Skinner’s theory of ‘operant conditioning’ applied to microlearning!

operant conditioning

A solid grasp of learning theories positions you as a better-equipped learning professional. It helps you comprehend various learning frameworks and perspectives when implementing training methods, including microlearning.

In this article, you’ll discover how Skinner’s learning theory serves as the foundation for many elements of microlearning such as gamification, assessments/quizzes, rewards, and motivation.

How does Skinner’s theory Make you Better Equipped for Microlearning?

Here’s an example: In a gamified learning module, a learner aims to ‘play to win,’ tapping into the universal love for games and experiencing a range of emotions with rewards and penalties. Specifically, in microlearning gamification, a learner/player:

  • Experiences joy with a winning strike
  • Feels relief overcoming an obstacle
  • Faces fear of making a wrong choice
  • Encounters frustration upon losing a game/point

Skinner’s theory equips you to handle rewards and punishments (deterrents) when designing your microlearning assets.

In a workplace, you don’t want procedures, processes, and policies taken lightly. Therefore, your microlearning initiatives must incorporate a system that both motivates, and acts as a deterrent in preventing lapses/gaps. especially in sensitive tasks/activities related to operational risks, regulatory & compliance matters, health and safety precautions/procedures among others.

Skinner’s theory of ‘Operant conditioning’ provides the tools to seamlessly weave your microlearning content together. Plus, the element of ‘reward & punishment’ actually enhance learning, and solidify the ‘memory retention’ of your workforce, and avoiding many business risks!

With this background, let’s dive deeper…

The Background- Skinner’s Experiments

How did Skinner arrive at his theory? He emphasized on the role of ‘conditioning’ during the learning process.

He used an operant conditioning chamber, or ‘Skinner box’, and placed an animal (rat) in it.

  • A reward mechanism to dispense food pellets was placed in it.
  • Punishments were imposed by giving electric shocks.

It was observed that the animal became more adept at handling stimuli based on whether it encountered a ‘reward’ or a ‘punishment’.

operant conditioning

The same goes for humans- your workforce also desires to earn a reward and steer clear of punishment.

Skinner’s Theory of ‘Operant Conditioning’ Further Explained

Operant conditioning is a learning process where a ‘certain behavior’ is modified using reinforcement (approval) or punishment. This procedure strengthens learning of the right or acceptable behaviors!

This theory helps you understand ‘how a behavior is learnt’ and how ‘reinforcements’ helped enhance the learning process.

Skinner proposed that ‘scheduled’ (periodic) reinforcements had a direct impact on ‘conditioning the learner’s brain’. He called it ‘behavioral shaping’ , where an ‘expected response’ can be reinforced. This helps learners learn towards demonstrating a certain ‘desired behavior’.

operant conditioning

With reinforcements, the expected or right behaviors increase, and with punishment, the undesirable behaviors decrease, just like the rat in Skinners experiment.

Operant conditioning and reinforcements happens in humans right from childhood.

During a child’s developmental years, parents nurture them by administering rewards, which signify ‘approval for socially acceptable behavior’. This parental approval can manifest as a ‘praise’ for actions like giggling, drinking milk, crawling, or making efforts to walk. These forms of praise serve as positive reinforcements that endorse specific behaviors.

Similarly, punishment awaits a child when a behavior is deemed ‘socially inappropriate’. The child receives verbal warnings and discouragement to deter the repetition of unacceptable actions.

Positive & Negative Reinforcement/Punishment in Training Context

Here let’s discuss- 1) positive reinforcement, 2) negative reinforcement, 3) positive punishment, and 4) negative punishment

In the world of learning, positive reinforcement is like a high-five for doing something right.

At workplace, a good action gets reward with gestures like praise or, gold-star pins, certificates, good ratings in performance appraisals etc. This makes you want to keep being awesome at work in the future too! Trainers often use cheers and recognition tokens to make this happen.

Negative reinforcement is when you encourage good behavior by avoiding something bad (a negative outcome or stimuli). It’s like taking an antacid before a spicy meal to prevent discomfort. At work, nobody wants to score below a set benchmark in tests given by the trainer. It’s a way of saying, “Do well, or things might not go smoothly.” That’s negative reinforcement!

Now, let’s talk about positive punishments – it’s like a wake-up call for the kids imposed by parents. If you step out of line, you might get grounded or stuck in detention. Positive punishment puts rules in place when someone acts in a not-so-great way.

Trainers also use positive punishments, like having to redo a test section or getting a red card in microlearning. No learner one wants to be labeled as a slacker. So, people work hard to avoid being called out, and remain motivated to stay above the minimum expectations at work, or in achieving training benchmarks/tests.

Then there’s negative punishment – it’s like taking away a privilege when someone goofs-up. Fail a simple test, and you don’t get certified, or lose your existing certification. While your certified buddies celebrate, you might face some consequences. It’s a way to make sure everyone keeps their game strong.

operant conditioning

Skinner’s Theory Applied in Microlearning

A good grasp of this theory helps you in creating microlearning assets like games, in designing assessments etc. For instance, while designing the learning-levels at a topic-level, you get to design rewards like conferring of badges, earning points etc. based on the learning progress of a learner. Even quiz questions are designed such that you award points for the right responses, and deduct points for wrong responses.

Skinner’s  theory also forms the basis of microlearning algorithms that offer content to a learner based on one’s learning-level. A slow-learner is given more content exposure with ‘spaced repetition’, and is not rewarded with points/badges unless the required proficiencies are met.

The punishment takes the form of a weak learner (a business risk) ranked lower on leaderboards. This keeps a tab on the business-risks you face with less competent workers. Plus, it keeps motives the slow learners too without being too harsh.

Plus, the algorithms do not stress the learners by forcing content with higher level of difficulty.

Skinner’s proposal of ‘scheduled reinforcements’ is akin to spaced repetition in microlearning.

His theory of ‘behavioral shaping’, where an ‘expected response’ results in a desired behavior helps you serve the 4 purposes of microlearning- viz. to supplement, reinforce, augment and remediate your training initiatives.

The construct about process of positive & negative reinforcement/punishment gives you a lot of ideas while designing a microlearning asset, or in writing content or while setting learning benchmarks among other things. You get to cater to ‘individual differences’ of learners, and  their ‘cognitive processes’ with better clarity and conviction.

By using ‘reinforcements periodically’ as ‘spaced reinforcement’ in microlearning, you get to reiterate important topics just before they are about to be forgotten. Of course, you will need a robust microlearning platform to give you the technological, automation and AI edge!

To conclude, Skinner’s operant theory applied to microlearning leads to fantastic training results, excellent training return on investment (ROI), and a highly skilled workforce!

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