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Let's Talk About Positive Reinforcement

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Blogger Joanne Jacobs points us this week to the D-Ed Reckoning blog, where specific ideas for using positive reinforcement to motivate students are proposed. The ideas are based on an interview with a teacher who works in a poor, urban school.

Since this was my first visit to D-Ed Reckoning, I must say I did get a chuckle out of the quote from the movie Animal House featured at the top of the blog: "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life." I didn't care much for Dean Wormer, but he was right on that note.

But back to positive reinforcement. Shouldn't there be a balance between positive and negative reinforcement? When does positive reinforcement become counter-productive or even ridiculous?

Let's get another lively discussion going on those questions.

4 Comments

Kevin, I do not think the question is positive or negative reinforcement but rather intrinsic or extrinsic reinforcement.
Three years ago we started a 10-year time-capsule project for our 8th graders. We have between 400 and 500 8th graders each year in our Dallas innercity middle school. Based on studies done it is projected that about 40% will graduate on time with their class. Some others graduate within a year or so, but that still gives us a dropout rate too close to 50%.
Our goal is to focus our students onto their own futures and the reality that they themselves are going to build it, nobody else, this is certainly intrinsic motivation.

All our middle school students know they will be allowed to write a letter to themselves before leaving 8th grade for high school. Those who write the letter will seal it into a self-addressed envelope, then pose with the rest of their Language Arts class in front of the 350-pound vault that is bolted to the cement floor in the closet in a central location of the school lobby. The vault is always under spotlights. Students pass it several times every day knowing that it contains letters from over a thousand other students from the past 3 years. Almost all students write letters knowing they will then be invited back to their 10-year class reunion to retreive their letters. They also know they will be invited to speak with the then current 8th grade class, giving their "10-years of Wisdom Talk." They are told to prepare for questions such as "Would you do anything differently if you were 13 again?"

This process has made our students think of the work they are doing in school. They like the project. A survey done in May 2007, just before and again after the letter writing process, showed that writing the letters alone motivated more students to think of staying in school and continuing their education after high school. (See http://www.studentmotivation.org/school_archive_letter_process_survey_2007.htm.)
The first class who wrote letters for the Archive are now juniors. The high schools they attend now have 101 more juniors than last year! It is not certain these are all our students, but the numbers are certainly heading in the right direction!

Ideas to improve this idea are certainly welcome. Just go to www.studentmotivation.org and let us know what you think.

Bill Betzen
Dallas

Reinforcement is tricky, just like a dozen other hot topics in the teaching arena. I think positive reinforcement can get out of hand, and when it is overused it certainly hinders a student's ability to draw on intrinsic motivation. As a parent we should offer more positive than negative feedback, but teachers aren't parents. Students shouldn't need to be stroked when they complete their homework (even if they have ADHD). In high school I hope to encourage students and provide opportunities for them to acknowledge their accomplishments, or lack there of. I hope to deal with feedback honestly - fluff isn't only in our grades, it's also in our feedback. We may error on the positive side at times to get momentum rolling forward, but giving false hope prior to HS graduation can have dire consequences.

For a brilliant and highly readable discussion of reinforcement and related topics, immerse yourself in Murray Sidman's masterpiece,
"Coercion and its Fallout".
This book is truly life changing!


Firstly, terminology.

"positive reinforcement" is defined as "a reinforcing stimulus that serves to increase the likelihood of the response that produces it". Therefore positive reinforcement can't get out of hand, if the behaviour you want is not being increased, then whatever reward you are offering is not positive reinforcement by definition.

This may sound like a circular argument, but I think what often goes on is that people get confused between "rewards" and "positive reinforcement". There can be a massive difference between what is perceived by the trainer as a reward and what is perceived by the trainee as a reward. If something is perceived by the trainer as a reward but not by the trainee then it is not positive reinforcement. It is important to be clear on the difference between the two. And, incidentally, arguing with the trainee over whether something is in fact positively reinforcing to them is unlikely to be successful.

The giving of rewards may well get out of hand. For example, the wrong sort of praise may be meant as a positive reinforcer, but if the subject perceives it as "fluff" then it won't be reinforcing to them.

"Students shouldn't need to be stroked when they complete their homework (even if they have ADHD)". You are quite possibly right that students "shouldn't" need to be stroked when they complete their homework. What behavioural science says is that if you want a student to complete their homework, and they haven't been completing it in the past as a matter of course, then a good way to get them to complete their homework more often in the future is to positively reinforce them for doing so whenever they do do so.

Or to put it another way, what a student "should" be doing is a moral judgment. Behavioural science concerns itself with what increases the probability of a behaviour occurring, which is a factual matter, not a moral one.

Behavioural science does say that you can scale out the positive reinforcement over time. For example, with a really bad student who maybe occasionally produces one attempt at one problem, you would first start rewarding them (of course with whatever the student finds positively reinforcing) whenever they produced that one attempt. Once they were doing that reliably, you would then only rewarding them whenever they attempted two problems or more, and stop rewarding for only one attempt at one problem. Then rewarding for three problems, then only rewarding for completed homework, and then say only rewarding for completed homework that's also formatted tidily, and then only rewarding for good marks on the end-of-chapter test, etc. It's called shaping. So you can move to a situation where a kid is not rewarded for simply completing their homework with positive reinforcement.

In high school I hope to encourage students and provide opportunities for them to acknowledge their accomplishments, or lack there of.

What behavioural science says is that to encourage students it is useful to provide positive reinforcement for each step they take towards making an accomplishment from whatever their starting position is. So, for example, if you get a student who at the start of the year is unable to write a complete paragraph, you reward them (with something they find positively reinforcing) for each improvement they towards writing complete paragraphs, even if the state curriculum says that in that grade the student *should* be writing five page essays.


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  • Tracy W: Firstly, terminology. "positive reinforcement" is defined as "a reinforcing stimulus read more
  • Kim, Teacher: For a brilliant and highly readable discussion of reinforcement and read more
  • Gary Palmer: Reinforcement is tricky, just like a dozen other hot topics read more
  • Bill Betzen: Kevin, I do not think the question is positive or read more

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