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Essay of Foundational Psychology: Evaluation of the Operant Conditioning Theory and Reinforcement

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Introduction and Thesis

Various type of behaviors will be performed by the secondary school student in the classroom and these behaviors can be explained by developmental theories, such as Piaget’s cognitive development theory and Erikson’s psychosocial development theory. All this behavior can cause positive and negative impact in the classroom. Majority of the students often perform a negative behavior which lack of motivation, lose focus and lose track of the purpose being at school mainly because of the transition from primary school to secondary school (Madjar & Cohen-Malayev, 2016). During this transition period, adolescence will have many developmental changes that might bring negative impact on class performance (Holas & Huston, 2012), motivation and engagement (Wang & Holcombe, 2010). All these negative/disruptive behaviors can be modified by using several types of behavior modification.

This thesis will discuss how the operant condition interventions works on achieving the behavioral change of the students, strength and weakness of applying operant conditioning and also comparison with other theories. Besides, will also discuss the suitability of using operant conditioning to modify student’s behavior in a scenario which the students are not participative during the class and not completing their assignment and homework.

Evaluation of Scenario

Most of the secondary school student will be adolescence. Adolescence is a transition period between childhood and adulthood (Brittany,2017) and a the same time they will have transition from primary school to secondary school. In this period, they will have many changes when undergo developmental stage. These changes will impact their behaviour in classroom both positive and negative.

During the class, some student will be interesting and some will not. According to cognitive development theory, during adolescence, cognitive development is invisible but intense and it can be shown in an individual’s intellectual development (California Education, 1987; Kellough & Kellough, 2008 ; Manning, 2002; Scales, 2003; Stevenson, 2002; VanHoose, Strahan, & L’Esperance, 2001) including logical reasoning abilities, independent thought, intellectual and language development (Andrea,2003).They tend to be curious and interest to the subject that they found useful, interesting and is relevant to their real life experience (Brighton, 2007). On the other hand, they often less interested in those traditional academic subjects (Kellough et al., 2008).

In the classroom, a student’s behaviour often affect a classmate’s behaviour or being affected by behaviour of classmates (Berndt and Keefe, 1999; Kindermann, McCollam, & Gibson, 1996). This happen due to peer influence. According to studies, peers/classmates’ behaviours, attitudes or other characteristics can influence behaviour of the adolescence (You, 2011). They may reinforce desirable behaviours such as social skill and academic skill. At the same time they may also reinforce undesirable behaviours such as being disruptive during the lesson (Smith & Fowler,1982).

Most of the adolescence’s action will guided by own values. Adolescence evaluate the consequences, outcomes and the worthwhileness before making decision or doing an action. (Hartley & Somerville, 2015). They are sensitive to gains and losses (Duijvenvoorde & Crone, 2013). Some student are motivated, eager to learn more because they know that if they pay attention and work hard, they will have a good result. The motivation of adolescence increase when they obtain a beneficial or positive outcome.

Evaluation of the Operant Conditioning Theory

Operant conditioning is one of the behavior modifications, which let an individual makes an association between the performed behavior and the feedback of the behavior by rewarding or punishing the individual after performing the particular behavior (Skinner, 1938). Reinforcement and punishment can be positive and negative. Positive reinforcement refers to reward or giving something desirable to doer, to encourage the repetition of desired behavior. Negative reinforcement refers to take away or remove something undesirable from the doer, to encourage the repetition of desired behavior. Positive punishment refers to give something undesirable to the doer to stop or weaken the undesired behavior. Negative punishment refers to take away or remove something desirable to doer, to stop or weaken the undesired behavior.

To effectively modify the student’s behavior, first, positive reinforcement alone (DeLeon, Neidert, Anders, & Rodriguez-Catter, 2001; Lalli, 1999) or in combination with negative reinforcement (Kodak, Lerman, Volkert, & Trosclair, 2007; Piazza, 1997) can be used. Combination of positive and negative reinforcement is effective to modify student’s behaviour (Bouxsein, Roane & Harper, 2011). Mr Tan can do this by praising the student (Conroy, 2009)or giving things they desirable such food, candy or more break time when they participate in class discussion (positive reinforcement) and reduce their homework when all of the student complete their homework and submit assignment on time (negative reinforcement). Besides that, is important to implement reinforcement continuously and immediately (Pettit, 2013), according to the experiment an immediate reward has better effect on modifying a person behavior rather than an interval reward (Deleon,2001).

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Continuous reinforcement and partial reinforcement will be two form of reinforcement schedule (Benson, Nesmith, Shervey & Sarah, 2015). In a classroom setting, continuous reinforcement could mean that the student received a reward from the teacher after they perform a correct/desired behavior. Mr Tan can apply continuous reinforcement by rewarding the things that student desirable such as candy, food or more break time to the student whenever the question is answer correctly by the student. It is impractical to reinforce a behaviour whenever it occurs (Benson et al., 2015). Behaviors reinforced by continuous reinforcement schedule have a least resistance to extinction when the reinforcement is withdrawn (Cooper, 2007; Hulac, Terrell, Vining & Bernstein, 2011). Besides that, a same reward won’t motivate every student (Jung,1971) and students might be used and lose interest to the same reward (Fefer, 2016).

