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Reinforcement Strategies in Education

Updated on February 27, 2012

Reinforcing What Works


Punishment and Negative Reinforcement- Is There a Difference?

Copyright 2008, Jennifer Tyler

Punishment can be defined as the act of reprimanding, scolding, or admonishing undesirable behaviors. Although punishment is a discouraged practice, many different agencies rely on it to "shape" a behavior. In fact, many educators utilize punishment techniques in an attempt to improve the behaviors of the students that they work with. The problem, however, lies in the use of punishment as an effective means to improve academic achievement. As Chance indicates, punishment does not teach students how to behave properly, yet it is widely used in many classrooms. In fact, punishment procedures often produce undesirable effects in students, which include: anxiety, aggression, and a reduced interest in an activity. If this is the case, then why use it? That answer has been probed for years, but is has been speculated that punishment is an easy technique to administer and it often produces immediate results ( As research (Parish & Parish, ; & Pica & Margolis, ) point out, punishment does indeed have negative effects on learning. Too often, educators overemphasize negative consequences, thus failing to consider the positive traits of their students (Pica & Margolis, ). This in itself is a problem. When the negative is brought out in a student the effects can be damaging. Sometimes, punishment techniques work in the reverse by making the student more resistant to wanting to learn ( In one study (Parish & Parish, ), researchers looked at two different classrooms. One classroom was termed ineffective, while the other classroom was termed effective. Results indicated that the ratio of reinforcement to punishment was 5:1 in the effective classrooms, while it was significantly less in the effective group. Studies like this seem to indicate that punishment techniques are more harmful than they are helpful.

What exactly is negative reinforcement and how can it be used in the classroom? Negative reinforcement is probably one of the most likely types of reinforcement to be used in the classroom. This may be due to the fact that many individuals do not understand negative reinforcement. Often, one may assume that consequences are negative in nature. However, this is not the case. Negative reinforcement actually involves removing an unpleasant stimulus in order to increase or strengthen a desired behavior. For instance, if a student demonstrates good classroom behavior the teacher may remove a homework assignment in order to increase the likelihood that the student will continue to behave in class. Negative reinforcement is like positive reinforcement in that it seeks to shape a behavior so that a student changes undesirable traits. Unfortunately, negative reinforcement may not always be utilized and when it is it is used incorrectly (

Positive Reinforcement and Its Effects on Learning

Positive reinforcement is the technique of shaping a behavior via some type of reward. For instance, a teacher that provides a gold star on a paper that received a good grade could be considered positive reinforcement. Likewise, verbal praise may be considered a form of positive reinforcement. Critics of reinforcement techniques (Parish & Parish, 1991; & Shokrai, 2003) argue that providing such rewards a student’s interest in learning may decrease. However, others (Chance, 1993; Cheung & Winter, 1999; Boyajian, DuPaul, Handler, Eckert, & McGoey, 2001; Hardman & Smith, 1999; Reis, 2002; Ross; Theilker, Kwok, & Senisais) argue that learning does not decrease due to reinforcement. In fact, positive reinforcement techniques may actually increase self esteem. Reis (2002) recently conducted a study in which Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disordered (ADHD) children were provided with both positive reinforcement and punishing consequences. In this study, verbal praise had been effective at improving the behavior of the students with ADHD. In turn, this lead to improved self esteem in students with ADHD. One of the most challenging aspects of using positive reinforcement lies in the fact that learning should not be reward based (Chance, 1993). For some students this may lead to problems developing intrinsic motivation. However, Chance (1993) states that in fact, some students do not already have this intrinsic motivation to do well in school. Students who initially lack those skills are not likely to do well if something does not motivate them in the first place. This is where positive reinforcement may actually be beneficial. Theilker, Kwok, & Senisais ( ) indicate that when positive reinforcement is administered on a consistent basis, it tends to build self confidence, which leads to an internal locus of control. If this is the case, then why is reinforcement often criticized by others?

Chance (1993) states that reinforcement is a teachers best weapon for changing problem behaviors and improving student success. However, if it is not used appropriately, then this is where it may go faulty. Typically, reinforcement is not consistent and appropriate for the given situation. Educators need to assess the situation and follow certain guidelines when using reinforcement. When they do not follow these guidelines, changes are not likely to follow.

Recommendations for the Use of Reinforcement in the Classroom

In order to produce the best chance of success when using reinforcement of any type, but more specifically positive reinforcement, it is crucial to understand just what reinforcement is.

Certain questions need to be asked when reinforcement will be employed in the classroom (Pica & Margolis, 1993). First, has the student been deprived of something for a period of time that might make the reinforcement desirable? If so, the reinforcement will be more likely to hold power and produce results. Second, when was the reinforcement given? In order for it to produce improvement, the reinforcement should be given immediately (Pica & Margolis, 1993). Third, how small or big was the reinforcer? The size of the reward has an effect on whether the behavior will change. If it is too small, the student may not change or improve. Finally, was the reinforcer given without the student having to perform the desired behavior? Pica & Margolis (1993) indicate that reinforcement should only be given when a desired behavior is elicited. If not, the reinforcer does not hold the same value.

Parish & Parish (1991) recommend that a great deal of positive reinforcement should be used versus negative reinforcement, as students are more likely to buy into this technique. They indicate that when teachers use positive reinforcement it is more likely to show the students that the teacher cares about the student. As a result, the students are more likely to achieve success and greater chance of self esteem. However, Parish & Parish indicate that when using positive reinforcement, it is vital to vary the reward, otherwise it will not hold the same power. When educators use the same reward over and over again, students tend to satiate quickly. Furthermore, reinforcement should be delivered consistently to ensure success ( Hardman & Smith, 1999). Sometimes these guidelines are not always adhered to. This leads educators to question the motive of using reinforcement, as they believe that it does not lead to academic achievement and an improved sense of self esteem.

Although specific guidelines are suggested for using reinforcement, how do we know that it will indeed work? Hardman & Smith (1999) state that effective classrooms have been shown to focus on positive consequences, which ensures an environment that promotes positive interactions. When students feel that they can be successful at doing something, they will be more likely to perform better academically. Hardman & Smith (1999) state that students need to first believe this in order to earn the reward. Therefore, the reward should be something that is attainable by the student. If educators provide rewards that are out of the reach of some students, little change will occur. An educator needs to include the students in the reinforcement and consider what is valuable to them. When this is done, more is accomplished in terms of academic success.

Finally, Chance (1993) indicates that if an educator does use extrinsic rewards to improve success, certain factors need to be considered. First, students need to be rewarded at a high rate in the beginning and then the rate should be reduced once learning has progressed. Second, only the behavior that you want repeated should be rewarded. Chance (1993) does not recommend rewarding behaviors that you do not want repeated. Third, use the weakest reward possible. Although not specifically mentioned why, it can be implied that larger rewards decrease the likelihood of being used later on. In other words, a teacher should not use a large reward first because the student may satiate on this and then the teacher will not have something powerful to use later on. Finally, one should reward success.


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