The Learning Process

Behaviorism in the Classroom

“What does a classroom teacher need to know about learning?” According to the behavioral science approach, the teacher must be able to:

  1. Focus instruction on observable learner performance.
  2. Assure that learners can perform the skills that are prerequisites to that
  3. Elicit a rapidly paced, correct performance.
  4. Use appropriate consequences following performance.

Focus on Learner Performance

Behavioral scientists have traditionally defined learning as a stable change in behavior brought about by the environment. Cognitive theorists have expanded this traditional definition of learning to include such topics as cognitive changes in memory capacity, thinking, and mental processing. Behavioral scientists are opposed to this definition. Their opposition stems less from a denial that changes in cognitive (mental) activity occur than from a concern about the difficulty of measuring them.

Behaviorists believe that in order to establish a true science of instruction we must be able to explain how what teachers do affects what learners do—not what or how they think. Cognitive activity is something we cannot measure directly. We can only infer it from observing performance—and inferences about cognitive activity can be wrong. Behaviorists believe that a focus on observable performance avoids incorrect inferences about learning and allows us to build a science of instruction on a firm foundation.

Distinctions between learning and performance and between cognitive and observable changes are important for teaching. By their strong advocacy of observable outcomes and performance objectives, behavioral scientists challenge teachers not to take learning for granted. This means that you should plan lessons with a clear vision of the important outcomes you want learners to achieve, and end your instruction with an assessment of those outcomes. Both of these recommendations are consistent with the behavioral science approach to learning. This premise of behavioral science—that the only valid measure of learning is observable performance—has been criticized by some educators and psychologists (Pasch, Sparks-Langer, Gardner, Starks, & Moody, 1991), who believe that this emphasis encourages teachers to write only those objectives that are easy to measure and thus to ignore educational outcomes involving complex intellectual skills.

Behavioral scientists, on the other hand, believe that a concern for performance will have the opposite effect—that it will persuade teachers to give more serious thought to what they want their learners to accomplish. This, in turn, will help teachers devise authentic ways to assess learning in terms of performance and thinking skills, not just the acquisition of facts. As we will discuss in later chapters, you can write clear, detailed instructional goals and objectives that can be measured reliably in the context of classroom performance and performance on real-world assessment tasks.

Ensure the Learning of Prerequisite Skills

You may be wondering how someone’s intelligence, abilities, aptitudes, or learning style enters into a behavioral scientist’s theory of learning. After all, if someone lacks an aptitude for math or writing, or possesses little musical or painting ability, doesn’t that affect his or her learning?

What characteristics of learners should classroom teachers be concerned about when planning their lessons? Behavioral scientists have a straightforward and (given their concern for observable performance) predictable answer to these questions: Other than a learner’s physical capabilities to perform the learning task, the only characteristic that is relevant to a student’s learning a skill is whether the learner possesses the prerequisites for it. In other words, if you expect your students to learn how to write a paragraph, you must first ask yourself whether they can write a complete sentence, a topic sentence, and transitions between sentences. At an even more basic level, can they spell words and form letters correctly? If some of your learners cannot learn to write a paragraph skillfully and effortlessly, behavioral scientists would attribute this to a lack of prerequisite skills (or poorly designed instruction)—not to a lack of ability, aptitude, or intelligence.

Behavioral scientists believe that the source of almost all learning failures can be identified if teachers analyze both the internal conditions (prerequisite skills) and the external conditions (instructional events) of learning. For example, if one of your learners can’t seem to master long division, is it because he hasn’t learned how to subtract? If he is having difficulty learning subtraction skills, has he learned how to regroup? If he hasn’t learned to regroup, can he identify which of two numbers is larger? At no point would the behavioral scientist conclude that the learner lacks ability or intelligence. If the teacher analyzes and probes deeply enough, eventually she can identify the source of the problem and teach or reteach the skills necessary for learning to continue.

The idea of breaking complex behaviors into smaller component behaviors originated with Skinner (1954). As we saw earlier, Skinner’s experiments on shaping the behavior of rats demonstrated the usefulness of this method. Gagné (1970), however, more so than any other behavioral scientist, demonstrated the importance of classroom learning of such an analysis.

