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Chapter 4
Theories of Learning




Operant Conditioning is a form of learning in which new responses are strengthen by presenting rewards




The notion that rewards affect behavior has been around for at least 100 years.


Different individuals will work for different rewards: Example:


One child will do anything (mow lawn, scrub bathtub, wash car) to make

Money to buy something he or she desperately want to buy.


       In contrast, another son is not motivated by financial rewards and would

       never do household chores for money.  Yet, he will quickly clean up the

       disaster area called his room, if doing so enables him to have a friend spend

       the night.


We can paraphrase B.F. Skinners basic principle of Operant Conditioning as

follows:      Page 52


A response followed by a reinforcer  (reward) is strengthened and is therefore

likely to occur again.


Without being so technical, this simply says, When you want an action or event

repeated, reward the action or event.




Reinforcers, or Rewards are used to change behavior.


Skinner intentionally used the term reinforcer instead of reward to describe a stimulus that increases the frequency of a behavior because the word reward implies pleasant and desirable.     Page 52


Pleasant and desirable are subjective judgments.  Some individuals will work for what others view as unpleasant consequences.  Therefore, reward would be misleading.  The term reinforcer can be used without any allusion to either pleasantness or desirability.



                                                             Pg 53

  Three important conditions are necessary for Operant Conditioning to occur.


  • The reinforcer must follow the response                   (A Grade)
  • The reinforcer must follow immediately                    (House Breaking Dog)
  • The reinforcer must be contingent on the response   (Field Trip)



Virtually any behavior____ academics, social, or psychomotor_____ can be learned or modified through Operant Conditioning.


As a Teacher, you should keep reminding yourself what student behavior you want to increase and reinforce those behaviors when they occur.  Example:  (Rewarding and praise a Quiet Student who raises his/her hand to answer a question).


Unfortunately, undesirable behavior can be reinforced just as easily as desirable ones. Aggressive and criminal activity often leads to successful outcomes.  Crime usually does pay, at least in the short run.





Skinner suggests that there are really two different kinds of learning.  Pg 54 



                                      Classical Conditioning                       Operant Conditioning


Occur When:                  two stimuli are                                      a response (R) is followed

                                       paired  (UCS and CS)                            by reinforcing stimulus 



Nature of Response:      Involuntary: elicited by a                       Voluntary: emitted by the  

                                       stimulus                                                  organism                          



Model:                            CS  CR                                               R    S                                                                                                     


                                        (Reaction To)                                      (Reinforcing Action)  






Pg 55


Free Operant Level = The frequency of an operant in the absence of reinforcement        .

                                          (How often a behavior occurs without manipulation)          


Terminal Behavior  = The form and frequency of a desired response at the end of a

                                      planned reinforcement program.    (when you achieve what you want)


Extinction                 = Occurs when a response is no longer followed by a reinforcer.

Superstitious Behavior = Randomly administered reinforcement tends to reinforce

                                           whatever response that has occurred immediately beforehand,

                                           and the organism will increase that response, thus displaying

                                           what Skinner called superstitious behavior.  An example

                                           might be when basketball players who do certain things before

                                           they shoot free throws. 


Shaping =                          A means of teaching a behavior when the free operant level

                                            for that behavior is low. (To shape a particular behavior, we

                                            begin by reinforcing the first response that in any way

                                            approximates the desired behavior and then continue to

                                            reinforce it until the organism is emitting it fairly frequently.

                                            At this point, we reinforce only those responses that more

                                            closely resemble the desired behavior, then those that

                                            resemble it more closely still, until eventually only the desired

                                            behavior itself is being reinforced. In other words, shaping is

                                            a process of reinforcing successively closer and closer

                                            approximations to the terminal behavior until the terminal

                                            behavior is exhibited. 


Chaining =                        A process of teaching a sequence of responses by first

                                           reinforcing just one response, then reinforcing two responses

                                           in a row, then three in a row and so on. Example, Students in

                                           a first grade classroom might learn to put their work materials

                                           away, sit quietly at their desks, and then line up single file at

                                           classroom door before going to lunch.  Such complex actions

                                           are more easily taught one step at a time through chaining.



Pg 58

We have discussed at length how reinforcers can be used to change behavior.  Now lets discuss types of reinforcers:







Primary Reinforcers =     Ones that satisfies a biological need.  (Food, water, oxygen,

                                            warmth, physical affection).


Secondary Reinforcers =  A previously neutral stimulus that has become reinforcing to

                                            an organism through repeated association with another

                                            reinforcer.  They do not satisfy any obvious biological

                                            necessities,  Example: Money, Grades, Praise, Success

Positive Reinforcers =       Food, praise, smiles and success are all positive reinforcers.

Negative Reinforcers =  Actions that increase a response through the removal of a

                                         stimulus, usually an adverse or unpleasant one. Example:

                                         Many cars sound a loud buzzer if the key is left in the ignition

                                         when the drivers door is opened: removal of the key from the

                                         ignition is negative reinforcement and presumably will increase

                                         in frequency because it stops the buzzer.(Rats learn/ stop shock)


Punishment               =   An adverse action that decreases certain responses.  Example:

                                        (Scolding, Spanking, Humiliating, etc.)




Pg 64



At least three factors influence the effectiveness of reinforcement in  Operant Conditioning:  Timing, Magnitude and Appeal, and Consistency.


Timing:  Immediate reinforcement is very important in Operant Conditioning.  In most cases, greater delays in reinforcement lead to slower acquisition of response. (Test Papers)


Magnitude and Appeal:  The larger more appealing the reinforcer, the faster a response will be learned and the more frequently it will be exhibited.  For example, in a study, three to five year old boys learned more quickly when they were reinforced with such treats as candy, coins, balloons, and small toys than when the reinforcers were unexciting buttons.  For older children and adults, large, delayed rewards are more effective than small, immediate ones, providing that the individuals know that those delayed rewards will in fact be coming.


Consistency:  One of the most critical factors affecting both the rate at which responses are learned and the rate at which they can be extinguished is the consistency of reinforcement.




The basic principle of Operant Conditioning is that responses followed by reinforcement increase the frequency of that response.


For operant conditioning to occur, a reinforcer must follow immediately after a response and also be contingent on that response.


Free operant level or baseline of a response is its frequency in the absence of reinforcement.


Terminal behavior is the form and frequency of the desired response at the end of a reinforcement program.



B.F. Skinner contended that, in classroom situations, appropriate behaviors are usually reinforced inconsistently and undesirable behaviors are often unintentionally reinforced.


Recent perspectives of Operant Conditioning differ somewhat from Skinners original notions.  For example, some theorists propose that behavior is better understood by looking beyond specific S-R relationships to a larger context and longer time frame. In addition, some current explanations of why operant conditioning takes place include a discussion of the cognitive factors that underlie conditioning.  And many theorists now believe that behavior may never be totally predictable.  





















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