Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning was developed by BF Skinner who was inspired by the work of Pavlov. As a behavorist, Skinner was focused on the environment when looking for a change in peoples’ actions. He stated that learning is a response to a situation. There are many important words to define before explaining the details of operant conditioning. Such as,

  • conditioning
  • discriminative stimulus
  • operant behavior
  • reinforcement
  • punishment

Key terms 

Conditioning, is the strengthening of a behavior due to reinforcement. For example, a child studies hard and he receives free time. He is conditioned to work hard because of the reward.

Discriminative stimulus sets the occasion for a response. An example would be a teacher giving students time to study. This provides the environment for the response of the students.

Operant behavior is the response to a stimulus. For example, a teacher gives students time to study and their response is to work hard. It is the presence of the opportunity to study that leads to the students working hard. The student learns to work hard due to the setting they are in.

Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a particular response. For example, if the teacher provides study time and the students work hard. The teacher may decide to give free time. Since the students were given free time for working hard, it increases the likelihood that they will work hard the next time they are given time to study.

Punishment is used to lessen an undesired response. For example, the teacher provides study time and the students are playing and being silly. To discourage this the teacher may give additional work to the students. Since the students do not like extra work the likelihood they will misbehave in the future will go down.

Putting it all Together

Operant conditioning has three steps to it

  1. A discriminative response (Such as a teacher providing study time)
  2. A response (such as the students choosing to work hard
  3. And a reinforcing/punishing stimulus (such as free time or extra homework)


A teacher provides students with study time. This is the discriminative stimulus that set the scene for the students. The students have the choice to work hard or misbehave. If the students work hard two things can happen

  1. The teacher gives them free time (positive reinforcement)
  2. The teacher takes away homework (negative reinforcement)

Positive reinforcement is giving the students something they want such as free time. Negative reinforcement is taking away something the students hate, such as homework. Reinforcement always encourages a behavior to be repeated in the future.

If the students choose to misbehave the teacher has two choices as well

  1. Give the students more work (positive punishment)
  2. Take away the students recess (negative punishment)

Positive punishment is giving the students something they do not like, such as more work. Negative punishment is taking away something the students love, such as recess.


Operant conditioning is somewhat complicated and difficult to understand. The principle is that the behavior comes before the stimulus. In the example, the students acted a certain way before they received a reinforcer or punishment. In addition, positive means to received something while negative means to lose something. These simple principles can help in understanding the complexities of operant conditioning.

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