Essay Example on Learning Theorists

2021-07-01 18:47:27
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Wesleyan University
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Operant Conditioning theory was developed by Edward Thorndike who lived in the year 1874 1949. Operant conditioning theories highlight how people learn from the consequences of every action or behavior in their lives. Thorndike studied using cats and developed a classic experiment using a puzzle box to test the learning process empirically. The scholar placed a cat in his puzzle box that was supposed to help the cat to escape and arrive a scrap of fish or food placed just outside. The idea was to calculate the time the cat would use to escape and reach the fish. The cat itself would use the various route to move from the puzzle box and arrive at the fish. The cats would step upon a strategically placed level, and the cage would open. After repeating the occasion for sometimes they would learn that pressing the lever, it had an effect of opening the cage and the cat would adopt this strategy, and it would quickly push the level whenever it was in the cage (McLeod, 2007).

Operant Conditioning is a theory that was developed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner. According to Skinner, human beings have things such as mind, but people should concentrate on studying the observable behavior instead of internal mental events. Skinner primary interest was to explain the complex human behavior. The best way that one could accomplish these study was through looking at the causes of an action and its repercussions. This is what the scholar referred as operant conditioning approach (McLeod, 2015). This theory deal with voluntary actions that have an impact on the adjacent environment. The researcher was interested in understanding what processes made some particular behaviors to be more or likely to happen.

Although Skinner is widely referred as the father of Operant Conditioning, most of his work and ideas were based on the law of effect by Thorndike in 1905. Skinner came up with a new term in the law of effect that is reinforcement. Thorndike did not argue that a reinforced behavior tends to be repeated. This means that such behavior is strengthened and behavior that is not reinforced tend to become weakened or extinguished. Skinner conducted an experiment to study animal using a box known as Skinner Box, and it is similar to puzzle box used by Thorndike. Skinner used the term operant conditioning to mean changing the behavior roughly by use of reinforcement that alters the behavior to the desired one. Skinner developed the following three responses that would help to alter behavior. First, neutral operant responses from the surrounding environment that does not decrease or increase the possibility of an action that is being repeated. Second, punisher operant responses from the surrounding environment that reduce the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishing a behavior will weaken the action that was going to be developed. Reinforcers operant responses from surrounding environment that raise the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. According to Skinner, reinforcers can be negative or positive.

Skinner used a hungry rat to demonstrate how positive reinforcement works. A hungry rat was positioned in the box, and as it moved around the box, it would unintentionally step on a lever, and food would drop next to the level as a pellet (McLeod, 2015). After repeating the action for a short while the rat would learn that when it stepped on the lever, a food pellet would drop. Later on, a rat would go straight and start stepping on the lever, and the consequence of getting the food would motivate them to keep on stepping on the lever again and again. A real enforcement will strengthen a behavior by providing an impact that serves as a reward. In a learning institution, this can be applied by rewarding students who perform well as a motivation for them keep on working hard and delivering results. For example, if a teacher gives a gives a student $5 as a reward every time he/she completes the homework on time, the student is likely to repeat that behavior of completing the assignment on time (McLeod, 2015). This would mean that the behavior of completing the task has been strengthened. This theory is similar to that of Thorndike who developed a law of effect that states a behavior which is accompanied by pleasant repercussions are likely to be repeated and behavior that is followed by unfriendly effects is likely to be stopped (Nikolic, 2016). In learning institutions, teachers should find a way of rewarding the students who perform well as a way of motivating them to continue performing excellently.

