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Application Of Operant Conditioning Theory In The Classroom

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Discuss about the Application of Operant Conditioning Theory in the Classroom.



Teaching is a noble profession that plays a significant role in preparing the children to be useful people in the society. The preparation of children entails equipping them with the skills that can prepare them for their future careers that they will join after a successful completion of their training. Education can also provide the learners with useful moral and behavioral skills to use in the society. This is equally important because education does not only prepare the children for employment, but prepares them to acquire the qualities that they can rely on to fit into the society in which they belong. For the teachers to accomplish this task, they need to be adequately trained and provided with appropriate skills that they can use in teaching the learners. However, despite their training, teachers often find it challenging to handle the learners each of whom has unique background, characters, behaviors, weaknesses and strengths. Research has proven that teachers can apply various psychological approaches to adequately prepare their learners and bring the desired behavior change in them. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the effectiveness of B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory in the teaching of Grade 5 learners.

The Range of Behaviors of Grade Five Learners

When she joined the teaching profession, Mrs. Jane was expecting to accomplish her goals of enjoying her career by adequately preparing her learners for the life after school. However, this has become a mirage because, from the descriptions presented in the scenario, Mrs. Jane appears to be a troubled teacher. Just like any many of her colleagues, Mrs. Jane has not been enjoying her teaching practice to the fullest because she is worried about the learners they handle. The relationship between Mrs. Jane and her Grade 5 pupils has not been a cordial one. The learners have been uncooperative and undisciplined (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2014). They neither respect the teacher nor abide by her instructions because they defy whatever she tells them to do.

The experiences of Mrs. Jane clearly demonstrate exactly what the primary school teachers go through. The first problem experienced by primary school pupils is indiscipline. The learners at this stage of growth tend to be disrespectful (Black & Fernando, 2014). The learners do not follow the directives given by their teachers because of the feeling that it is not necessary to do so. Besides, the learners tend to be defiant and do not care about the rules that are supposed to be followed while in school. It is for this reason that these learners do not follow anything instructed by the teachers. Although school has rules that guide the teaching and learning process, the learners do not care about them no matter how important it is in their lives (Carr, 2015). This is the same challenge that is faced by Mrs. Jane. Her learners do not actively participate in classroom and fail to do assignments and submit them for evaluation within the stipulated time. These misconducts have been affecting the teacher and learners in equal measure. They negatively impact on the learners by hindering them from accomplishing their educational goals. On the other hand, the teacher is affected because she feels demoralized and cannot achieve her full potential as a teacher.


Application of Operant Conditioning Theory

The challenges faced by Mrs. Jane can be addressed by applying the principles of the Operant Conditioning theory. Operant Conditioning is a theory that was developed in 1938 by B.F. Skinner after the publication of his book called the Behavior of Organisms. According to this theory, the behavior of an individual can be enhanced or reduced by the expected outcome. Skinner based his argument on the principles of reinforcement, law of effect and intentional actions. The theory states that the behavior of a person can be influenced by the reward or punishment which can be relied upon to positively or negatively influenced an individual’s conduct. When a reward is used as reinforcement, the behavior of an individual can positively change (Beckett & Taylor, 2016). Meaning, a person who expects a reward as an outcome will be encouraged to behave as expected. However, if a punishment is given, the person can be discouraged from repeating the behavior because it acts as a negative reinforcement. Operant conditioning theory can help in eliciting the required behavior change in the grade 5 learners.

Use of positive Reinforcement

In order to bring the desired behavior change in her learners, Mrs. Jane needs to use rewards. The teacher is to use all the necessary incentives to encourage the learners to participate in the teaching and learning process. Positive rewards are required because they can help in encouraging the learners to be serious with all the activities that they are doing. The first action to take is to encourage the learners to be active participants in class activities. The learners should feel free and motivated to ask and answer questions during the lessons and group discussions (Funder, 2015). To achieve this, the teacher needs to create a favorable environment for all the learners by knowing and identifying each of them using their names. The teacher must create a good relationship with the learners because it can make them to relate without any obstacles. At the same time, any student who participates in the class discussions are supposed to be rewarded by using praise words and positive terms that can make them feel recognized and motivated to be active in class.

