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Operant Conditioning in the Classroom

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Main -> In the Classroom: Learning ->Operant Conditioning in the Classroom

Tips for Teaching Operant Conditioning (download PDF) courtesy of Erin Hardin


Operant conditioning using a token economy (courtesy of Joseph Swope via PSYCHTEACHER listserv 9/10/13) 

The instructor should ask for two student volunteers.  One will be the trainee the other will be the trainer.  The trainee will need to step outside of the room for a few minute.  During that time, the class will determine what behavior the trainee will perform.  (standing on a desk, walking near a window, erasing the chalkboard, etc.)  When the trainee returns to class, the only feedback he or she is given is the words hotter or colder.   By responding to these makeshift punishments and rewards in a token economy, the trainee will attempt behaviors in order to receive a "warmer" reward and avoid the punishment of "colder."  This works remarkable well and it is surprising how easy it is to get an average student to do an abnormal behavior with the right system of rewards and punishments.


Types of Reinforcement and Punishment Examples (Please add additional examples.  You're welcome to add them to the comment box below if you don't want to edit this page directly.) [Thank you to everyone from the teaching of psychology listservs who contributed to this list!]


Positive reinforcement (assume behavior increases as a result)

    • I get a cookie after I finish my reading assignment.
    • You receive an award for writing short stories.
    • An "A" on your well written paper.
    • Enjoying giving a party where everyone seems to be having a great time.
    • You receive a sticker for wearing your ID to class.
    • Smile at other person, who increases the behavior (smiling, talking etc)
    • A service dog is allowed to play tug as a reward for correctly identifying the location of a hidden item (drug, food, etc.) - Premack Principle
    • You receive a kiss for bringing your girlfriend flowers.
    • Getting pleasure from a stimulating conversation with a great colleague.
    • smoking a cigarette brings a dopamine release in the brain - that good feeling
    • Give your child dessert when they eat their vegetables.
    • Feeling good after working at a soup kitchen.
    • You get your allowance only after you complete your weekly chores.
    • You receive a merit raise at work for doing your job well.
    • Put gas in your car so you can move about town.
    • Mouthing off to receive a super wedgie because you think super wedgies are fun.
    • Break the law to go to jail so you can get free meals, free healthcare, and a roof over your head.
    • On the planet Zygomoplic, whenever Farfooch places his tentacles into a clamutz, he receives a drasselpac. Farfooch places his tentacles into a clamutz whenever he gets the chance. (Assume the same laws of learning apply on Zygomoplic as on earth).
    • Making a goal in basketball after using correct form.


Negative reinforcement (assume behavior increases as a result)

    • If I yell "You're the king of the world!" my brother will let me up off the floor.
    • You open a window in your home. However, you aren't happy with the noise from the traffic outside. You decide to turn on the radio to listen to music and drown out the sound of the traffic.
    • You and your friend go to see a movie. 10 minutes in,  you decide it's the worst movie you've every seen. You get up and walk out.
    • I enact this one in class---pretend to choke a student (someone I know well from a previous class if possible!) and ask them to say things to get my hands off their neck; eventually they will say---you are the best teacher in the world--more likely to repeat if I choke them again
    • * take a certain white pill and headache goes away; more likely to take the little white pill next time my head hurts
    • You put on your seatbelt to stop the annoying "dinging" noise in your car.
    • You put up an umbrella to avoiding getting wet in the rain.
    • You clean up your room so your mom will stop nagging you about it.
    • If a parent places a child in time-out when they misbehave, the child child reduces their misbehavior. (Clarify:  Parent is more likely to use time-out in the future)
    • This can be done live, in class. Stand in front of a student and tell them they'll have to do something to make you stop making an annoying sound.  Stand over them and in your most annoying voice say, "NEEE.  NEEEE.  NEEEEEEE" repeatedly.   If they ask you stop, stop instantly.  Do it again, and time how fast they ask you to stop.  They should ask much faster  . . .voila  . . .negative reinforcement.
    • smoking a cigarette makes the craving for nicotine go away
    • wearing sunglasses to avoid/remove the glare of the sun
    • flushing the toilet right after hurling chunks
    • you decide to tell Jack Bauer (tv show 24) everything he wants to know to get him to stop torturing you
    • Eating a meal you don't like in order to avoid hurting the "cooks" feelings.
    • Stretching to avoid a sports injury.
    • Wearing a helmet, pads, etc. to avoid a sports or recreational  injury. 
    • Put gas in your car to avoid a break-down.
    • Ducking your head to avoid hitting it on a low doorway.
    • Removing a super wedgie to eliminate discomfort
    • Being nice to your brother to avoid super wedgies
    • Follow the laws to avoid jail.
    • Taking out the garbage to quiet a nagging significant other.
    • Studying for an exam reduces stress.