Skinner also demonstrated the concept of negative reinforcement. This would involve removing unpleasant reinforcer to strengthen behavior among individuals or animals. Negative reinforcement is the removal of the hostile stimulus that is recompensing to the person or animal performing an action. According to Skinner, negative reinforcement will encourage strength behavior since it removes or stops an unfriendly experience. For instance, if any student who does not complete his homework on time is deducted a certain amount of marks in the final exams. Due to such policy, no student would like to be deducted the marks hence this would strengthen the behavior of completing the assignment on time. Skinner demonstrated this concept by placing a rat his box and imperiling it to an electric current that made the uncomfortable rat while in the box. The rat would randomly move around the Skinner box, and accidentally it would knock the lever, and the current would be switched over. After a while, the rat learned that tapping a bar would make it comfortable hence it would immediately hit the bar when it was placed on the unpleasant box. The effect of ensuring that it escaped the discomforting current, the rat would repeat the action again and again. As days progressed, the rats learned that they could switch off the light even before the unpleasant current had started disturbing them ("Skinner operant conditioning model, " 2016). This means that student can learn to submit their assignment on time when they are promised bonus marks instead of average marks that they will get after submitting their work on time.

Another concept that Skinner demonstrated in his research is how punishment can be used to weaken or eliminate unwanted behavior. Punishment is intended to eliminate or weaken a behavior instead of increasing it. In short, punishment is an aversive action that reduces the behavior that is followed by it. Punishment works either directly or indirectly by applying unpleasant such as shock after an action or by eliminating a potentially rewarding stimulus. For example, a student can be deducted his pocket money as a way of punishing undesirable behavior. Punishment ensures that people do not continue practicing their undesired behavior and start behaving in a way that is acceptable in the learning institutions. However, there are many problems of using punishment to change the behavior of students. One, it causes escalated aggression, and this shows that aggression is a method of coping with problems. Second, punished behavior cannot be forgotten, but it is suppressed hence it can return after punishment has stopped ("Operant Conditioning and the Experimental Analysis of Behavior," n.d.). Third, punishment can create undesirable behaviors such as fear of school among the victims. Lastly, in most cases, punishment does not guide the students towards the desired behavior. A positive and negative reinforcement guide a person what to do, but punishment tells a person what he/she should not do.

These two theories are similar in that the researchers used animals to understand how behavior is learned or unlearned. Thorndike used a cat by rewarding it with food after opening a cage that it had been enclosed in for a while. The cat learned with time how to open to get food as a reward (Tiger, Putnam, & Peplinski, 2014). Skinner used a more complicated box that rewarded a rat after touching a lever by dropping one pellet at a time. Both theories support the idea that rewarding individuals or students after any action will enable them to continue strengthening their behavior. The differences between the two approaches are that Thorndike did not address the issues of negative reinforcement and punishment as a process of learning behavior.

In todays learning environment, operant conditioning can be applied significantly to student and class management instead of learning content. The two theories reinforce one another and are very crucial in shaping skill performance of the students. The behavior of learners can be shaped by providing feedback on their performance such as approval, encouragement, and compliments. In situations where students receive responses and receiving new task that reinforce their first task are likely to perform very well. If a teacher wants to encourage pupils to participate in class by answering questions, he /she should praise them for every attempt they make. As time progresses, only students who respond to the questions correctly will be praised, and over time only students who give exceptional answers will be appreciated. In the case of unwanted behaviors like dominating in class discussion or tardiness can be extinguished by being ignored by teachers. The students should be fed with success knowledge as it motivates future learning of the students. However, teachers should vary the kind of reinforcement being offered to ensure that behavior is maintained. Teachers should apply the concept of reinforcement carefully because they can appear to be insincere when they approve some action as exceptional while others are average while others such as dominating in the discussion are discouraged.



McLeod, S. A. (2007). Edward Thorndike. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Skinner - Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from

Nikolic, D. (2016). Testing the Theory of Practopoiesis Using Closed Loops. Closed Loop Neuroscience, 53-65

Operant Conditioning and the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. (n.d.). The Psychology of B. F. Skinner, 73-100.

Skinner operant conditioning model and robot bionic self-learning control. (2016). Tehnicki vjesnik - Technical Gazette, 23(1).

Tiger, J. H., Putnam, B. C., & Peplinski, C. S. (2014). Operant Conditioning in Developmental Disabilities. The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Operant and Classical Conditioning, 559-580.


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