When it comes to the issue of assignments, the learners are to be encouraged to carry out the assigned tasks by rewarding punctuality and commendable performance by the learners. Many learners who are at this stage of learning tends to fear assignments because they believe that it is bothersome, difficult, and unnecessary (Olson, 2015). This is why Mrs. Jane complained of poor cooperation from her learners as far as assignments are concerned. Therefore, what is to be done is to encourage the learners to do their assignments and reward them appropriately. When the learners’ efforts are recognized, they can feel motivated and encouraged to continue doing the assignments because it yields positive rewards. Special attention is to be given to the weak learners who require a lot of keenness from the teacher. Any learner who is responsible in their activities are to be appreciated by praising and thanking them for their active participation in class activities (Newman & Newman, 2014). The teacher is required to create and maintain a culture of participation and responsibility amongst the learners.

In order to achieve all these positive changes, the teacher is expected to introduce new rules to the learners. The learners require to be made to know that it is a mandatory requirement that they are to follow all the instructions given by the instructor. The teacher has a responsibility of come up with new rules adequately inform the learners in time. Since change is a gradual process, the teacher is responsible for coming up with new rules and gradually introduce them to the learners.  The new rules must be properly outline that the learners need to be respectable people who are obliged to comply with all the directives given by the teacher without any failure (Grusec & Lytton, 2012). At the same time, the learners must be compelled to be actively involved in class matters and discharge all their activities without any failure. The rules need also clearly outline that the learners should do all the assignments and submit them within the specified time duration. If this is done as explained, the learners will have no choice rather than engaging in the activities that are accepted by the teacher because they are associated with positive outcomes (Patton, et al., 2016).    


Use of Negative Reinforcements

Apart from using rewards to encourage a behavior change in the learners, the teacher is encouraged to use punishment to achieve the same goals. For Mrs. Jane to successfully discharge her teaching duties, she must not only rely on the incentives, but on punishment as well (Shaffer, & Kipp, 2013). Whereas incentives should be used to encourage positive behaviors, punishment needs to be used to discourage the learners and prevent them from engaging in activities and behaviors which are undesirable. The information presented in the case study demonstrates that Mrs. Jane has been battling negative behaviors such as disobedience, deliberate avoidance of assignments and class participations. Actually, these are undesirable behaviors that must not be condoned whatsoever (Shapiro & Margolin, 2014). The teacher has to therefore discourage the learners from such behaviors because they do no good, but hinder the teaching and learning process.

To address these behaviors, the teacher is expected to introduce punishment in the classroom. The learners who are identified to be engaging in undesirable behaviors require being punished using different strategies such as repeating the assignment, and rebuking them while encouraging their cooperative colleagues. Nonetheless, disciplinary measures are required to be done by giving mild punishment to the learners who are misbehaving (Batra, 2013). Meaning, after identifying the inappropriate behaviors that the teacher wishes to address, she does not have to severely punish the learners, but submit acceptable degree of punishment. For the punishment strategy to be successful in bringing the desired behavior change in the learners, the teacher should ensure that there is consistency in the administration of the punishment. If it is consistently done, the teacher will manage to create a culture of compliance with the learners will always believe that any deviation must be punished (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). This can, in the long run, make the learners to refrain from any misconduct that is not accepted by the teacher. 


Strengths and Weaknesses of the Operant Conditioning Theory

Behavior change is a complex task that is to be undertaken whenever necessary. As the instructors, teacher needs to be at the fore front of bringing the desired behavior change in their learners. To achieve this, the teacher can apply the principles of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning; Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development; Erick Erikson’s psychosocial stages of human development; Jean Piaget’s cognitive stages of human development, or Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (Day, et al., 2014). These theories have principles whose effective application can help Mrs. Jane to handle her learners. However, of all these theories, the operant conditioning theory is recommended because it is the best alternative for the grade 5 learners.