Parent and Child in Grocery store.  Child asks for a candy bar and parent says "no". Child begins to Scream and Kick.  Everone else in the lines looks in a disapproving manner at the Parent.  Parent gives in and buys the kid a candy bar.  Kid stops screaming.  Other people stop look and go back to thier business.  Child's tantruming behavior is Positively Reinforced by receciving what he asked for (candy).  The parent's behavior of giving into the kid is negatively reinforced by the removal of the tantrum and the disapproving stares of the other people. AND NOTHING GOOD HAPPENED!  Lesson:  Reinforcement has nothing to do with whether the behavior is good or bad; desireable or undesirable. Reinforcement happens when the behavior increases in probability as a result of contingent stimuli.


Positive punishment (assume behavior decreases as a result)

    • I run into a pole while texting.
    • An employee's inappropriate behavior at work stops after being criticized by a supervisor.
    • Tim thinks he is sneaky and tries to text in class. He is caught and given a 4 hour Saturday detention.
    • The teacher yells "stop talking!" in the middle of the lecture to the class and all the other students glare at the offenders.
    • Student's cell phone rings in class.  Teacher answers phone and talks to the caller, hopefully embarassing the student.
    • You receive a detention for being tardy to class.
    • Receiving a ticket for speeding in your car.
    • Someone frowns when you tell a joke.
    • Telling my friends how to play a game who then tell me to mind my own business!
    • Eating an entire batch of chocolate cookies in one sitting and feeling sick to my stomach.
    • You get sick from drinking too much vodka so moderate your drinking in the future.
    • Snapping your wrist with a rubber band when you bite your fingernails.
    • Tasting bitter nail chemical when you try to bite your nails.
    • Hurting your head when you don't duck in a low doorway.
    • Getting a super wedgie for mouthing off to your older brother.
    • Jail - Being forced to live in a small smelly room.
    • On the planet Zygomoplic, when Farfooch placed his tentacles into a blamutz, he receives a trasselpac.  Farfooch doesn't place his tentacles into anymore blamutzes. (Assume the same laws of learning apply on Zygomoplic as on earth).
    • Your sister whacks you upside the head for getting in her personal space.



Negative punishment (assume behavior decreases as a result)

    • I got grounded because I came home past curfew.
    • An employee is consistently late for work. The employee therefore loses the right to listen to music while working.
    • Zachary is very naughty one afternoon, so his mom tells him he cannot go on a camping trip with his best friend that weekend.
    • Teacher takes a student's cell phone away in class.
    • You come in late after curfew and your parents take away your car keys.
    • Losing your driver's license after getting a DUI.
    • Dog jumps on you when you return home.  You turn your back on the dog and ignore him.
    • Refuse to be affectionate toward your partner when they forget your anniversary.
    • Removing door from bedroom hinges after child slams it in anger. - remove privacy
    • Removing video game play time
    • Repo man takes a car for failure to make loan payments.
    • Jail - remove freedom to do as you please
    • Teenager loses their cellphone for talking back to mom.



