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Application of Operant Conditioning in The Classroom

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This essay will explore the possible application of operant conditioning strategies in the classroom to encourage students to be more participative during class and to be more proactive in completing their assignments and homework. The typical behaviors of students in the age range given in the scenario will be explored, and the evaluation and potential use of the various techniques of operant conditioning in the classroom will be discussed. The strengths and weaknesses of the operant conditioning strategies will be researched and will be compared to the other developmental theories, after which the suitability of operant conditioning as a strategy to improve classroom behavior and management will be evaluated. 

The most common behaviors that were reported were things like speaking out of turn, disturbing or distracting the other students, and non-attending as the most problematic and most frequent disruptive behaviours. Sullivan, A. M., Johnson, B., Owens, L., & Conway, R. (2014) stated that low-level disruptive and disengaged student behaviours occurred frequently as well as aggressive and anti-social behaviours and teachers find them difficult to manage. Student misbehaviors also included things such as disruptive talking amongst classmates, repeated incompletion of homework, daydreaming, clowning around, disrupting teaching activities, harassing or distracting classmates, verbal insults, being rude to the teacher, defiance, and hostility. Research has indicated that the most familiar and disruptive problem behavior was speaking out of turn, accompanied by inattentiveness, daydreaming and laziness. This behavior could be occurring because students in this age group are exploring their social environment and how they interact with their peers as well as possibly struggling with their identity and may subsequently act out while trying to discover their adult self and what the future holds for them as per Erikson’s theory of development. 

According to Dozier, C. L., Iwata, B. A., Thomason-Sassi, J., Worsdell, A. S., & Wilson, D. M. (2012), praise, which is typically defined as an expression of approval or admiration (Brophy, 1981), is most commonly bestowed by parents, teachers, peers, or employers after desirable behavior. The reinforcing effects of praise have been documented in countless studies in which its demonstration, alone or in combination with other behaviors, resulted in the achievement or preservation of appropriate behavior such as job performance, academic work, verbal behavior , leisure activity, and social interaction. 

Furthurmore, Petrova. E (2017) stated that the different behaviourist theories of motivation explained the behaviour of individuals with the idea of ‘stimulus – response’, i.e. the ability of the organism to respond to the various motivations of their environment. Thorndike and Skinner are the most prominent representatives of these theories and Skinner’s analysis showed that the impact of the environment determines our behaviour. In his opinion all human behaviour is due to external stimulus and so people’s actions are defined by their experiences, and their behaviour is determined and regulated by the external environment. The main purpose of punishment and incentives is to minimize or improve the learner’s behavior. Punishment; i.e. the introduction of an unpleasant reinforcement after the occurrence of an undesirable response does not always help to stop the undesirable behavior and reward; i.e. the presentation of something positive after the occurrence of acceptable behavior does not often contribute to the improvement of the students ‘ results. The basic reason behind the given circumstances is that teachers are not well acquainted with various types of rewards and different types of punishments along with their effective use. Teachers are not fully aware of the correct use of reward and punishment strategies for the students ‘ desired improvement of character, attitude and performance. Inadvertently, educators often choose and use inappropriate forms of incentives and consequences for students who lack the knowledge of current behavioral psychology. Therefore, in order to bring about a shift in the actions and learning of students, the use of modern knowledge of behavioral modification methods is necessary in order to improve the quality of education and behavior.

Merriam, S., Caffarella, R. and Baumgartner, L. (2007) identify three premises that all behavioralists, such as Mager, Skinner, Thorndike and Watson, hold about the learning process. First, observable behavior rather than inner thought processes is the subject of the study; in general, learning is manifested by behavioral change. Second, the environment influences behavior; what one learns is defined by the elements of the system, not by the individual learner. And thirdly, the concepts of contiguity (how close two events must be in time for a bond to be formed) and reinforcement (any means of increasing the likelihood that an occurrence will be repeated) are fundamental to the understanding of the learning process. The first of these statements suggests that behavioral-related learning exercises have little respect for the cognitive processing of the learner involved in the task. This approach focuses entirely on learning how to understand ‘what’ by approaches such as rote learning, classification and association. This approach is only concerned with highlighting what the learners need to understand. The second assumption of the behavioralists is that learning is primarily conditioned by environmental factors. This perspective was clearly shown by the early work of Robert Gagne, who was strongly influenced by behavioralists such as Skinner and Thorndike. Gagne’s early research looked at the transfer of positive and negative training. ‘Gagne’s research has been done with the instruction of subjects on specific motor activities, using multiple tests and monitoring them for periods of little or no progress in learning’. 

