I wrote most of these articles and conference reports while I was doing my M.Ed.(CI). Originally put up on the website TeachAsiaOnline.com (defunct since 2009), I have decided to archive them here as I think most of the information is still relevant and useful for others. (2012) I'm now picking up where I left off to write about more recent seminars I attended.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reinforcing Desirable Behaviour in the Classroom

According to the Operant Conditioning Theory of Behaviourist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) the right type of reinforcement at the right moment will result in the desired behaviour. Students learn that their response has certain consequences and change their behaviour accordingly.

The Theory distinguishes four types of reinforcement:
1. Positive reinforcement is when the teacher gives the student a reward
after (s)he has performed the desired behaviour; this could for example be a high grade.
2. Negative reinforcement is when the teacher removes a negative
condition once the student shows the desired behaviour. An example is skipping the break unless he does a good job. Once the job is done properly, he’ll get his break.
Both types of reinforcement reward the correct behaviour.

The third and fourth types of reinforcement are both punishments.
3. In case of a presentation punishment the teacher will present the student with something bad, like making him stay after class.
4. In case of a removal punishment the teacher will take away something good, like for example skip the break.
Punishment focuses on eliminating the undesirable behaviour.

The type of reinforcement to be used depends on individual students, but there are some general principles that we can apply. In the following paragraphs I will analyse what I do in my classes and whether I should change that.

An example of desirable behaviour that can be influenced by reinforcement is that students arrive in class on time. Time is valuable as we have only one or two 50-minute periods a week. My students are around 22-23 years old. Students arrive late regularly for various reasons that are sometimes out of their control. In other cases it is within the control of the students, like when they fell asleep in an unused classroom or had a smoke in the toilet between classes. Thus, to reinforce the right behaviour I have to find out whether the reason for their lateness is within their control. It wouldn’t be useful to reinforce or punish their behaviour if they can’t help being late.

Positive reinforcement first
I use a variety of tactics to reinforce the correct behaviour. For example, in my listening classes I use positive reinforcement. I always play karaoke VCD’s before class. Many students love to sing along and enjoy watching the video clips. Students that arrive on time or before the start of class will be treated on a karaoke VCD and quite a few arrive early to watch the clips and sing along. Another positive reinforcement I use is praise. When a student who is usually late arrives on time, I will praise him for being on time. Doing this once or twice usually helps to make him come on time the rest of the term. I even have one class where the students are so proud they are always on time, that they make sure everybody is there every week.

Presentation Punishment next
For some students this method does not work however. They are never on time, so they never show the desired behaviour for me to praise, and they don’t care about karaoke. If I can’t use positive reinforcement, I move on to presentation punishment. I take the student aside to talk about his lateness and verify again that he CAN control the reasons. We talk about the reasons why he should come on time (e.g. that he will be able to follow the lesson better if he is there from the start, or that he should not disturb the learning of his friends), and why he should want to learn English anyway. At the beginning of the term I had quite a few students who were not motivated to study English, but most of them have changed their mind now and are interested enough. (I blame this on the previous teachers, but that’s another story). At the end of the talk I make him promise me to make the effort next time. This almost always works.

No negative reinforcement or negative punishment.
What I hardly ever do is threaten them or take something good away. I think this is a negative approach that kills their motivation. I want to influence their behaviour through positive or at least constructive measures. I could tell them I’ll skip the break next time and let them earn it back by arriving on time (negative reinforcement). Also, it would be easy for me to lower their score. This would be called removal punishment, but as I said, I don’t want use negative measures and I don’t need them.

Ignoring their behaviour might help
Another question is whether I should always use reinforcement, or should I just ignore their lateness and get on with the lesson (this is called 'extinction')? I have tried this in the past, but I’ve noticed that the undesirable behaviour gets worse if I ignore it. Also, they disturb class when they come late and won’t be able to follow the lesson if they miss the beginning.

Therefore, when they arrive late, I always ask them in a friendly way why they are late to find out whether the reason is in their control. I don’t like putting them on the spot like this, but they seem cool with it and I’ve heard them preparing their explanation in English before they enter class late. After a few weeks I don’t have to ask them anything when they are late; sometimes their peers will prompt them, or they will explain the reason automatically when they come in (“I’m sorry I’m late teacher, I was…”) (conditioned reflexes I assume, but that’s another Behaviourist story).

I’m quite confident about the way I handle students coming late. Measured by the results it works fine.

Skinner, B. F. The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century, 1938.

Further reading
B.F. Skinner Foundation. 2011. B.F. Skinner Foundation. 10 Nov 2011. <http://www.bfskinner.org/>

(c) cafavier, 2006-2011

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