructional development (e.g., programmed instruction). Parenthetically, it should be noted that Skinner rejected the idea of theories of learning (see Skinner, 1950).

Example

By way of example, consider the implications of reinforcement theory as applied to the development of programmed instruction (Markle, 1969; Skinner, 1968)

1. Practice should take the form of question (stimulus) - answer (response) frames which expose the student to the subject in gradual steps

2. Require that the learner make a response for every frame and receive immediate feedback

3. Try to arrange the difficulty of the questions so the response is always correct and hence a positive reinforcement

4. Ensure that good performance in the lesson is paired with secondary reinforcers such as verbal praise, prizes and good grades.

Principles

  1. Behavior that is positively reinforced will reoccur; intermittent reinforcement is particularly effective
  2. Information should be presented in small amounts so that responses can be reinforced ("shaping")
  3. Reinforcements will generalize across similar stimuli ("stimulus generalization") producing secondary conditioning

References

Markle, S. (1969). Good Frames and Bad (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Skinner, B.F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57(4), 193-216.

Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B.F. (1954). The science of learning and the art of teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 24(2), 86-97.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Learning. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B.F. (1968). The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf.

Related Websites

There are two journals that contain current behaviorist research: The Journal for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB) and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. While the work reported in these journals is not necessarily Skinnerian, much of it does continue the legacy of Skinner's ideas. A bibliography and access to Skinner's works is provided by the B.F. Skinner Foundation. More background on operant conditioning can be found at http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

There are a number of behavior analysis graduate programs that focus on operant conditioning and other theories that help to understand the principles of behavioral change (typically in preparation for careers in criminal justice or social work).

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