The last theory of learning discussed on the basis of behaviorism emphasizes repetition and reinforcement (operant conditioning) in order to achieve the desired behaviors. B.F. Skinner was a major contributor to operant conditioning, concentrating on ‘positive and negative reinforcement cycles, scheduling of rewards, and avoidant behaviour.’ 

Strengths and Weaknesses of Operant Conditioning 

A study conducted at Baylor University on the impact of self-monitoring in combination with reinforcement to enhance on-task classroom attitude. The research offered a direct comparison between self-monitoring and self-monitoring plus reinforcement. The results of the study showed that the topic of improved self-monitoring plus token economy reinforcement was the most successful intervention to minimize problem behavior limitations, including additional resources, in particular time and money, required to implement the token economy during the self-monitoring plus reinforcement process. This element would involve the active participation of a school professional, possibly a classroom teacher. It also involves the purchasing of tangible rewards (i.e. gift vouchers from a coffeeshop); however, the use of readily accessible rewards, such as free time on a school computer, could be made where such assets are not available. 

Education practitioners, however, should take this into account and assess whether the future effects are worth investing in capital, therefore it may not be the most sustainable strategy. However on the other hand, according to a study by Gneezy, U., Meier, S., & Rey-Biel, P. (2011), psychology research includes several examples of rewards that minimize the willingness or motivation to perform a task in the short term when such incentives are in effect. The general theme of this study was that the rewards contained information transmitted from the principal to the operant, and that information can cause unintended behavioral effects. For example, Frey and Oberholzer-Gee (1997) show that offering community members a significant amount of financial compensation for the presence of nuclear waste sites indicates that the risks associated are severe and that community members might be less likely to accept the plant. The operant may make conclusions both from the presence and scale of the rewards offered. Also if the incentives indicate any kind of negative news, operants receiving incentives may modify their perceptions about the task, their own kind, or their evaluation of their principal. As a consequence, their willingness to perform the task without additional incentives may be significantly lowered. As the typical incentive is taken away in the long run (we define the long run as after the incentives are eliminated), the effort will then be lower than it was before the external incentives had been offered. For academic settings, adverse long-term effects on students’ pleasure of learning may be troubling, since incentives are very often temporary and are limited to only certain assessments or activities. 

Comparison to Social Learning 

Deaton (2015) stated that self-efficiency plays a crucial role in Bandura’s social learning system. The person’s belief in the effect he/she can have on the environment is essential to the understanding of that effect. As far as social learning is concerned, students are more likely to invest resources to achieve a social outcome when they trust in their own ability to achieve that outcome which translates into student engagement and achievement in the classroom. If learning is essentially a social effort, it is much more likely to happen if sociological conditions indicate that investing effort will result in a positive outcome. In order for social learning to take place, students must exchange information in an interactive environment. Mourlam (2013) suggested that within the conventional classroom, students still remain isolated from other students, experts, parents, the community and a variety of others who have the ability to improve education. This form of restriction prevents self-efficacy, because social learning involves communication. Without much of a framework for interaction, students may find themselves objectively weighing the pros and cons of classroom participation. Because classroom participation is a variable in academic achievement and learning, traditional classroom interactions create challenges to social learning, therefore it can be hard for students to mimic learning when there is minimal or total lack of engagement between important role groups both in and outside of the classroom. 

The use of social media offers students a unique chance to engage in a new approach to social interaction and learning. Social media tools have been used in schools to encourage critical thought and evaluation, various forms of student interaction, and greater student participation. The widespread availability of social media platforms may not translate into a general applicability to learning objectives. Teachers should be fully informed of which platforms have the best outcomes for student success and in which ways they can optimize the value of the platform. Social media platforms have significantly altered the way in which social interaction happens in our society. By strengthening the mental processes of attention, memory, and motivation, social media platforms enhance learning in a social context. 

In conclusion, it can be reasonably argued that research shows that operant conditioning can be a very useful strategy for classroom management and behavioural change if it operates in combination with social learning strategies. Reinforcement on its own does not seem to have a long-term impact on the level of commitment that students would be willing to make if the incentive is permanently removed and is therefore not sustainable in the long run. Initially, reinforcement can be used to encourage participation in the classroom, but without motivating students to participate in productive interactions both inside and outside the classroom through social learning strategies, the effects of operant conditioning may be lacking when it comes to getting students to complete their homework and assignments and be academically successful. 


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