Operant Conditioning

Paul Main

What is operant conditioning and what is its relevance for classroom behaviour management?

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning, is a way of learning that uses punishment and rewards for modifying behavior. Through operant conditioning, there are more chances of a person repeating an observed behavior that is rewarded, and there are rare chances of repeating an observed behavior that is punished.

Operant conditioning offers a behavior modification technique that may be used to modify more complex behaviors. One may begin with an idea close to the desired behavior and after this idea is learned, gradually modify it until it changes into something exactly similar to the one that was desired.


Skinner proposed the following 5 steps to achieve a behavior change:


Step 1: Setting target behavior goals;

Step 2: Finding the most suitable ways to reinforce a targeted behavior ;

Step 3: Selecting the procedure to change any unwanted behavior;

Step 4: Applying the procedure and recording of results.

Step 5: Evaluation and revision of the process as needed.


We can see many examples of operant conditioning as behavior modification technique for everyday life. A child's act of completing homework to get a reward from a parent, or an employee's act of completing a project to get promotions or praise from the employer are examples of operant conditioning.


Conversely, operant conditioning practices may also be used as negative reinforcers to reduce the probability of certain behavior through undesirable stimulus or punishment. An example of negative reinforcers is seen when students in a classroom are told they will have to face punishment by removal from the class if they talk out of turn. The likelihood of punishment can reduce the probability of unwanted behavior.

What theories are behind operant conditioning?


In the 1890s, when behavior analysis expert Pavlov was trying to evaluate the mysteries of dogs' salivation he theorized that dogs salivate as a result of food presentation. His discovery provided the basis for what was initially named Pavlovian conditioning and then, classical conditioning.


Many Behavior Analysis experts thought that the Behavior Analysis expert Pavlov’s work was interesting but still criticized it as it mainly emphasized reflexive learning. It did not respond to questions related to the effect of the environment on inducing a target behavior .


A psychologist, and Behavior Analysis expert E. L. Thorndike held a keen interest in associative learning and education. The Behavior Analysis expert Thorndike's theory of learning, named connectionism, had a huge impact on the U.S. educational system. The Behavior Analysis expert Thorndike proposed that learning was the outcome of connections between neural responses and sensory experiences. A behavior takes place in response to these associations.


Thorndike also hypothesized that the process of trial-and-error results in learning. This is a time-consuming process but involves no conscious thought. He developed and studied initial philosophies of reinforcement of operant conditioning theory and how it may influence learning.


Everyone has faced this at one time or another. People do speeding, they stop and pay a fine. This may act as a negative reinforcement for suppressing their behavior of speeding for a little time, but it does not stop them from speeding again.


Afterwards, the Behavior Analysis expert John B. Watson, emphasized a scientific, methodical approach to studying human behavior and dismissed any introspection ideas.

Operant conditioning principles
Operant conditioning principles


Operant conditioning experiments

The experiment with “Little Albert” is present in most psychology textbooks. This involves a young boy's conditioning to fear the white rat. The behavior analysis expert Watson employed classical conditioning to achieve this goal. The fear of the young boy was shifted to other animals with fur in operant conditioning chamber. This experiment concluded that emotions could be conditioned.


The primary difference between operant and classical conditioning is that classical conditioning link involuntary behavior with a stimulus; whereas, operant conditioning theory connects voluntary action with the outcome. Both operant and classical conditioning theories are important theories of the behavioral psychology.


During the 1930s, the Behavior Analysis expert B. F. Skinner who was already well-known for his research continued to explore how organisms learn. The operant conditioning that is known today, was developed and studied by the Behavior Analysis expert B. F. Skinner.


After carrying out different experiments on animals, the Behavior Analysis expert B.F. Skinner (1938) released his first publication, The Behavior of Organisms. In his book's 1991 edition, Behavior Analysis expert Skinner mentioned that


“… there is no need to appeal to an inner apparatus, whether mental, physiological, or conceptual.”

Operant conditioning in the classroom
Operant conditioning in the classroom


Skinners behavioural analysis

From the viewpoint of the Behavior Analysis expert B.F. Skinner to understand human behavior one must study the elements of observable behaviors from the interplay of deprivation, response rate, neutral stimulus and primary reinforced, linked to the primary reinforcer. The Behavior Analysis expert B.F. Skinner named these contingencies and stated that they “account for attending, remembering, learning, forgetting, generalizing, abstracting, and many other so-called cognitive processes.”


The Behavior Analysis expert B.F. Skinner thought that evaluating the reasons for behavior is the primary factor to understand the reason for continuous reinforcement of a particular behavior of an organism.


The Behavior Analysis expert B.F. Skinner once ran short of rat food accidentally, he also began to observe the impact of various reinforcement schedules or time between reinforcements of positive or negative reinforcement .

