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Operant Conditioning: Positive And Negative Reinforcement, Positive And Negative Punishments, Shaping And Extinction

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In understanding operant conditioning, a human person has to first define what are the things he or she likes (reward) and does not like (punishment). In the case of Mr. Tan’s class, the behavior to influence is the students’ disinterest in learning. That the behavior is adopted uniformly across the classroom may be due each individual student’s doubt on their sense of self. Skinner proposes that if a behaviour is followed by reinforcement, that behaviour is more likely to be repeated, but if it is followed by some sort of aversive stimuli or punishment, it is less likely to be repeated. This learned association could end, or become extinct, if the reinforcement or punishment was removed. The various methods of Operant conditioning are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, Positive punishments, negative punishments, Shaping and Extinction.

Positive Reinforcement involves favourable events or outcomes that are presented after the behaviour. Negative Reinforcements involve the removal of an unfavourable events or outcomes after the display of a behaviour.

Positive punishments add an aversive stimulus to decrease a behaviour or response.Negative punishments remove a pleasant stimulus to decrease a behaviour or response.

Shaping is a method of operant conditioning by which successive approximations of a target behaviour are reinforced. In shaping, behaviours are broken down into many small, achievable steps.

As the subject moves through each behaviour trial, rewards for old, less approximate behaviours are discontinued in order to encourage progress toward the desired behaviour. Extinction is the loss of conditioning overtime when the conditioning stimuli are no longer present. Over time the person will become less conditioned unless the stimuli that conditioned them in the first place is reapplied.

Skinner found that when and how often behaviors were reinforced played a role in the speed and strength of acquisition. In other words, the timing and frequency of reinforcement influenced how new behaviors were learned and how old behaviors were modified. Continuous reinforcement involves delivering a reinforcement every time a response occurs. Learning tends to occur relatively quickly, yet the response rate is quite low. Extinction also occurs very quickly once reinforcement is halted. Fixed-ratio schedules are a type of partial reinforcement. Responses are reinforced only after a specific number of responses have occurred. This typically leads to a fairly steady response rate. Fixed-interval schedules are another form of partial reinforcement. Reinforcement occurs only after a certain interval of time has elapsed. Response rates remain fairly steady and start to increase as the reinforcement time draws near, but slow immediately after the reinforcement has been delivered. Variable-ratio schedules are also a type of partial reinforcement that involves reinforcing behavior after a varied number of responses. This leads to both a high response rate and slow extinction rates. Variable-interval schedules are the final form of partial reinforcement. This schedule involves delivering reinforcement after a variable amount of time has elapsed. This also tends to lead to a fast response rate and slow extinction rate.

With respect to the above theories let us analyse the scenario in Mr Tan’s Class. Mr Tan is teaching in a senior secondary 2 class where he is dealing with students in their adolescent age. The class typically shows indifference to studies and a lack of commitment to class works and commitment. It can result from an expression of defiance, lack of interest in the subject, peer pressure or the need of peer acceptance, not seeing a positive role model in Mr Tan. From the psychological point of view, Mr Tan can do a self-analysis regarding his teaching styles, the attention given to individual student needs, knowledge depths, his behaviour toward the students like arrogance, friendliness, approachability. This will help him to make changes in his behaviour to improve interaction with the students. Of the various Operant Conditioning techniques that can be used here, positive reinforcements and negative reinforcements can be used for changing these behaviours.

Various positive reinforcement strategies like rewarding the students who finish their assignments and homework on time, making them popular on name boards, personal gifts and goodies etc can be tried. This can be done in partial reinforcements also.

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Some negative reinforcements can be tried, like cutting on boring tasks, giving free time etc when the required behaviour is done. Shaping can be done to increase the desired behaviour over longer time. When these strategies do not work on a small population of students who are more defiant, punishments in the form of positive and negative punishments can be tried. Some strategies like giving tasks like an imposition, cleaning the class, etc can be used as positive punishments. Whereas strategies like cutting of sport period, and time outs can be tried as negative punishment.

These strategies can be combined with strategies for Mr Tan to improvise his method of teaching, interaction, to make classes more lively and fun-based. This can change him to be a better role model and according to Banduras Social learning theory, he can impart positive behaviours to the class

Considering Secondary Two students are at their age where they are undergoing puberty, their perpetual “who am I” question to ponder as suggested by the identity versus role confusion theory by Erikson could be a factor in their every action and inaction. As adolescents, recognition from friends is of top significance to them. One could be in danger of being perceived as an eager beaver, a goody two-shoes or even a teacher’s pet for showing enthusiasm and generally doing the right things in class. The constant battle with oneself results in not being able to “live harmonious with himself or herself, his or her family, friends and peers” (Erikson, 1968, as cited by Scheck, 2014).

The dysfunctionality in Mr. Tan’s class has two options to choose as to which way to pursue to remedy the situation. On one hand, applying punishment to discourage the behavior may lead to two possible outcomes: whether the students would participate in class grudgingly or the mass apathy deepens. On the other hand, reinforcing rewards to encourage participation in class may lead to either no takers or increased participation – regardless of the quantity and quality of the act of participating. Weighing these two options and their possible outcomes, reinforcing rewards would be the better choice to take as it has less risk and more chance of success.

According to consort Albert Francis Charles Augustus Emmanuel Bandura’s empirical learning theory, children imitate the behaviors through observations of those they raise positive role models or people who are dear or favored. Such effects of empiric learning have a stronger impact on adolescents, particularly ones who lack a secure attachment to their parents or caregiver. Learning from a task model is commonly referred to as identification and students acquire new social roles that continue throughout adulthood. In absence of good behavior to imitate, teenagers may engage in rebellious behavior instead, such as playing hooky, not bothering to come to school, be violent and hostile.

Mr. Tan as the teacher and a figure of authority, their caretaker during school hours, has a potentially important role to play if he decides to seize the opportunity. In the current situation, the students are “partaking with a social circle of recalcitrant peers or compounding with unhealthy firms at school, these students are in danger of delinquency and college dropout that affects the event of ethical values (Gibbs, 2019)”. What Mr. Tan can do is to appeal to both the students are a group of peers and the students as individuals.

The aim of Mr. Tan’s actions is that the students will “get motivated by positive teacher-student relationship and grade retention is attributable to the presence of positive role models (Farrelly, 2014)”. In appealing to the class as a whole, Mr. Tan may come up with missions they can all do together, for example: participating in a competition against another class, doing something of value towards the neighbourhood/community or learning current trends and suggesting they do them together. In appealing to an individual sense of self, he may appoint leaders in compartmentalized matters in class, each person in the field of his or her interest.

The carrot dangled by Mr. Tan is empowerment. Being empowered in an age where one’s sense of self is unsure could be worth showing some enthusiasm for. Once a sense of self is restored it influences the students’ instructional accomplishment. The understanding of himself or herself “develops an everlasting temperament of confidence, equipped to face the challenges after they embark on the consequent stage – early adulthood (Erikson, 1968, as cited by Scheck, 2014)”.

When Mr. Tan facilitates positive peer culture the students would want to learn and achieve as well as wanting to help their classmates to learn and achieve along with them. “The capable students who have the talents and maturity will facilitate to help those delinquent students to attain behavioral modification (Brendtro, Mitchell, & McCall, 2009, as cited by Gibbs, 2019)”.


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  2. CAHILL, H., Beadle, S., Forster, R., Smith, K. & Farrelly, A. (2014). Building Resilience in Children and Young People: A Literature Review for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD).
  3. Crone, D. A., Hawken, L. S., & Bergstrom, M. K. (2010). Responding to Problem Behavior in Schools: The Behavior Education Program. (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
  4. Gibbs, J. C. (2019). Moral Development and Reality: Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg, Hoffman, and Haidt. (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  5. Havik, T., Bru, E., & Ertesvåg, S. K. (2015). School Factors Associated with School Refusal- and Truancy-Related Reasons for School Non-Attendance. Social Psychology of Education, 18(2), 221-240. doi:10.1007/s11218-015-9293-y
  6. Santrock, J. W. (2013). Life-Span Development (14th Edition), McGraw-Hill International (Chapter 12).
  7. Scheck, S. (2014). The Stages of Psychosocial Development According to Erik H. Erikson. Munich, Germany: GRIN Verlag GmbH

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Operant Conditioning: Positive And Negative Reinforcement, Positive And Negative Punishments, Shaping And Extinction. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 29, 2023, from
“Operant Conditioning: Positive And Negative Reinforcement, Positive And Negative Punishments, Shaping And Extinction.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
Operant Conditioning: Positive And Negative Reinforcement, Positive And Negative Punishments, Shaping And Extinction. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Sept. 2023].
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