Operant Conditioning Theory and Reinforcement


In our daily lives, we do a lot of actions that we sometimes do not realize having done them. Most important the reasons behind doing the actions are uncertain. Positive and negative reinforcements dictate our action together with our coherent thoughts in many occasions. Operant Condition Theory is an approach to enhance learning. It is a theory that helps teachers to help learners acquire a permanent change in desirable behavior. B. F. Skinner, a renowned American Psychologist wanted to understand more about human behavior. He reviewed the works of Thorndike who pioneered the study and came up with the Operant Conditioning. Operant Condition Theory is based on the behavior of humans, their respective cause, and consequences thus enhance learning.

Description of Operant theory

B. F. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning states that if an action that is voluntary is rewarded positively, the same action may be repeated in the future, but if an action is rewarded negatively the behavior or action is unlikely to be repeated in future. Thus, the behavior depends on the environment. To maintain the desired behavior, the effect of the environment to the behavior affects future repetition of the action. Simply, operant conditioning is also called Instrumental (operant) conditioning theory. Hence, it is a form of stimulus response learning in which an active response also called operation as a desired behavior is rewarded (Skinner, 1972). Thus response is involved (instrumental) in producing the reward, hence the name instrumental (operational) conditioning. If the desired behavioral response is not achieved then there is no reward. A learner must therefore have an ability to give out response that merits a reward and avoid the ones that rarely help in problem-solving.

B. F. Skinner achieved to support his theory when he conducted a practical research on rats and pigeons in a box or ‘operant chamber’. He analyzed the non-reflexive behaviors and relevant conditions they may occur. The chamber box has gadgets that when pressed food is released. He observed a hungry rat moving at random in his creation of Free Operant Procedure. In the process, the rat accidentally pressed on a lever. This was an action (trial and error) that led to the release of a food pellet. After eating the pellets, the rat learned to associate the action of pressing the key or lever and the appearance of the food to eat as a reward. The reason that led to pressing on the lever accidently was hunger drive. It later reduced much unnecessary movements that did not pay off and chose on most rewarding. The rat later learned to act in response to suitable incentive (stimulus) (Skinner, 1954)

Comparison between positive and negative reinforcement

B. F. Skinner bases his argument on reinforcement. To reinforce is to strengthen something using a strengthening item. B. F. Skinner developed two types of reinforcement, positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is meant to increase a preferred response by use of a reward that performs well. While negative reinforcement is increasing a behavior by removing stimuli. The best example of positive reinforcement is giving positive stimuli to enhance positive response, for example, praising a learner when he/she answers correctly. Negative response is giving negative stimuli to enhance positive response, for example, shouting loudly at a baby to make it stop yelling. The shouting is negative and when the child stops to cry it is a positive response. Thus, both positive, and negative reinforcement are foremost in shaping behavior of learners and people at large. The main difference is that positive response has a positive stimulus to influence a positive response, while negative reinforcement employs negative stimuli to produce positive response. Thus negative reinforcement is not punishment; it only removes undesirable quality of behavior. Therefore, both reinforcements increase or strengthen behavior.

Most effective reinforcement

The most effective reinforcement is the positive reinforcement, for example, a pet animal like a cat can perform a drill like diving a person should be able to suspend food or anything that will make it to continue diving. We clearly see positive reinforcement being the best. This offers positive attitude. Unlike when one could shout, the desired response may not be accurate and firsthand (Smith, 1996)

Application of Operant Theory

Skinner’s theory can be applied in a classroom situation. Students learn at a different pace. He advocates for machines or recently called computers. These devices will help learners to learn at their own desired pace giving immediate response to the learner that a teacher could overlook. It resembles the use of Advanced Technology on behavior disorder learners. The theory can also be applied in places of workplace to avoid laxity in staff members. In addition, operant conditioning theory has been used in medical treatment of children with the condition called autism (Smith, 1996). These children have a problem with speech. Using positive reinforcement, a child may be able to speak freely. It can also be used in rehabilitation centers for shaping pupils behavior and also train animals in a zoo. The best application is the newspaper carrier who will deliver newspaper in desired time under different reinforcement schedule as discussed below.

Reinforcement schedule for selected behavior

Skinner came up with two types of reinforcement schedules. These were continuous and partial schedule approaches. Examples are, fixed time interval, variable time interval, fixed ratio, and variable ratio schedules. Fixed time ratio or interval means that how big is a ratio, that is, a given number of repeated reinforcement should be performed to achieve a desired response. My selected behavior is the collecting the newspaper from the carrier. A good example is a carrier may be added payment say $ 20 for every promptness of delivering newspaper for a week. Variable ratio means the repeated reinforcement will not be constant. Variation will occur, for example, the carrier may delay in time interval of ten minutes, 45 minutes and 20 minutes, thus not fixed. Fixed interval means that a relevant amount of time must be used to allow reinforcement (Markle, 1959). For example, if you want to have the newspaper earlier and the carrier has a schedule to stop at each location 15 minutes, then one must wait at the door for 15 minutes for the carrier to arrive at your house. Variable interval ratio I’ll give an example, when you wait at the door for the newspaper carrier, the carrier has an approximate time schedule that changes with increase in time schedule. You may wait at the door for more than 20 minutes or find the newspaper in time. Notably, all these reinforcement schedules give high levels of response because of the time taken by each schedule to allow stimuli to give forth responses is less than fixed time interval.


Markle, S. (1969). Good Frames and Bad (2nd. ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

Skinner, B.F. (1954). The science of learning and the art of teaching, Harvard Educational Review.

Skinner, B. F. (1972). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Vintage Books.

Smith, L. D., & Woodward, W. R. (1996). B. F. Skinner and behaviorism in American culture. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press.

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