Task Analysis

The process of analyzing the internal conditions necessary for learning is called task analysis. The outcome of a task analysis is an arrangement of prerequisite skills into a learning hierarchy. You begin a task analysis by identifying what task you want your learners to perform at the end of a lesson or unit of instruction. Then ask, “In order to perform this task, what prerequisite skills must my learners already have mastered?” The answer should be the most complex, highest-level prerequisite skills.

Next, for each of these skills, identify further prerequisites. Eventually, a learning hierarchy emerges. The questioning process you might follow for an individual learner is illustrated in this figure.

If you have trouble conducting a task analysis using the logical questioning process described above, do the task yourself and write down what you did, or observe someone doing the task and write down what you saw. Some curriculum guides are sufficiently detailed to provide a task analysis for you.


Constructing a learning hierarchy is dependent on identifying the prerequisite skills in the correct sequence: you can’t teach subtraction with regrouping before you teach place value. Behavioral scientists consider the sequence in which skills are taught to be especially important. They place a premium on correct responses, rapid responding, and efficiency. Therefore, incorrectly sequenced instruction results in errors, frustration, and inefficiency. Englemann (1991) cautions that the sequence of skills presented in the published curriculum you use may create problems for your learners. Thus, it will be worth your while to examine this sequence and adjust it when necessary.

Also, solving complex problems in math, writing compositions, and interpreting difficult reading passages are all tasks that require learners to perform prerequisite skills automatically and effortlessly (Mayer, 1987). Imagine the difficulty your learners would have writing an essay if they could not form letters, spell, punctuate, and construct grammatical sentences. Learners who cannot perform prerequisite skills effortlessly and with minimal errors find it difficult to transfer new learning to unfamiliar problem contexts. One of the key ingredients for transfer of new learning is the mastery of prerequisite skills.

Elicit Rapidly Paced, Correct Performance

As we saw in our study of operant conditioning, Skinner was able to elicit rapid correct performance by the skilled use of reinforcement and stimulus control. As you will recall, the basic elements of operant conditioning are (a) a response or behavior that you want to teach or shape, (b) an effective reinforcer, and (c) the delivery of that reinforcer immediately after the performance of the desired response. The challenge—both to psychologists in the lab and to teachers in the classroom—is to elicit a correct response. Let’s analyze this challenge and explore further the topic of rapidly-paced, correct performance.

The skilled teacher gets learners to respond correctly by bringing correct responses under stimulus control. Exactly how is this done? How does a teacher deliver instruction in a manner that minimizes the likelihood that learners will make mistakes? Four important factors are involved.

  1. Assure the learning of prerequisite skills.
  2. Present instructional material effectively.
  3. Use prompts.
  4. Use reinforcement.

We have already discussed the first of these factors. In this section, we explain the remaining three.

Effective Presentation

Behavioral scientists point out three areas for you to consider as you decide how to present instructional material: specific directions, opportunities for learner responses, and the pacing of response opportunities (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 1987; Englemann, 1991).

Specific Directions

Let’s say that you want to teach some sight words to your learners. You want them to look at a word and pronounce it correctly. Here are two examples of possible directions:

  • Example 1: This is the word “rabbit.” Say “rabbit” and point to the word.
  • Example 2: This is the word “rabbit.” A rabbit is a small, furry animal with big ears. It likes to eat carrots. Point to the word “rabbit” and say it.

Example 1 is a better set of directions if your objective is to bring the response “saying and pointing to the word ‘rabbit’” under the stimulus control of the word “rabbit.” Example 2 contains information that may distract the learner from making the correct response.

Whether you are teaching word recognition to first-graders, subtraction to second-graders, paragraph construction to sixth-graders, or problem-solving in physics to eleventh-graders, instructional directions should be specific to the behavior you want your learners to acquire. So think carefully about what you want learners to do and how you will direct them to do it. Discard information and explanations that are extraneous and serve only to distract the learner.