Schedules of Reinforcement Examples (Please add additional examples.  You're welcome to add them to the comment box below if you don't want to edit this page directly.) [Thank you to everyone from the teaching of psychology listservs who contributed to this list!]


Fixed Ratio

    • Getting a snack after reading every 30 pages
    • A hotel maid takes a 15-minute break after cleaning 10 rooms (Myers IRM)
    • A blueberry picker receives $1 after filling three pint boxes.(Myers IRM)
    • A child receives a gumball every time he puts a quarter in the machine.
    • A dog receives a treat after it turns around four times.
    • Subway (or other frequent buyer program) rewards card: get XX stamps, get XX free
    • When a student graduates (regardless of how long it takes, once they earn XX hours, they will receive their diploma)
    • Examples from textbooks, courtesy of Miguel Roig and Carolyn Vigorito
      • Factory worker paid on piece work (Bernstein, Roy, Srull, &  Wickens, 1991; Bootzin, Bower, Crocker, & Hall, 1991)
      • Receiving a good grade for reading x number of chapters of the book  (McConnell, 1989; Roediger, Capaldi, Paris, & Polivy, 1991).
      • Paying on commission (Gredler, 1992) or getting a bonus for every x  number of items sold (Weiten, 1992).
      • Frequent flyer program: getting a free flight after acumulating x number of flight miles.
      • Mailman must visit the same number of mail boxes each day in order to go home (Domjan & Burkhard, 1993).
      • Going up a staircase, you must go up the same number of stairs to get to the landing (Domjan & Burkhard, 1993).
      • Individuals collect bottles, cans, and other recyclables get payment for a specific amount of these items (Baron, 1992).
      • Teenager is paid by the job (e.g., amount of work completed) will  probably mow more lawns than one who is paid by the hour.
      • Carpet cleaner who takes a break only after having cleaned three rooms (Peterson, 1991).
      • A strawberry picker receives $1 for afer filling 12 small boxes (Crooks & Stein, 1991). 
      • Doing 20 situps to keep fit (Roediger, Capaldi, Paris, & Polivy, 1991). 


Variable Ratio

    • Scratch off lottery tickets
    • Slot machines
    • A charitable organization makes an average of 10 phone calls for every donation it receives.  (Myers IRM)
    • A professional baseball player gets a hit approximately every third time at bat (Myers IRM)
    • A writer sells stories only occasionally.
    • A woman asks men at a dance club to dance with her.
    • A person plays the lottery in hopes of winning.
    • A boxer has to hit his opponent a variable number of times before a knockout
    • http://www.kittehroulette.com: you never know when you're going to see a cute cat video, but you have to keep pushing the "next kitteh" button!
    • Examples from textbooks, courtesy of Miguel Roig and Carolyn Vigorito
      • Slot machines at a gambling casino (Baron, 1992; Bernstein, Roy, Srull, & Wickens, 1991; Carlson, 1990; Crooks & Stein, 1991; Gerow, 1992)
      • Using drugs to escape withdrawal symptoms Gredler, 1992
      • Fly fishing: casting and reeling back several times before catching a fish  (Bootzin, Bower, Crocker, & Hall, 1991; Weiten, 1992).
      • Selling door to door.  The number of doorbell ringing behavior will hopefully be rewarded after a variable number of rings (Houston, 1976; Lefton & Valvatne, 1992).
      • Signaling while hitchiking (Bootzin, Bower, Crocker, & Hall, 1991).
      • Buying lottery tickets (Pettijohn, 1992).
      • Sports games: e.g., variable number of strokes to finish a hole of golf (Baron, 1992); variable number of swings to hit the baseball;  variable number of throws to get the basketball in the hoop; variable number of throws to get a strike in bowling (Domjan & Burkhard, 1993)
      • Many video games (e.g., Nintendo) are porgrammed using a variable  ratio schedule.
      • Each time a custodian cleans a room, a certain amount of cleaning will be necessary, however, the amount varies from day to day and even room to room (Domjan & Burkhar, 1993).
      • Playing Bingo (Gray, 1991).


