Operant Conditioning Model of Teaching and its Working

Operant Conditioning Model of Teaching and its Working

Operant Conditioning model

Operant conditioning is also known as instrumental conditioning was given by B. F. Skinner. According to him operant conditioning model is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour.

For example, when a lab rat presses a blue button, he receives a food pellet as a reward, but when he presses the red button he receives a mild electric shock. As a result, he learns to press the blue button but avoid the red button.

But operant conditioning is not just something that takes place in experimental settings while training lab animals; it also plays a powerful role in everyday learning. Reinforcement and punishment take place almost every day in natural settings as well as in more structured settings such as the classroom or therapy sessions.

Let’s take a closer look at how operant conditioning was discovered, the impact it had on psychology, and how it is used to change old behaviours and teach new ones.

Types of Behaviours

Skinner distinguished between two different types of behaviours:

  • Respondent behaviours: Respondent behaviours are those that occur automatically and reflexively, such as pulling your hand back from a hot stove or jerking your leg when the doctor taps on your knee. You don’t have to learn these behaviours, they simply occur automatically and involuntarily.
  • Operant behaviours: Operant behaviours, on the other hand, are those under our conscious control. Some may occur spontaneously and others purposely, but it is the consequences of these actions that then influence whether or not they occur again in the future. Our actions on the environment and the consequences of that action make up an important part of the learning process.

While classical conditioning could account for respondent behaviours, Skinner realized that it could not account for a great deal of learning. Instead, Skinner suggested that operant conditioning held far greater importance.

 Skinner invented different devices during his boyhood and he put these skills to work during his studies operant conditioning.

He created a device known as an operant conditioning chamber, most often referred to today as a Skinner box. The chamber was essentially a box that could hold a small animal such as a rat or pigeon. The box also contained a bar or key that the animal could press in order to receive a reward.

In order to track responses, Skinner also developed a device known as a cumulative recorder. The device recorded responses as an upward movement of a line so that response rates could be read by looking at the slope of the line.

Reinforcement Schedules and its Working

We can find examples of operant conditioning at work all around us. Consider the case of children completing homework to earn a reward from a parent or teacher, or employees finishing projects to receive praise or promotions. Some more examples of operant conditioning in action:

  • If your child acts out during a shopping trip, you might give him a treat to get him to be quiet. Because you have positively reinforced the misbehaviour, he will probably be more likely to act out again in the future in order to receive another treat.
  • After performing in a community theatre play, you receive applause from the audience. This acts as a positive reinforcer inspiring you to try out for more performance roles.
  • You train your dog to fetch by offering him praise and a part on the head whenever he performs the behaviour correctly.
  • A professor tells students that if they have perfect attendance all semester, then they do not have to take the final comprehensive exam. By removing an unpleasant stimulus (the final test) students are negatively reinforced to attend class regularly.
  • If you fail to hand in a project on time, your boss becomes angry and berates your performance in front of your co-workers. This acts as a positive punisher making it less likely that you will finish projects late in the future.
  • A teen girl does not clean up her room as she was asked, so her parents take away her phone for the rest of the day. This is an example of a negative punishment in which a positive stimulus is taken away.

In some of these examples, the promise or possibility of rewards causes an increase in behaviour, but operant conditioning can also be used to decrease a behaviour. The removal of a desirable outcome or negative outcome application can be used to decrease or prevent undesirable behaviours. For example, a child may be told they will lose recess privileges if they talk out of turn in class. This potential for punishment may lead to a decrease in disruptive behaviours.


While behaviourism may have lost much of the dominance it held during the early part of the 20th-century, operant conditioning remains an important and often utilized tool in the learning and behaviour modification process. Sometimes natural consequences lead to changes in our behaviour. In other instances, rewards and punishments may be consciously doled out in order to create a change. Operant conditioning is something you may immediately recognize in your own life, whether it is in your approach to teaching your children good behaviour or in training the family dog to stop chewing on your favourite slippers. The important thing to remember is that with any type of learning, it can sometimes take time. Consider the type of reinforcement or punishment that may work best for your unique situation and assess which type of reinforcement schedule might lead to the best results.

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