Opportunities for Learner Response

Behavioral scientists have conducted extensive research on the idea of the opportunity to respond (Delguardi, Greenwood, & Hall, 1979; Hall, Delguardi, Greenwood, & Thurston, 1982; Lindsley, 1992b). They make a useful distinction between active and passive responding. Active responding requires the learner to do something: write sentences, calculate answers, focus a microscope, balance a scale, weigh rocks, and record observations. Passive responding, on the other hand, includes such activities as listening to lectures, paying attention to peers while they are reading, watching television, and waiting for teacher assistance.

Greenwood, Delguardi, and Hall (1984) report that nearly half of a learner’s day is involved in passive responding. This is unfortunate because their research also demonstrates a strong relationship between learner achievement and active responding. Behavioral scientists, therefore, urge you to plan your lessons so that learners spend at least 75 percent of their time engaged in active responding.

Research on the opportunity to respond has also found that correct responses are more likely to come under stimulus control when you design your practice material (worksheets, seatwork drills, homework assignments, and so forth) to elicit correct responses 70 to 90 percent of the time (Borich, 1996; Stephens, 1976). Many teachers purposely design materials for learner practice to be challenging—in other words, they design it so there is a strong likelihood that the learners will make mistakes. Behavioral scientists have demonstrated that learners acquire basic facts and skills faster when their opportunities for practice result in success most of the time.

The Pacing of Response Opportunities

Recall Ogden Lindsley’s description of the ideal classroom from the beginning of this chapter. In it, Lindsley drew our attention to the rapidity with which the learners were responding—they were “shouting correct answers as fast as they can at 200 words per minute.” It is a cardinal principle of behavioral science that when instruction is focused on basic academic skills, stimulus control of correct responses is more likely to occur when learners are encouraged to respond rapidly.

Although you might predict that more errors would result from fast-paced lessons, research indicates just the opposite for the acquisition of facts and action sequences. In a series of studies on the pace of reading instruction, Carnine found that rapid presentations by teachers produced greater achievement, fewer errors, and more sustained attention by learners during letter and word identification tasks than did slower presentations (Carnine, 1976; Carnine & Fink, 1978).

In summary, the behavioral science approach to learning suggests that you deliver instruction in the following ways:

  • Give directions that focus only on the response you want learners to make.
  • Allow learners to engage in active responding during the majority of class time.
  • Design instructional material for both initial learning and practice so that learners can produce correct answers 70 to 90 percent of the time.

Use of Prompts

During instruction teachers often provide prompts—hints and other types of supplementary instructional stimuli to help learners make the correct responses. Because, as we have seen, the behavioral science approach is concerned with minimizing mistakes, it places a high value on the use of prompts that increase the likelihood that learners will respond correctly.

Behavioral scientists identify three categories of prompts used by teachers to shape the correct performance of their learners: verbal prompts, gestural prompts, and physical prompts. We will discuss the use of all three kinds in the following sections.

Verbal Prompts

Verbal prompts can be cues, reminders, or instructions to learners that help them perform correctly the skill you are teaching. For example, saying “Leave a space between words” to a first-grader as he is writing reminds him of what you previously said about neat handwriting. Or saying “First adjust the object lens” to a learner as she is looking at a microscope slide prompts her as she is learning how to use a microscope. Verbal prompts help guide the learner to correct performance and prevent mistakes and frustration.

Gestural Prompts

Gestural prompts model or demonstrate for learners a particular skill you want them to perform. For example, if you were to point to the fine adjustment knob on the microscope and make a turning gesture with your hand, you would be prompting the student to perform this step of the process. Gestural prompts are particularly helpful when you anticipate that the learner may make a mistake. Teachers use gestural prompts routinely to remind learners how to fold a piece of paper, grasp a pair of scissors, raise a hand before asking a question, or hold a pen properly when writing.