  • fixed ratio - negative or positive reinforcement takes place each X trial,
  • continuous - negative or positive reinforcement takes place after each displayed behavior,
  • variable schedules of reinforcement - the number of displays of desired behavior for receiving reinforcement is different each time; or
  • fixed interval schedules of reinforcement - negative or positive reinforcement takes place if required behavior is demonstrated within the particular time between reinforcements.


Many current theories disregard the concept of primary reinforcement of operant conditioning theory proposed by the behavior analysis expert B.F. Skinner. According to current studies:


  • Operant conditioning theory does not take into account the cognitive processes,
  • Operant conditioning theory presumes that learning or positive behavior only develops through incorrect reinforcement,
  • Operant conditioning theory ignores species-specific behavior patterns and genetic predispositions which may interfere with it.

Operant conditioning vs classical conditioning
Operant conditioning vs classical conditioning

Examples of Operant Conditioning


One may apply primary reinforcement strategies and operant conditioning principles in any way intended to influence others' behavior. However, it is important to remember the difference between positive punishment and negative punishment. For example, taking a child's favourite toy for showing an undesirable behavior is a negative punishment whereas, adding more chores to a child's list is positive punishment. A negative punishment does not lead to positive behavior. Following are examples of how one may apply operant conditioning for continuous reinforcement for developing a target behavior or behavior modification in everyday life.


  1. Parenting

Parents may apply principles of operant conditioning as parent management training to develop a target behavior in their children. For example, they may teach their children about simple behaviors of health and safety. By doing so, they will help their children to become a healthy and useful member of society. However, it is suggested to not use negative punishment as parent management training to children. Following are some of the positive reinforcer ways parents may apply operant conditioning theory for their children:


  • Parents can give their children a treat after they complete their homework;
  • They may praise simple behaviors of children when they show kindness to others;
  • Parents may let their children play video games after they clean their rooms (educational, of course!);
  • As a negative reinforcement parents may end a playdate if children demonstrate antisocial behavior;
  • As a negative reinforcement for an undesired behavior parents may punish children by asking them to stay in their rooms.


  1. School

Teachers may develop a target behavior or influence students' simple behaviors by applying primary or secondary reinforcers and operant conditioning theory in the classroom; however, during classroom management teachers must refrain from giving negative punishment to the students. As a positive reinforcer role of reinforcement in schools may include:


  • Giving away stickers to those students that show targeted behavior or improved performance in studies;
  • Stop a student from getting recess privileges or giving them punishment by removal from the class may act as a negative reinforcement or positive punishment for showing antisocial behavior ;
  • For classroom management teachers may give away a larger reward or use house points if 10 or more students score a high grade on a quiz or test;
  • Administer a detention for a student as a negative reinforcement or negative punishment for showing an undesired behavior such as too many times showing up late to class.


  1. Work

Role of primary reinforcement may be applied at the workplace to enhance employee morale and productivity. As a positive reinforcer an organizations may:

  • Give away a larger reward to an employee such as a gift card after they show a positive behavior or get 5 positive customer reviews;
  • Suspend a worker as a negative reinforcement or positive punishment for demonstrating an unwanted behavior frequently missing work;
  • Present a bonus or the employee may get praise from superiors for a positive behavior or achieving a quarterly sales target with time-based schedules ;
  • Offer an employee a day off for showing targeted behaviour or extra hard work during the week;
  • Acknowledge through praise from superiors for showing a targeted behavior or extraordinary performance.
  1. Relationships

Everybody can apply primary reinforcement through operant conditioning method to discourage or encourage specific behavioral responses within their relationships. For example, as a positive reinforcer a person may

  • Thank a friend for handling a difficult situation;
  • A person may complement a roommate to thank them for doing one of their chores;
  • People may cook their partner’s favourite food after they show a positive behavior such as clean the house several times during the week.


Operant conditioning contends that an addictive drug develops pleasure and consequently cause its user to continue an addictive drug misuse. An addictive drug activates the dopamine or mental reward system that tells the brain that the addictive drug is acting as a positive enforcer.


Different types of reinforcements include: primary reinforcement, secondary reinforcers, partial reinforcement, and intermittent reinforcement.

What causes Avoidance behavior?


Avoidance behavior takes place where a subject develops a behaviour stopping the occurence of an undesirable stimulus. It must be compared with escape conditioning where behavior is carried out to terminate the undersirable stimulus. In Avoidance behavior training a subject learns that a specific response will lead to prevention or avoidance or an undesired stimulus.


Military training methods are created for behavior modification and pulling apart a person’s resistance to harming their fellow-man. In the United States, the role of reinforcement in operant conditioning method and classic conditioned reinforcement are used as primary reinforcer. In military training methods, they develop a targeted behavior in time-based schedules in the soldiers. Research suggests that primary reinforcement in military training methods may improve the strength of behaviour through positive reinforcement or positive punishment. To develop a target behavior Military training methods also involve virtualization and role modelling.