Operant conditioning is a form of behaviorism put forth by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner theorized that all behavior is created in reaction to environmental stimuli. He believed that this occurred in conjunction with a series of punishments and rewards. That is, when a person is rewarded for a behavior, it is more likely to occur again. However, when a person is punished, she is less likely to repeat the behavior. Operant conditioning has practical advantages, specifically in the area of education.

Positive Reinforcement

Operant conditioning is based on the premise that actions or behaviors that are reinforced will be repeated. Reinforcement involves providing rewards or positive consequences for a specific behavior. This can be done through shaping, when positive reinforcement is used to reward good behavior in a series of steps. For instance, a child who is being potty trained can be taught through shaping. That is, each step the child takes that gets her closer to independently using the toilet earns her a reward. A reward in this case could be something tangible, such as a new toy or an emotional reward, such as positive praise from an important adult.

Implications for Positive Reinforcement

Advantages of positive reinforcement and shaping include many real-world applications. These techniques are particularly useful in a classroom setting. Teachers can use many types of rewards to reinforce behavior that is conducive to learning. Grading systems, for example, are forms of positive reinforcement. Similarly, teachers can encourage student participation by offering praise or class credit for students who lead classroom conversations.


Extinction in operant conditioning is when a behavior that is undesirable is ignored or unrewarded. Unrewarded behaviors will disappear over time. For example, teachers often inadvertently reward students who act out in the classroom. These students may be seeking the attention of the teacher or of the other students. When the teacher responds to this, even if the response is negative, the student may find it rewarding, thus reinforcing the behavior. However, if the teacher ignores the behavior and it is not rewarded, over time the behavior will disappear.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Reinforcement of a behavior does not have to happen every time the behavior occurs in order for operant conditioning to work. According to Skinner, conditioning is actually accomplished most successfully when done on a specific schedule. The most successful schedules are those called variable interval and variable ratio. Variable internal schedules involve rewarding behaviors after a certain amount of time has passed, but the time intervals are unpredictable. Similarly, variable ratio schedules involve rewards that are offered after a number of correct responses, but this number varies. Variable interval and ratio schedules are the same as those used in gambling, which in terms of operant conditioning, is why many people find it so addictive.

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