Physical Prompts

Some learners lack the fine muscle control needed to follow a demonstration and imitate the action that is being modeled. For example, the teacher might verbally describe how to form the letter “A” and demonstrate this to the learner, and the learner may still be unable to write “A” correctly. In such a case, the teacher might use her hand to guide the learner’s hand as he writes. This is called a physical prompt. With a physical prompt, you use hand-over-hand assistance to guide the learner to the correct performance. Teachers routinely use physical prompts to assist learners with handwriting, cutting out shapes, tying shoelaces, correctly holding a dissecting tool, or performing a complex dance routine.

Least-to-Most Prompting

Behavioral scientists generally recommend that you use the least intrusive prompt first when guiding a learner’s performance. This is referred to as least-to-most prompting. Verbal prompts are considered the least intrusive, while physical prompts are considered the most intrusive (Cooper et al., 1987). Thus it would be more appropriate to first say to a learner “Don’t forget the fine adjustment!” when guiding her in the use of a microscope than to take her hand and physically assist her. The reasoning behind using a least-to-most order of prompts to assist learners is that verbal prompts are easier to remove or fade than physical prompts. Learners who are dependent on physical prompts to perform correctly will find it more difficult to demonstrate a skill independently of the teacher.

At this point, let’s summarize what we’ve learned about stimulus control and its relationship to correct responses. So far, we have learned that behavioral scientists view the eliciting of a correct response as one of the four basic elements of learning. Correct responses followed by reinforcement result in more permanent learning than correct responses intermixed with incorrect responses. Mistakes slow down the learning process and often lead to frustration and attempts by learners to avoid, or passively respond to, a learning activity.

Establishing stimulus control over learner performance is the key to errorless learning. In order to elicit rapidly paced, correct performance, you must pay particular attention to four important factors when planning your lessons:

  1. Make sure your learners have mastered prerequisite skills.
  2. Present your lessons in a way that will give learners frequent opportunities to make correct responses.
  3. Use prompts to ensure a correct response.
  4. Reinforce correct responses immediately.

Let’s turn now to the fourth basic element of the behavioral science approach, which tells us how to deliver consequences to learners following their performance.

Use Appropriate Consequences Following Performance

Picture the following situation: You have just begun a unit on converting fractions to decimals with your fifth-graders. After demonstrating how to perform this skill, you pass out a worksheet with 20 problems. You give your learners 10 minutes to complete the task. As the students work, you move from desk to desk checking on their answers. You notice several students getting answers wrong. What should you do? Here are some alternatives.

  1. Circle the incorrect answers, show them what they did wrong, and encourage them to do better.
  2. Circle just the correct answers, point out what they did right, and encourage them to do better.
  3. Circle the correct answers, and praise the students for their good work.
  4. Circle the incorrect answers, admonish the students, and have them do the problems again.
  5. 1 and 4.
  6. 2 and 3.
  7. All of the above.

Educational psychologists using the behavioral science approach have researched the issue of how best to respond to the correct and incorrect responses of learners. They have arranged the possible consequences into three general categories: (1) informational feedback, (2) positive consequences, and (3) negative consequences. Let’s examine each and see what behavioral scientists have learned about their effectiveness in promoting learning.

Informational Feedback

Correct Responses

If a learner correctly recalls the major historical events leading up to the Civil War, legibly forms a lowercase cursive letter, or accurately solves an algebra equation with two unknowns showing her work, you should do two things immediately: (1) tell the learner the answer is correct, and (2) briefly describe what she did to obtain the correct answer. For example:

  • “That’s right. You listed the five major events.”
  • “Those letters are slanted correctly and you wrote them on the line.”
  • “The answer is right and you showed all the required steps.”

Behavioral scientists remind us that better learning results when you tell learners not only what they got right, but also why they got it right (Cooper et al., 1987).

Incorrect Answers

Learners give incorrect answers for several different reasons: carelessness, lack of knowledge, or lack of understanding. In the first case, some teachers scold or use some form of verbal punishment. Behavioral scientists and many educators strongly advise against these consequences for careless performance. Instead, they recommend that you use the following types of feedback whenever students give incorrect answers, regardless of the reason:

  1. If the problem involves only knowledge of factual information, simply give the correct response.
  2. If the problem involves more complex intellectual skills, point out the rules, procedures, or steps to follow.
  3.  Ask the learner to correct the answer.
  4. Ask the learner to practice some extra problems.

