Today, more than ever before, there exist a multiplicity of theories and conceptual frameworks aimed at explaining human development. The broad area of human development has received keen interest from psychologists, sociologists, educationists and other theorists over the last couple of millennia due to its huge importance in understanding developmental phases, viewed as critical in assisting the individual to adapt and learn in the prevailing environmental conditions (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
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B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory is among the learning theories that have been continually used in a wide allay of disciplines in the hope of understanding how learning takes place. It is the purpose of this essay to critically evaluate how this theory can be of relevance to the professional practice of instructional development.
In summary, Skinner strongly believed that the essence of human learning and development is tied to the continued acquirement of new sets of behavior. According to the psychologist, the learned behaviors are inarguably controlled by external stimuli in the form of reinforcers and punishers. The basic idea is that the learning process in individuals is a function of change in overt behavior (Boeree, 2006).
In their daily interactions, individuals encounter a particular kind of stimulus known as the reinforcer. The theory posits that this particular stimulus has the capacity to increase a certain pattern of behavior occurring just before the individual meets the reinforcer.
The above is what Skinner referred to as operant conditioning. According to the psychologist, the behavior is always pursued by a consequence which incessantly modifies the individual’s inclination to repeat the behavior in the future depending on the nature of the consequence (Boeree, 2006).
In other words, the individual is conditioned to respond in a distinctive way if the stimulus-response relationship or pattern is reinforced through rewards or restricted through punishments. In the light of this, reinforcement of behavior is the key element in Skinner’s operant conditioning theory.
A reinforcer should be viewed as anything that galvanizes the desired behavior such as verbal praise, feelings of satisfaction or good performance in school. A negative reinforcer is any form of stimulus that results in enhanced occurrence of a response or reaction when such a stimulus is withdrawn (Tauber, 1988).
Skinner’s operant conditioning theory has been extensively applied in various facets of professional practice, including clinical settings, teaching, and instructional development. For instance, the theory has far-reaching implications in the professional practice of instructional development, also known as programmed instruction development.
In its application, educators generally stress that classroom practice should assume the form of question – answer framework so as to adequately expose the students to the subject under study in measured steps (Ormrod, 2002).
As such, the question represents the stimulus while the answer represents the response. To effectively utilize the theory in classroom setting, the learner is required to make a response for every question – answer frame and receive instant feedback from the instructor.
It is the function of the instructor to arrange the questions (stimulus) in such a manner that the learners start by answering the easy tasks so that the answers (responses) given will always be correct to occasion a positive reinforcement (Ormrod, 2002). The instructor must also ensure that exemplary performance in a lesson or any other classroom activity is always paired with a secondary reinforcer such as good grades, awards and verbal praise.
One of the principles behind this application is that behaviors or actions that are positively reinforced will most definitely reoccur in the future. Indeed, intermittent reinforcement is particularly effective in a classroom setting.
Another principle is that information in a classroom setting should be offered in small quantities so that responses coming from the learners receive the desired reinforcement. All in all, Skinner’s operant conditioning theory has received wide recognition and usage as far as the professional practice of instructional development is concerned.
Boeree, C.G. (2006). B.F. Skinner 1904-1990. Retrieved
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Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0521423740
Ormrod, J.E. (2002). Educational psychology: Developing learners. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. ISBN: 0130887048
Tauber, R.T. (1988). Overcoming misunderstanding about the concept of negative reinforcement. Teaching in Psychology, vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 152-153