In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Meaning of Operant Conditioning 2. Defining Operant Conditioning 3. Reinforcer and Reinforcement 4. Educational Implications or Significance of Operant Conditioning.
Prof. B.F. Skinner (b. 1904) started his research work on behaviour while he was a graduate in the Department of Psychology of the Harvard University. In 1931 he wrote his thesis entitled, “The concept of the reflex in the Description of the behaviour”. Skinner was a Practical Psychologist who conducted several experiments on rats and pigeons.
His important publications are: ‘The Behaviour of Organism’ (1930), ‘Science and Human Behaviour’ (1953), Verbal behaviour (1957), Cumulative Record (1957), Beyond Freedom and Diginity (1971) and ‘About Behaviourism’ (1974).
Meaning of Operant Conditioning:
Skinner called his theory as operant conditioning as it is based on certain operations or actions which an organism has to carry out. The term ‘operant’ stresses that behaviour operates upon the environment to generate its own consequences. An operant is a set of acts which conditions an organism in doing something. In the process of operant conditioning operant responses are modified or changed by reinforcement.
Reinforcement is a special kind or aspect of conditioning within which the tendency for a stimulus to evoke a response on subsequent occasions is increased by reduction of a bond. Skinner revolted against “no stimulus, no response” mechanism in the evolution of behaviour.
Based on the findings of his experiments, skinner concluded that “behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences. It is operated by the organism and maintained by its result.” The occurrences of such behaviour was named as operant behaviour and the process of learning that plays the part in learning such behaviour was named by him as operant conditioning. For understanding what Skinner propagated through his theory of operant conditioning we should define and explain some of the concepts used by Skinner for bringing out his theory.
Respondent and Operant Behaviour:
Skinner, first time, got the idea that most of the responses could not be attributed to the known stimuli. He defined two types of responses—the one “elicited” by known stimuli which he called as “respondent behaviour” and the other “emitted” by the unknown stimuli which he called as “operant behaviour”.
Examples of operant behaviour may include all reflexes such as Jerking one’s hands when Jabbed with a pin and the pupillary constriction on account of bright light or salivation in the presence of food.
Skinner considers an operant as a set of acts which constitutes an organism’s doing something e.g., raising its head, walking about, pushing a lever etc.
Defining Operant Conditioning:
Operant conditioning refers to a kind of learning process whereby a response is made more probable or more frequent by reinforcement. It helps in the learning of operant behaviour, the behaviour that is not necessarily associated with a known stimuli.
B.F.Skinner conducted a series of experiments with animals. For conducting the experiments with rats, he designed a special apparatus known as Skinner’s box. It was a much modified form of the puzzle box used by thorndike for his experiments with cats. To begin with, Skinner, in one of his experiments, placed a hungry rat in the above described box. In this experiment pressing of the bar in a desirable way by the rat could result in the production of a click sound and presence of a food pallet.
For doing experiments with pigeons, Skinner made use of another specific apparatus called “Pigeon Box”. A Pigeon in this experiment had a peck at a lighted plastic key mounted on the wall at head height and was consequently rewarded by receiving grain.
With the help of such experiments, Skinner put forward his theory of operant conditioning for learning not only the simple responses like pressing of the lever but also for learning the most difficult and complex series of responses.
Reinforcer and Reinforcement:
The concept of reinforcement is identical to the presentation of a rewards. A reinforcer is the stimulus whose presentation or removal increases the probability of a response re-occurring using.
According to Skinner there are two styles of reinforcer — Positive and Negative:
(i) Positive Reinforcer:
A positive reinforcer is any stimulus the introduction or presentation of which increases the likelihood of a particular behaviour. Food, water, sexual contact, etc. are classified as positive reinforcer.
(ii) Negative Reinfrocer:
A negative reinforcer is any stimulus the removal or with-drawl of which increases the likelihood of a particular behaviour. Electric shock, a lould noise etc. are said to be negative reinforcers.
The Schedules of Reinforcement:
The important schedules of reinforcement are as follows:
1. Continuous Reinforcement Schedule
2. Fixed Interval Reinforcement Schedule
3. Fixed Ratio Reinforcement Schedule
4. Variable Reinforcement Schedule.
Educational Implications or Significance of Operant Conditioning:
1. Successive approximation:
The theory suggests the great potentiality of the shaping procedure for behaviour modification. Operant conditioning can be used for shaping behaviour of children by appropriate use of reinforcement or rewards. Behaviour can be shaped through successive approximation in terms of small steps.
Successive approximation is a process which means that complicated behaviour patterns are learned gradually through successive steps which are rewarding for the learner. Every successful step of the child must be rewarded by the teacher.
2. Eliminating negative behaviour through extinction:
When a learned response is repeated without reinforcement, the strength of the tendency to perform that response undergoes a progressive decrease. Extinction procedures can be successfully used by the class-room teacher in eliminating negative behaviour of students.
Operant conditioning has valuable implications for reinforcement techniques in the class-room. The schools can use the principles of operant conditioning to eliminate the element of fear from school atmosphere by using positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is perhaps the most widely used behavioural technique in the school setting.
This technique simply involves providing a reward for positive behaviour. The reward can be a high grade, a pen, a smile, a verbal compliment. The principle underlying positive reinforcement is that the tendency to repeat a response to a given stimulus will be strengthened as the response is positively rewarded.