Here is an example of each:

  • “The correct spelling is t-h-e-i-r.”
  • “End every sentence with a period, question mark, or exclamation point.”
  • “First draw the base. Then, draw the altitude. Now, retrace your steps.”
  • “Ask yourself: ‘Who are the more talked-about people in this story?’ Then
    answer the next set of questions.”

Note that these examples do not include preaching, scolding, or focusing extensively on the student’s error—even if the learner was being careless. Such responses often create feelings of anxiety and distaste for schoolwork, which encourage disengagement from the learning activity. Learning will occur more quickly if you simply tell your students what to do, have them try again, and provide practice with additional problems when an incorrect response is given (Rodgers & Iwata, 1991).

Cautions for Correcting Mistakes

Research on feedback and error correction has shown that the recommendations given above improve learning for most students. However, there are two groups of learners for whom these procedures may not be beneficial: (1) those who make a lot of mistakes and (2) those who are excessively dependent on adult guidance.

When given material that is too difficult, low-achieving learners make many errors. Such learners experience low rates of positive consequences and high rates of negative ones. Consequently, they are likely to ignore corrective feedback and simply stop working. Research on low achievers affirms that when error rates are high, little is learned from informational feedback (Kulik & Kulik, 1988; McKeachie, 1990). This finding underscores the importance of designing your instruction to produce as few errors as possible in all learners.

In the second case, learners who depend greatly on adult guidance may involve attention-seeking behavior. In other words, some learners may persist in making mistakes because of the attention they receive after doing so. Hasazi and Hasazi (1972) and Stromer (1975) speculated that when a teacher’s response focuses on the mistake itself rather than on the correct answer (for example, circling reversals of letters when the learner writes b for d, or circling digits when the learner writes 32 for 23), it may inadvertently reinforce incorrect responses.

These researchers carried out experiments in which teachers circled only correct responses and drew no attention to those that were incorrect. They found dramatic improvements in the learners’ ability to write digits and letters correctly after teachers made this change alone. This surprising finding reminds us that focusing on mistakes may actually reinforce the wrong response. This may be especially true in classrooms where teachers pay more attention to children who are misbehaving (talking out of turn, not following instructions) than to those who routinely follow class rules.

Positive Consequences Following Performance

Behavioral scientists have conclusively demonstrated the crucial role played by positive consequences in promoting and strengthening learning in animals. They have shown that positive consequences play an equally critical part in the classroom learning of children (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1986). Thus, for the classroom teacher today, the important question is not whether to use positive consequences in the classroom, but what type of consequence to use and how.

Behavioral scientists make a distinction between positive consequences and positive reinforcers. Positive consequences, such as smiles, praise, happy faces, “happy-grams,” and prizes are enjoyable or pleasurable things that teachers (or parents) do for children to encourage their good efforts and motivate them to do better. They may or may not serve as positive reinforcers.

Something can be called a positive reinforcer only when it can be conclusively shown that it increases the frequency of a target behavior. When you praise a learner’s correct punctuation with the intention of increasing the likelihood that she will continue her progress, you are using a positive consequence. In order to classify this consequence as a positive reinforcer, you must show that the learner continues to make progress and that your praise was the causal factor. Some teachers develop elaborate systems of positive rewards, hoping that they will energize their learners to achieve increasingly higher levels of both social and academic skills (Canter, 1989). However, the teachers believe they are using positive reinforcers when they are simply using positive consequences.

We will now extend our discussion of positive consequences following learning to address two additional issues: (1) how to use positive consequences to promote and maintain learning and (2) how to establish natural reinforcers (i.e., intrinsic motivators) for learners who require extrinsic ones.

