Learning Theories; Reinforcement Theory

Learning theories are the basis of getting an idea of how different people learn different things and how much time they will need to learn them. It is a fact that some people are successful at learning new knowledge and skills which other people are unable to grasp. That’s where these theories come in as a guiding light to help in the analysis of the learning capabilities of their employees. Moreover, by providing the necessary knowledge, these, actually provide alternative means for achieving a target like pre-defining a broad spectrum of workshops, training courses and much more.

Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory proposes that you can change someone’s behavior by using reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Rewards are used to reinforce the behavior you want and punishments are used to prevent the behavior you do not want. Extinction is a means to stop someone from performing a learned behavior. The technical term for these processes is called operant conditioning.

The fundamental concepts of this theory are reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Reinforcement can be divided into positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when the consequence resulting in the behavior you are attempting to produce increases the probability that the desired behavior will continue. If a salesperson performs well, that salesperson may receive a bonus, which reinforces the desire to make sales because of the positive consequence of doing so.

Negative reinforcement occurs when a negative consequence is withheld if the behavior you desire is demonstrated, which will increase the probability that the behavior you are seeking will continue. For example, let’s say that your company is opening a new office in Alaska. No one wants to move there. The company decides to let the top ten salespeople in the office pick if they go to Alaska or stay at the old office. You work very hard to be in the top ten so you can avoid the negative consequence of relocating to Alaska. You will continue to perform your best to avoid the negative consequence. Negative reinforcement, however, is not the same as punishment.

Punishment occurs when you impose a negative consequence to reduce an undesirable behavior. While negative reinforcement involves withholding a negative consequence to encourage a desirable behavior, punishment is imposing a negative consequence to discourage an unwanted behavior. For example, getting a write-up for being late to work is a punishment that is imposed on late workers to discourage workers from being late – an undesirable behavior.

The final trick up operant conditioning’s sleeve is extinction, which is a means to stop someone’s learned behavior. You attempt to extinguish a behavior by withholding the positive reinforcement that encouraged the behavior. For example, let’s say that you manage a production facility that had a hard time keeping up with orders for the past few months. You used overtime pay as a positive reinforcement to bring workers in on weekends and to delay vacations. Now that you have the orders under control, you stop approving overtime. Workers no longer come in on the weekends to work. Their learned behavior has been extinguished.

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Schedules of Reinforcement

The timing of the behavioral consequences that follow a given behavior is called the reinforcement schedule. Basically, there are two broad types of reinforcement schedules: continuous and intermittent. If a behavior is reinforced each time it occurs, it is called continuous reinforcement. Research suggests that continuous reinforcement is the fastest way to establish new behaviors or to eliminate undesired behaviors. However, this type of reinforcement is generally not practical in an organizational setting. Therefore, intermittent schedules are usually employed. Intermittent reinforcement means that each instance of a desired behavior is not reinforced. There are at least four types of intermittent reinforcement schedules: fixed interval, fixed ratio, variable interval, and variable ratio.

Fixed interval schedules of reinforcement occur when desired behaviors are reinforced after set periods of time. The simplest example of a fixed interval schedule is a weekly paycheck. A fixed interval schedule of reinforcement does not appear to be a particularly strong way to elicit desired behavior, and behavior learned in this way may be subject to rapid extinction. The fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement applies the reinforcer after a set number of occurrences of the desired behaviors. One organizational example of this schedule is a sales commission based on number of units sold. Like the fixed interval schedule, the fixed ratio schedule may not produce consistent, long-lasting, behavioral change.

Variable interval reinforcement schedules are employed when desired behaviors are reinforced after varying periods of time. Examples of variable interval schedules would be special recognition for successful performance and promotions to higher-level positions. This reinforcement schedule appears to elicit desired behavioral change that is resistant to extinction.

Finally, the variable ratio reinforcement schedule applies the reinforcer after a number of desired behaviors have occurred, with the number changing from situation to situation. The most common example of this reinforcement schedule is the slot machine in a casino, in which a different and unknown number of desired behaviors (i.e., feeding a quarter into the machine) is required before the reward (i.e., a jackpot) is realized. Organizational examples of variable ratio schedules are bonuses or special awards that are applied after varying numbers of desired behaviors occur. Variable ratio schedules appear to produce desired behavioral change that is consistent and very resistant to extinction.

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