Some educators believe that whenever a child is systematically punished for certain negative behaviour that behaviour tends to decrease in strength.
The effectiveness of punishment as a reinforcement technique depends upon the following variables:
(i) Timing of punishment:
To be effective, punishment should be administered immediately after the inappropriate behaviour.
(ii) Consistency of punishment:
If a child is punished sometimes for a certain behaviour but not punished at other times, then the punishment is less effective than if it is consistently administered.
(iii) Intensity of punishment:
Punishment may range from a disapproving look to corporal punishment, to severe electrical shocks. But very aversive stimuli produce more permanent changes than mildly aversive stimuli and that intense punishment is effective. But corporal punishment which is an intense aversive stimulus should be avoided and instead some other strong aversive punishing stimuli should be found.
(iv) Adaptation to punishment:
If the child is continually subjected to punishment, he loses the ability to distinguish between aversive and non- aversive situations, between which behaviours are acceptable and which are not acceptable.
(v) Alternatives to the goal:
If a child is punished for a behaviour that has no alternatives, serious, psychoneurotic side effects can be produced. By providing alternatives a teacher also facilitates the child’s discrimination between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.
4. Behaviour modification:
Shaping may be used as a successful technique for making individual learn difficult and complex behaviour. Operant conditioning technique also implies the use of behaviour modification programmes to shape desirable behaviour and to eliminate undesirable behaviour.
The basic principle of operant conditioning is that an individual learns to make desired responses because he is somehow rewarded for doing so, as that he learns to avoid undesired responses because he is either not rewarded or because he is punished for making them.
The following principles of behaviour modification help a teacher to a great extent:
(i) Identifying the target behaviour:
The teacher should identify first the particular disruptive acts or undesired responses of the child that he would like to terminate. The more specific he can be in this respect, the better for him. The undesired behaviour that is to be eliminated is called the ‘target behaviour’. When there are several target behaviours the teacher must single out and concentrate on the one that he finds most disruptive or that can be most readily modified.
(ii) Recording the frequency of target behaviour:
The teacher should gather information about the frequency with which a target behaviour occurs. He should ascertain and record the number of times a student acts in the undesired way.
(iii) Identifying the antecedents of mis-behaviour:
The teacher should observe and record the circumstances or conditions under which the student misbehaves. He should find out what happened just before the student misbehaved.
(iv) Identifying the consequences of the behaviour:
It should be identified that what happens to the child immediately after he misbehaves.
(v) Specifying the goal behviour:
Goal behaviour refers to the desired responses the teacher wishes to bring out, the things he wants the child to do. The teacher must first of all decide what behaviour is to be established. He should give a functional description of the goal. Here the teacher should be as precise as possible.
(vi) Formulating and trying out the hypothesis:
The above mentioned five preceding steps are essential parts of a total behaviour modification programme. But the formulation and testing of hypothesis is at the very heart of the programme.
Formulating the hypothesis and implementing the intervention programmes also imply the use of reinforcement techniques:
(a) Positive reinforcers:
The teacher should use positive reinforcers to influence behaviours.
(A) Appropriate reinforcer:
The reinforcer should be selected that is appropriate for the behaviour. No one reinforcer is likely to work in all situations. Variation in the reinforcer may be effective.
(c) No demand for too much effort:
The teacher should not demand too much effort for too little reward. Positive reinforcers are effective because children derive certain benefits from them. Children assess these benefits against the effort it took them to obtain a reinforcer.
The teacher should reinforce a behaviour immediately after it occurs because the association between a behaviour and the reward is easily made at this time.
(e) Reinforcing successive approximation to goal behaviour:
The teacher should reinforce each successive approximation to the goal behaviour. When a student shows little success, his success must be rewarded. Instead of waiting for the complete behaviour, the teacher should reinforce components of the total behaviour. This is known as shaping behaviour.
(f) Continuous reinforcement to partial reinforcement:
Once the goal behaviour is acquired, the teacher should gradually make a shift from continuous reinforcement to intermittent schedules. If the teacher abruptly stops reinforcing the behaviour, extinction is likely to occur. The purpose of shifting from continuous reinforcement to partial reinforcement is to bring the behaviour under self-reinforcement or self-control.
(g) Attention to desirable behaviour:
The teacher should usually try to catch the child doing the right thing rather than the wrong thing and thus calls attention to desirable behaviours, not undesirable ones.
(h) Praise the behaviour:
The teacher should praise the behaviour not the child.
(viii) keeps records of progress and checking the result:
The teacher needs to record the student’s progress towards achieving a goal behaviour. Keeping records of student’s progress will allow the teacher to assess if his plan is working.
It should be noted that the success of any behaviour modification programme depends on the resourcefulness of the teacher, the student and the parents.
5. Basis for programmed instruction:
The theory provides the basis for programmed instruction. Programmed instruction is a kind of learning experience in which a programme takes the place of tutor for the students and leads him through a set of specified behaviours. The principles originating from operant conditioning have revolutionised the training and learning programmes. Consequently, mechanical learning in the form of teaching machines and computer-assisted instructions have replaced usual classroom instructions. The use of programmed material in the form of a book or machine makes provision for immediate reinforcement.
6. Behaviour therapy:
Operate conditioning has also been used as a form of behaviour therapy. Behaviour therapy attempts to treat behaviour disorders by reinforcing socially adaptive behaviour and extinguishing maladaptive behaviuor.