Fixed Interval

    • Checking the clock as the end of class nears
    • A student receives grades at the end of every semester.
    • Metro train/bus schedule
    • pay day (e.g., every two weeks; although students often counter that there's some effort involved)

This is only true if the behavior that's being reinforced is asking your boss for your paycheck.  It's the first behavior after the time period is up.

    • Getting a gift on your birthday (what behavior is being reinforced?)
    • After major surgery, patients are sometimes placed on a morphine pump to control pain. By pushing a button, they can self-administer a dose of morphine. The machine will only allow a dose after a set period of time has elapsed, so pushing the button before that time does nothing.
    • Examples from textbooks, courtesy of Miguel Roig and Carolyn Vigorito
      • Getting a paycheck at the end of the week (Baron, 1992; Bernstein, Roy, Srull, & Wickens, 1991; Leahy & Harris, 1989; McConnell, 1989)

This is only true if the behavior that's being reinforced is asking your boss for your paycheck.  It's the first behavior after the time period is up.

      • Looking at your watch during a lecture until end of a lecture  (Catania, 1992).
      • Increasing studying behavior to earn good grades by taking exams scheduled at equal intervals, e.g., midterm/final every Friday (Baron, 1992; Carlson, 1990).
      • Athlete signs contract whereby his salary increases are renegotiated every three years.
      • Bill‑passing behavior on the part of congress.  This behavior has been shown to increase as the recess period approaches (Weisberg &  Waldrop as cited in Houston, 1976).
      • Checking the refrigerator to see if JELL‑O is ready (Domjan &  Burkhard, 1993).
      • Checking oven to see if cookies are done, when cooking time is known (Gray, 1991).
      • Going to  the cafeteria to see if the next meal is available.
      • Getting clean clothes from the washing machine once the cycle is finished (Domjan & Burkhard, 1993).
      • Picking up the paper in the morning after it has been delivered at the same time every day (Peterson, 1991)


Variable Interval

    • Checking cell phone for text messages when phone is on silent
    • Checking the front porch for a newspaper when the deliverer is extremely unpredictable.(Myers IRM)
    • Checking the mail for a letter from a friend
    • Clicking "Get Mail" in outlook.
    • Your teacher gives pop quizzes.
    • When class ends (although it may be 9:50am, it's rarely EXACTLY 9:50 ... it depends on when the instructor wraps it up)
    • When a woman will go into labor/give birth (vaginally, not C-section)
    • Checking your mail for a college acceptance letter
    • Waiting for a radio station to play a certain song before calling in to win a prize
    • Examples from textbooks, courtesy of Miguel Roig and Carolyn Vigorito
      • Surprise quizzes (Carlson, 1990; Gerow, 1992; Gleitman, 1981; Pettijohn, 1992; Rathus, 1990).
      • Speed traps on highway (Gleitman, 1981)
      • Calling a friend and getting no answer or getting a busy signal because he is always on the phone.  Some variable time will elapse  until the call is reinforced by an answer (Bootzin, Bower, Crocker, & Hall, 1991; Crooks & Stein, 1991; Catania, 1992; Gray, 1991; Peterson, 1991; Pettijohn, 1992)
      • Fishing: a fish may be caught at intervals of approximately every two minutes; every hour; or every two days! (Carlson, 1990; Crooks  & Stein, 1991; Houston, 1976)
      • Mail‑checking behavior assuming that mailperson comes at irregular  intervals (Myers, 1992).
      • Calling the mechanic to find out if your car is fixed yet (Domjan & Burkhard, 1993).
      • Waiting for a taxi cab.
      • Supervisor who praises her workers on irregular intervals.  (Baron 1992)
      • Random drug testing; worker refrains from taking drugs (Baron,1992).
      • If grades are posted at unspecified interval after exams students will check the bulletin board at a steady rate (Lefton & Valavatne, 1992).








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