The Expert Practice of Positive Reinforcement

Recall from our discussion of operant conditioning that positive reinforcement is the process of strengthening behavior by the presentation of a desired stimulus or reward. While this definition appears simple, reinforcement is nevertheless easily misunderstood and misused. Before we expand on the use of positive reinforcement in the classroom, let’s see some examples of what it is not. These will help you grasp the complexity of positive reinforcement.

  • Mr. Russo has snack time at 10:15 and 10:30 for his first-grade class. He gives his learners juice, cookies, fruit bits, and other types of reinforcers.
  • Mr. Baker, the principal, decided to start a positive reinforcement program. At the end of the week, each teacher would nominate his or her “best student” to receive the “Principal’s Pride Award” at a ceremony each Monday morning. Parents would be invited to attend.
  • Mrs. Knipper allows students who finish assignments early to use the computer in the back of the room.
  • Mr. French has a popcorn party every Friday if the class has not broken more than five major rules the entire week.
  • Mrs. Reimer has a basketful of inexpensive trinkets and school supplies. She lets learners who have been particularly helpful on a given day select a prize from the basket.

Learners who read more than five books a year are treated to a special roller skating party at the end of the school year, hosted by the principal.

There is nothing wrong or inappropriate about these activities. Learners, their teachers, and parents generally like and support them. They even may have some beneficial outcomes on learning, but they are not necessarily examples of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a complex process that demands a substantial commitment of the teacher’s time and effort, as we will now see.

The Process of Positive Reinforcement

When behavioral scientists speak of positive reinforcement they refer to a sequence of actions by a teacher, trainer, or behavioral specialist that has a beginning, middle, and end. When you decide to use positive reinforcement you commit yourself to this specific sequence of steps. Note that very few of these steps were followed in the examples given earlier. Reread the examples now, and ask yourself how many included: baseline measurement of specific behaviors; assessment of reinforcer preferences; immediate, continuous reinforcement for the performance of specific behaviors; and a gradual fading of the use of extrinsic reinforcers to natural reinforcers.

The point is that the expert practice of positive reinforcement is a demanding intellectual and physical challenge. When you decide to use it, you are committing yourself to a process that involves measurement, consistent delivery of reinforcers, and the responsibility to fade them. Because of this commitment, there may be few examples in regular school classrooms today where the science of reinforcement, as developed by behavioral scientists, is consistently and appropriately applied.

Therefore, it is important to recognize that most reward, recognition, and incentive systems used in today’s schools do not constitute positive reinforcement as behavioral scientists use the term. In either case, users of positive reinforcement should be aware of the ethical issues involved in the use of extrinsic rewards, such as paying students for reading books or for staying off drugs.

Natural Reinforcers: Alternatives to Extrinsic Reinforcers

Behavioral scientists have often been criticized for creating a generation of learners who are hooked on artificial or extrinsic consequences in order to learn and behave in the classroom (see, for example, de Charms, 1968, 1976). However, an analysis of the writings of early behaviorists like B. F. Skinner (1953, 1974), or other behavioral scientists like Ogden Lindsley (1991, 1992a, 1992b) and Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968), challenges this criticism. Such behavioral scientists have advocated the use of natural reinforcers, those that are naturally present in the setting where the behavior occurs. Thus, there are natural reinforcers for classrooms (grades), ballfields (the applause of fans), the workplace (money), and the home (story hour, parent attention). Examples of unnatural reinforcers are paying children or giving them treats for achievement in schools, or buying toys for children who behave well at home.

Skinner makes a further distinction in his definition of a natural reinforcer: he sees it as a change in stimulation resulting from the behavior itself. In other words, natural reinforcers occur when the behavior itself produces an environmental change that gives the person pleasure. For example, the natural reinforcer for hitting the correct keys on a piano is the pleasurable sound that the behavior brings. Similarly, the natural reinforcer for writing correct letters is the satisfaction the first-grader experiences when she sees the letters forming on the page. Thus to Skinner, a natural reinforcer is a consequence that results from the very performance of the behavior we want the child to learn; that consequence, in turn, motivates the child to want to perform these behaviors again.

Children who enjoy solving puzzles are receiving natural reinforcement for doing so. Likewise, learners who write poetry, play the guitar, study history, read novels, or compete in gymnastics are receiving natural reinforcement. What these examples have in common is that children are engaging in the behaviors again and again without the need for external praise or other reinforcers delivered by another person.

Some learners are naturally reinforced by learning to write, read, color, answer questions, play sports, solve equations, answer textbook questions, and write essays, but others are not. Many learners require external reinforcers to engage in certain classroom activities that they do not find naturally reinforcing. For such children, external reinforcers have an important role to play. They can accomplish two things. They enable you to (1) shape and improve the behaviors you desire
through the use of positive reinforcement and (2) transfer their control over the learner’s behavior to natural reinforcers. Behavioral scientists refer to this process as conditioning (Horcones, 1992).

Conditioning a Natural Reinforcer. Over the past decade, the Communidad Los Horcones (Horcones, 1985, 1987, 1991, 1992) has developed a strategy for transferring the control of extrinsic reinforcers to that of natural, or intrinsic reinforcers. This process as a whole is referred to as intrinsic reinforcement. Note how the use of natural reinforcers relies on the learner’s intrinsic motivation and thus allows you to transfer control of the behavior to the learner herself.

Positive Consequences: A Final Comment. Behavioral scientists emphasize that there is nothing wrong with extrinsic reinforcers, particularly when they are used as a means to get learning started and to condition natural reinforcers. But there are drawbacks to their use. Some learners stop studying when they are removed (Emmer, Evertson, Clements, & Worsham, 1994). They are not always available for all learners at the same time nor available for individual learners when they are needed. This is not the case with natural reinforcers.

Moreover, extrinsic reinforcers can be effective only when they are consistently delivered by another person. It is impractical to expect teachers to reinforce the most important behaviors of all learners at the right moment. Natural reinforcers allow for this possibility.

We will return to the subject of reinforcement when we study motivational theories in future chapters. Let’s turn now to a discussion of the third type of consequence that teachers can use following learner performance: negative consequences.

The Use of Negative Consequences

We will end our discussion of the use of the behavioral science approach with the final type of consequence teachers can use negative consequences. Here are some examples of negative consequences:

  • Mr. Holt’s fourth-period math class was just before lunch. His students often failed to complete their seatwork during this period. He decided to delay the lunch period for any learners who did not finish their work.
  • Ms. Tolbert wanted to help her learners spell more accurately. She made them write each misspelled word 25 times in their notebooks.
  • Mr. Blandon was a stickler for correct punctuation. Any student who failed to capitalize a sentence or place a period at the end received a firm lecture on carelessness.
  • Mr. Thomas decided to do something about students who weren’t doing homework—students who didn’t turn in homework assignments were required to do them after school.
  • Mr. Altman sent “sad-grams” home to the parents of students who were doing poorly in his math class.

These are all examples of negative consequences, things that teachers (or other adults) do to learners after inappropriate behaviors in the hope that such behaviors will not occur again. Types of negative consequences typically used in schools are these:

Verbal reprimands: Speaking harshly to the student: “That work is sloppy and careless, and you should be ashamed of yourself for doing it.”

Overcorrection: The learner not only corrects what he did wrong but engages in repetitive, boring practice on the same skill: “After you correct all the spelling mistakes, write each misspelled word correctly 50 times.”

Response cost: The teacher takes away some right or privilege: “Whoever fails to complete the assignment loses the first 15 minutes of recess.”

Exclusion: The learner is removed from one setting and placed in another, often called “time out”: “If you don’t cooperate in your groups, you will be removed and put in the back of the room for the rest of the period.”

Negative Consequences Versus Punishers

Negative consequences may or may not be punishers. As we have seen, to a behavioral scientist, a punisher is something you do following a behavior to reduce the frequency of that behavior for as long as the punisher is used. In other words, your overcorrection of spelling mistakes is a punisher only if you keep good records that show that spelling mistakes have been substantially reduced. If not, then overcorrection is not a punisher—it is simply a negative consequence, which has no real effect on mistakes and may or may not cause the learner discomfort.

