We design courses with many opportunities for students to learn by completing assignments, readings and answering questions in class. But does our teaching increase such behaviours or decrease them?
One lens, psychology of learning, suggests we likely do both. B. F. Skinners’ operant conditioning suggests that how we respond to student behavior can either increase (reinforce) or decrease (punish) our students actions including participating in class discussion or completing homework.
What is Operant conditioning?
As Thorndike’s Law of Effect and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning note we are influenced by the consequences of our actions. Good consequences encourage more of this activity, while unpleasant (or unhelpful) consequences encourage less of this activity.
Reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviours through either the addition of a pleasant stimulus (positive reinforcement) or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus (Negative reinforcement).
“Punishment” decreases the frequency of valued behaviours through either the addition of an unpleasant stimulus (positive punishment) or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus (negative punishment).
What about Encouraging students to answer questions in class:
We might beneficially use punishment to decrease of disruptive behaviours such as disruptive side conversations, interrupting classmates, or answering cell phones by adding the unpleasantness of awkwardness when we stand near by, interrupt to redirect conversation, or let silence fall during the phone call.
Our effect may also be neutral leading to attenuation where the lack of a reward results in decreased responses, including when an instructor neither confirms or discounts the response and simply says “next” until they have 3 responses regardless of correctness.
Over time, behaviours do not need to be (and should not be) actively reinforced each time to maintain higher participation or lower skipping class (see information on schedules and fixed versus variable intervals and ratios).
Try seeing how the number of students’ answers increases (or decreases) with different responses. Predict via the lens of operant conditioning. For example:
- What happens if I ask questions that are too easy? -> Students likely not rewarded by answering.
- What happens if I ask questions that are too hard? ->Students might not be able to answer and receive the explicit or implicit feedback that they are wrong.
- What happens if I present my answer(s) on a slide after I ask them? Students might not be rewarded by answering
- But what if I skim by pointing out all the parts they identified and building on their answer? -> Students might be rewarded and increase participation.
- What if I summarize the readings? -> Students who read now have the frustration of listening again and having “wasted time” while students who did not read are reinforced that their decision was correct.
- What if I have them pull out the readings or use a specific page or section for an activity -> Students who read ware rewarded by not having to quickly skim, students who did not read might experience uncertainty or struggle.
Applying operant conditioning is not about “coddling” or saying “good try” without correcting flawed knowledge, but creating a learning experience that is encouraging of participation, reading and incorporating feedback into later performance. Even when a students’ answer is incorrect there are ways to reward behaviours that lead to improvement (e.g., asking questions) and provide feedback to modify that knowledge by “rewarding” the correct bits, “punishing” incorrect parts, and because we can speak better than pigeons, suggesting how to improve.
While it is useful to be cognizant of how our actions may act to encourage or discourage specific student behaviours, self-determination is still valued and people may not want themselves or others to be treated as treating people like lab rats such as by Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory: