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Using Operant Conditioning in e-Learning Instructional Design

4 minutes

Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, has roots in the behaviorist movement in psychology, dating back to 1902. It is one of two forms of associative learning, which basically means learning via associating two occurring events.

B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theory of learning, expounded in 1913, reflects the second form of associative learning developed during the behaviorist movement. Operant conditioning is based on the elementary but universal premise that rewards and punishment can alter behaviors. In the simplest terms, he postulated that behaviors that are reinforced positively will continue over time while behaviors that are punished negatively will diminish over time, and eventually end.

Four types of reinforcements:

Neutral – These are things which neither strengthen nor weaken a behavior.

Positive – Positive reinforcements would strengthen a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. For example, if you were rewarded with $10 every time you read an email, you would repeat the behavior often in order to receive the reward.

Negative – Negative reinforcements would strengthen a behaviour by removing a consequence that an individual finds unpleasant. For example, if you were being fined $10 for every hour that went by before you read your email, you would read your email in order to remove the negative balance!

Punishment – This has the effect of weakening behavior by providing a negative reinforcement in response to behavior. For example, if you were fined $10 for reading your email, you would stop reading your email.

B.F. Skinner did most of his research with the use of rats and their reward or punishment for exhibiting certain behaviors. When it comes to humans, the reinforcement concept is not as simple. For example, a parent who provide $5 for every A on a report card is essentially resorting to bribery. The child has not studied and learned for the sake of learning but rather, at least in part, to receive the money (reward).

How can operant conditioning be applied in the classroom?

In early years of education, many parents and teachers reinforce positive behaviors through the use of ‘token economy’. This refers to the providing of a ‘token’ reward for good behavior that must be accumulated and, after a certain number have been acquired, traded in for a ‘true’ reward. Example? When teachers hand out stickers for good work and advise the children that those with x number of stickers in y amount of time will receive a larger and highly desirable reward.

So we know it’s an effective tool when used judiciously in a classroom full of children but will it work with adults in an e-Learning environment?

In a word: yes. Operant conditioning is not as relevant to the learning itself as to the behaviors surrounding the learning and this is true for e-Learning as much as any other learning platform.

One way that operant conditioning is used most extensively is in the giving of feedback on the learner’s performance: “ A variable-ratio produces the highest response rate for students learning a new task, whereby initially reinforcement (e.g. praise) occurs at frequent intervals, and as the performance improves reinforcement occurs less frequently, until eventually only exceptional outcomes are reinforced.” That said, most studies on the use of operant conditioning in e-Learning have imposed the caveat that information needs to be provided in small chunks in order to be effectively using this technique; there needs to be a direct association by the student between the information learned and the feedback received.

Example: If a teacher wanted to encourage students to ask and answer questions via a chat forum during a webinar, they should praise the student for every attempt (regardless of whether their answer is correct). Gradually the teacher will only praise the students when their answer is correct, and over time only exceptional answers will be praised. (Source of example:

Another way to use operant conditioning is to ignore behavior that is not desired. Example: A student who is too outspoken and does not allow others to participate might, at least, have their behavior ignored and at most, be censured for their behavior. These are less desirable usages than positive reinforcements however, as they contribute to an overall negative feeling towards the learning, the opportunity and perhaps even the organization.

A student who feels successful through ongoing and varied feedback will be motivated to participate in future e-Learning opportunities.

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