Behavioral scientists are very particular about what they call a punisher (just as they are very particular about what they call a reinforcer). Something is a punisher only if you have demonstrated that it reduces the behavior you targeted. Scolding, overcorrection, sending someone to the principal’s office (exclusion), taking away recess (response cost), and even corporal punishment are all negative consequences, but they may not be punishers.

The distinction between a negative consequence and a punisher is significant for two reasons. First, some teachers persist in the use of negative consequences in the belief that they are helping their learners in some way. However, after a scolding, a learner may appear chastened and remorseful. He may even stop the inappropriate behavior for the next hour or day. But the same behavior soon reappears; the teacher, in frustration, scolds or reprimands again; and the cycle repeats itself.

Scolding, in this case, does not reduce the target behavior. It is not a punisher. It is simply a negative consequence, which the teacher uses to relieve frustration with the learner and which gives the illusion of effectiveness. By distinguishing between negative consequences and punishers, behavioral scientists remind us of the importance of gathering evidence that behavior is changing before we persist in the use of any technique. They highlight an important ethical question: What is the justification for the continued use of negative consequences in the absence of proof of their effectiveness?

Second, the distinction between negative consequences and punishers is also significant because it raises the question of what is required to turn a negative consequence into an effective punisher.

The Use of Punishment

As often as you hear the lament “I tried positive reinforcement and it didn’t work,” you will hear the assertion “Punishment isn’t effective.” And just as we can attribute the failure of positive reinforcement to ineffective practice, so we can attribute the failure of punishment to ineffective application.

Many myths have arisen over the past two decades concerning the use of punishment in schools. These myths pertain to both the effectiveness and the ineffectiveness of punishment in reducing undesirable behavior. In the former case, we often hear statements like these: Punishment stops unwanted behavior. When all else fails, use punishment! Children must experience negative consequences for misbehavior! Spare the rod and spoil the child! In the latter case, punishment is frequently criticized because it makes children hate school or teachers create emotional problems, only temporarily suppresses behavior, or deals only with the symptom of the problem and not the cause.

In response to these beliefs, behavioral scientists cite hundreds of studies, carried out with both animal and human subjects over the past half-century, that have led to a set of tested conclusions about punishment and its use (Cooper et al., 1987; Sulzer-Azaroff et al., 1988). Here is what these studies tell us about the use of punishment:

  • Punishment can result in the long-term elimination of undesirable behavior, but so can techniques that involve the exclusive use of positive reinforcement to strengthen appropriate behavior.
  • Some individuals engage in severe, chronic, life-threatening behaviors that cannot be eliminated by positive reinforcement alone.
  • When punishment to eliminate inappropriate behaviors is used in conjunction with positive reinforcement to teach alternative behaviors, emotional side effects such as fear and dislike of teachers’ attempt to escape or avoid school or schoolwork, or anxiety are less likely to occur.
  • The failure of some nonaversive and positive reinforcement techniques to suppress undesirable behavior does not automatically justify the use of punishment. Usually, this failure is due to the ineffective use of positive reinforcement.
  • The failure of less intense punishment to suppress behavior does not necessarily justify the use of more intense punishment. In fact, increasing the ratio of positive reinforcement to create a contrast with punishment usually precludes the need for increased punishment.

From their studies on the effective use of punishment, behavioral scientists have identified several conditions as essential for the suppression and eventual elimination of undesirable behavior. Not surprisingly, these conditions are similar to those we identified for the successful use of positive reinforcement earlier in this chapter. They include the following:

  1. Precise identification and baseline measurement of the target behavior.
  2. Precise identification of an alternative, positive behavior.
  3. An assessment of the most effective potential punisher for the target behavior prior to its use.
  4. Consistent, immediate reinforcement and punishment on a continuous schedule until changes in both the target behavior and the alternative behavior are evident.
  5. Fading of both reinforcers and punishers.


For a more detailed review of behavior analysis and modification, the OER book

Principles of Behavior Analysis and Modification provides more information.



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