Partial Reinforcement schedule will be more practical in a classroom setting. There are several types of partial reinforcement, they are fixed/variable ratio reinforcement and fixed/variable interval reinforcement. Fixed ratio reinforcement means that student will received reinforcement each time when they already perform three correct/desired behavior and in variable ratio reinforcement, the reinforcement will be vary but will be average out in three. Behaviors reinforced by ratio reinforcement will acquire more slowly but is resistant to extinction (Weiner, 1970).

Fixed interval reinforcement means that the student will be reinforced after a period of time, one of the examples will be the assignment due date, student will only be graded if the assignment submitted at a certain date or time (Benson et al., 2015). The behaviour reinforced by fixed interval reinforcement will only be learn or perform when the certain date or time arrives (Kinyanjui, Aloka, Mutisya, Ndeke & Nyang, 2015). Variable interval reinforcement means that the student will be reinforced based on an unpredictable varying period of time. Behaviours which reinforced by variable ratio and variable interval reinforcement have a remarkable resistance to extinction. Comparing all types of schedule, Skinner suggest that to have a better result in modifying, learning a behaviour, reinforcement schedule should start with fixed reinforcement schedule and then follow with variable reinforcement schedule (Kinyanjui et al., 2015).

Positive punishment and negative punishment can also be used to modify student’s undesired behavior (Mather & Goldstein, 2001), however, reinforcement is generally effective than punishment which punishing the student for undesired behavior (Pettit, 2013). Mr Tan can give more homework or assignment when the student didn’t finish their homework and didn’t submit assignment on time, this is called positive punishment. Negative punishment will be Mr Tan reduce the breaktime when the students are not participating class discussion.According to research, reinforcement and punishment will be more effective if the interval between the desired/undesired behaviour and reinforcement/punishment is short, reinforcement / punishment consistent with desired / undesired behaviour and the intensity of the reinforcement / punishment match desired / undesired behaviour (Mather & Goldstein,2001).

According to Bandura’s social cognitive learning theory, an individual learns to perform or display a behavior or an action by observing other individual’s behavior or action and evaluating the consequences and worthwhileness of the behavior or action (Bandura, 1977). Individual usually will observe other individual in their social environment (Patterson, 2018). For student in a classroom, classmate will be the one they observe. This theory will support the operant conditioning, because of when other students observe that one of a student is rewarded by the teacher due to the student’s desired behavior, they will realize that perform the desired behavior will be rewarded. Hence, they will start performing the behavior to get the reward (Jung,1971).

According to Kohlberg’s moral development theory, an individual will undergo four identified level which include six stages. Student in class will be in conventional level. In Conventional level there is two stages, stage 3, interpersonal concordance and stage 4, ‘Law and Order’ orientation (Kohlberg, 1971). In stage 3, individual make a decision based on whether their decision will approve by the primary group or not. Primary group refers to those people which is close and important to the individual, such family, group of friends, club or school. If the individual’s decision approved by the primary group, the individual will feel that he/she belongs to the group (Ma, 2013). In stage 4, individuals know that rules exist in society. They know that obeying the rule is each individual’s duty and will obey the rules to maintain social order. Students which undergo conventional level will have both positive and negative impact on using operant conditioning in a classroom setting. Students which reach stage 3 will react and decide their behavior based on the opinion and reaction of their friends. If their friends have accepted the rewarding or punishment system and become more participative during the class due to the operant conditioning system, students will follow their friend. For those students who reach stage four, they will follow the rules (which is the operant conditioning system) that set by the teacher to maintain classroom order.

The operant conditioning may not be effective due to the egocentrism of adolescence. The theory of egocentric is suggested by Elkind and is a future research about Piaget’s cognitive development. According to Piaget’s theory, adolescence will be in formal operational stage. In this stage, individual’s cognitive ability is fully developed. In this stage, individual can have logical reasoning, forming own theories for issues and can think about other’s thought that leads to egocentrism (Harvey, 2013). Personal fable and the imaginary audience are the two components of egocentrism. Personal fable is corollary to imaginary audience. Adolescence have their own theory about what is wrong and right due to the personal fable. Adolescence believe they are unique and special, because they always feel that they will attract others attention and will be the center of attraction. Besides that, it is common that they have a feeling of invulnerability (Elkind, 1967). Operant conditioning in a classroom may be not effective because students will have a feeling of invulnerability, this feeling will let them ignore and not about the punishment. For examples, the feeling of invulnerability makes the student doesn’t care about the assignment due date (Fixed interval reinforcement), they submit late and being surprised when they assignment has poor grades due to the late submission (Curious, 2010).


According to the research, operant conditioning is a behavioral modification that can effectively modify student’s undesired behavior to desired behaviour, however there is some weaknesses of applying operant conditioning. Weaknesses of applying operant conditioning are student might not be motivated by same reward and getting bored, loss interest with same reinforcement, these can be overcome by preparing various types of reward and larger variety of reinforcement strategies. It will be more effective and long-lasting if successfully overcome the weakness


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