B.F Skinners – Operant Conditioning


Q. B.F Skinners – Operant Conditioning

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner coined the term operant conditioning, which is why it is also referred as Skinnerian conditioning. As a behaviorist, Skinner believed that internal thoughts and motivations could not be used to explain behavior.

Instead, he suggested, we should look only at the external, observable causes of human behavior.

Skinner used the term operant to refer to any “active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences” (1953). In other words, Skinner’s theory explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviors we exhibit each and every day.

Skinner is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning, but his work was based on Thorndike’s law of effect. Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect – Reinforcement.

Behavior that is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior that is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened).

Skinner studied operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals, which he placed in a “Skinner Box” which was similar to Thorndike’s puzzle box.

The Skinner box involved placing an animal (such as a rat or pigeon) into a sealed box with a lever that would release food when pressed. If food was released every time the rat pressed the lever, it would press it more and more because it learnt that doing so gives it food. Lever pressing is described as an operant behavior, because it is an action that results in a consequence. In other words, it operates on the environment and changes it in some way.

The food that is released as a result of pressing the lever is known as a reinforcer, because it causes the operant behavior (lever pressing) to increase. Food could also be described as a conditioned stimulus because it causes an effect to occur.

Note: There is an important difference between a reward and a reinforcer in operant conditioning.

  • A reward is something, which has value to the person giving the reward, but may not necessarily be of value to the person receiving the reward.
  • A reinforcer is something, which benefits the person receiving it, and so results in an increase of a certain type of behavior.

Skinner identified three types of responses or operant that can follow behavior

  • Neutral operant: Responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.
  • Reinforcers are any event that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of reinforcers.
  1. Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after the behavior. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a direct reward.
  2. Negative reinforcers involve the removal of an unfavorable events or outcomes after the display of a behavior. In these situations, a response is strengthened by the removal of something considered unpleasant.

In both of these cases of reinforcement, the behavior increases.

  • Punishment is the presentation of an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in the behavior it follows. Punishment weakens behavior. There are two kinds of punishment:.
  1. Positive punishment sometimes referred to as punishment by application, involves the presentation of an unfavorable event or outcome in order to weaken the response it follows.
  2. Negative punishment, also known as punishment by removal, occurs when an favorable event or outcome is removed after a behavior occurs.

In both of these cases of punishment, the behavior decreases.

Schedules of Reinforcement:

Intermittent reinforcement – reinforcement is given only part of the times the animal gives the desired response.

Continuous reinforcement – reinforcement is given every time the animal gives the desired response.

Ratio reinforcement – a pre-determined proportion of responses will be reinforced.

Fixed ratio reinforcement – reinforcement is given on a regular ratio, such as every fifth time the desired behavior is produced.

Variable (random) fixed reinforcement– reinforcement is given for a predetermined proportion of responses, but randomly instead of on a fixed schedule.

Interval reinforcement– reinforcement is given after a predetermined period of time.

Fixed interval reinforcement – reinforcement is given on a regular schedule, such as every five minutes.

Variable interval reinforcement – reinforcement is given after random amounts of time have passed.

In animal studies, Skinner found that continuous reinforcement in the early stages of training seems to increase the rate of learning. Later, intermittent reinforcement keeps the response going longer and slows extinction.

Skinner specifically addressed the applications of behaviorism and operant conditioning to educational practice. He believed that the goal of education was to train learners in survival skills for self and society. The role of the teacher was to reinforce behaviors that contributed to survival skills, and extinguish behaviors that did not. Behaviorist views have shaped much of contemporary education in children and adult learning.

Implication of the theory of operant conditioning

  1. Conditioning study behavior:

Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement, which expedite learning. For effective teaching teacher should arranged effective contingencies of reinforcement. Example: For Self learning of a student teacher should reinforce student behavior through variety of incentives such as prize, medal, smile, praise, affectionate patting on the back or by giving higher marks.

      2. Conditioning and classroom behavior:

During learning process child acquire unpleasant experiences also. This unpleasantness becomes conditioned to the teacher, subject and the classroom and learner dislikes the subject and a teacher.

Suitable behavioral contingencies, atmosphere of recognition, acceptance, affection and esteem helps child in approaching teacher and the subject. If student is not serious in study, teacher make use of negative reinforcement like showing negligence, criticizing student etc. but if student is serious in study, teacher make use of positive reinforcement like prize, medal, praise and smile.

  1. Managing Problem Behavior:

Two types of behavior is seen in the classroom viz undesired behavior and problematic behavior. Operant conditioning is a behavior therapy technique that shape students behavior. For this teacher should admit positive contingencies like praise, encouragement etc. for learning.

One should not admit negative contingencies. Example punishment (student will run away from the dull and dreary classes – escape stimulation.

  1. Dealing with anxieties through conditioning:

Through conditioning fear, anxieties, prejudices, attitudes, perceptual meaning develops. Examples of anxiety are signals on the road, siren blown during wartime, child receiving painful injection from a doctor. Anxiety is a generalized fear response. To break the habits of fear, a teacher should use desensitization techniques. Initially teacher should provide very weak form of conditioned stimulus.

Gradually the strength of stimulus should be increased.

  1. Conditioning group behavior:

Conditioning makes entire group learn and complete change in behavior is seen due to reinforcement. It breaks undesired and unsocial behavior too.

Example: Putting questions or telling lie to teachers will make teachers annoyed in such circumstances students learn to keep mum in the class. Asking questions, active participation in class discussion will make the teacher feel happy – interaction will increase and teaching learning process becomes more effective.

  1. Conditioning and Cognitive Processes:

Reinforcement is given in different form, for the progress of knowledge and in the feedback form. When response is correct, positive reinforcement is given. Example: A student who stands first in the class in the month of January is rewarded in the month of December. To overcome this Programme instruction is used. In this subject matter is broken down into steps. Organizing in logical sequence helps in learning.

Each step is build upon the preceding step. Progress is seen in the process of learning. Immediate reinforcement is given at each step.

  1. Shaping Complex Behavior:

Complex behavior exists in form of a chain of small behavior. Control is required for such kind of behavior. This extended form of learning is shaping technique.

Smallest Behavior is controlled at initial stage. On behalf of different contingencies, next order of chain of behaviors is controlled. Example: Vocabulary in English. Teaching spelling is mainly a process of shaping complex form of behavior.

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