The first strength of operant conditioning theory is that it encourages good behaviors in individuals. Secondly, it needs to be applied because it discourages people from engaging in undesirable or unacceptable behaviors (Sigelman & Rider, 2014). The operant conditioning theory is appropriate for Mrs. Jane’s learners because it can be effective in encouraging good behaviors. If the teacher uses rewards and positive reinforcements, she can succeed in encouraging the learners to adopt desirable and acceptable behaviors. The use of rewards makes the operant theory to be better than other theories because it can bring a mental change in the learners. Once the learners associate a behavior with a positive outcome, they will feel motivated to engage in it because it can elicit desirable rewards (Ruan, & Wu, 2013).  On the other hand, the use of punishment can be used to discourage the learners from misbehaving because of the feeling that it can result into a negative reinforcement. However, the weakness of the operant conditioning theory is that it does not guarantee success because some people cannot stop their behavior even after getting punished. Besides, the theory treats people like objects that lack autonomy and must be controlled by others.



In conclusion, Mrs. Jane does not necessarily have to give up in her teaching duties. As a professional, she has to acknowledge that primary school learners are quite challenging to manage. Therefore, to effectively teach the learners, the teacher does not have to apply the operant conditioning theory. The theory is recommended because it appears to be the best alternative for Mrs. Jane. The theory is better than other theories such as social learning and cognitive development theories which give individuals a chance to interact with the environment and learn anything be it positive or negative. For instance, Piaget’s theory can be faulted because it allows people to develop a schema and freely interact with the environment without any restrictions. The teacher should apply the operant theory because it will enable her to motivate the learners to refrain from bad behaviors and encourage them to adopt and maintain good behaviors that are accepted in the learning environment. However, to achieve all these, the teacher must be consistent in the administration of rewards and punishments.



Batra, S., (2013). The Psychosocial Development of Children: Implications for Education and Society--Erik Erikson in Context. Contemporary education dialogue, 10(2), pp.249-278.

Beckett, C., & Taylor, H. (2016). Human growth and development. New York: Sage.

Black, D. S., & Fernando, R. (2014). Mindfulness training and classroom behavior among lower- income and ethnic minority elementary school children. Journal of Child and Family

Studies, 23(7), 1242-1246.

Carr, A. (2015). The handbook of child and adolescent clinical psychology: A contextual approach. London: Routledge.

Chandler, L. K., & Dahlquist, C. M. (2014). Functional assessment: Strategies to prevent and remediate challenging behavior in school settings. Pearson Higher Ed.

Day, D.V., et al., (2014). Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), pp.63-82.

Funder, D.C., (2015). The Personality Puzzle: Seventh International Student Edition. WW

Norton & Company: New York.

Grusec, J.E. & Lytton, H., (2012). Social development: History, theory, and research. Springer Science & Business Media.

McSweeney, F. K., & Murphy, E. S. (2014). The Wiley Blackwell handbook of operant and classical conditioning. John Wiley & Sons.

Newman, B. M., & Newman, P. R. (2014). Development through life: A psychosocial approach.

New York: Cengage Learning.

Olson, M. H. (2015). An introduction to theories of learning. New York: Psychology Press.

Patton, L.D., et al., (2016). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. John Wiley & Sons: New York.

Ruan, X., & Wu, X. (2013). The skinner automaton: A psychological model formalizing the theory of operant conditioning. Science China Technological Sciences, 56(11), 2745-


Sigelman, C. K., & Rider, E. A. (2014). Life-span human development. new York: Cengage Learning.

Shaffer, D. R., & Kipp, K. (2013). Developmental psychology: Childhood and adolescence. New York: Cengage Learning.

Shapiro, L. A. S., & Margolin, G. (2014). Growing up wired: Social networking sites and adolescent psychosocial development. Clinical child and family psychology review,

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