Learning Theories

3 Operant Conditioning


Watch overview videoOperant Conditioning (4:05)


Operant Conditioning (OC) is a method of learning developed by behaviourist, B.F. Skinner, who believed that human behaviour is extrinsically motivated. OP is a process of learning through reinforcers and punishers that result from our behaviours. This learning process is categorized by positive and negative reinforcers and punishers.

Guidelines for Use

Guideline 1 – Reinforcement

Reinforcement aims to increase desired behaviour, and can be accomplished in two ways: positively and negatively. With positive reinforcement, behaviour is increased by rewarding the learner with favourable stimuli. An e-learning module could utilize positive reinforcement by, for example, providing the learner with tokens, badges, or desirable feedback after the completion of a milestone or task; this would encourage further completion of the module. Negative reinforcement refers to the removal of an undesired stimuli to reward behaviour. In an online game-based learning module, negative reinforcement could be accomplished by, for example, removing the added pressure of a timer once the learner reaches a certain level or milestone; this would encourage the learner to continue playing.

Guideline 2 – Punishment

Punishment seeks to decrease undesired behaviour, and can also be accomplished positively and negatively. Positive punishment refers to providing a learner with unfavourable stimuli to weaken undesired behaviour. In an online game-based learning environment, positive punishment can be accomplished by, for example, giving a student an loud warning signal for not completing a learning task in the dedicated time-frame; this would weaken the learner’s relaxed approach to the task completion. With negative punishment, undesirable behaviour is weakened by removing favourable stimuli. In a game-based learning environment, negative punishment could be exercised by, for example, withdrawing a student’s tokens, badges, or rewards for incompletion of a game-based learning task in the dedicated time-frame; this would also weaken the learner’s relaxed approach to the task completion.

Good Examples of Use

Example 1 – https://tinyurl.com/marketingsimulation

The linked PowerPoint is a guideline on how to navigate Harvard Business Publishing’s online Marketing Simulation. This simulation provides marketing students with an opportunity to learn about strategic management of segments and customers by playing the role of a company’s new CEO. This simulation uses stimuli (i.e., money, customer satisfaction scale, and stakeholder feedback) to reinforce or punish behaviour to ultimately encourage students to develop the most effective marketing strategy.  This simulation creates healthy competition among the class while teaching students marketing curriculum units.

Example 2 – https://www.duolingo.com/

Duolingo is an example of a gamifying WBLT that fosters language learning through operant conditioning techniques. This WBLT uses stimuli (i.e., experience points to advance levels and gain access to more difficult exercises) to teach language learners grammar and vocabulary lessons.

Helpful Resources

Resource 1 – https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
This is an article that explains Operant Conditioning in-depth, including video summaries and educational applications.

Resource 2 – https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118468135

This is an eBook explaining associative learning, including classical and operant conditioning.

Resource 3 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6LEcM0E0io

This video provides a summary of the differences between classical and operant conditioning, both of which need to be understood to apply associative learning effectively.


Cherry, K. (2019, September 5). What is operant conditioning and how does it work? [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/operant-conditioning-a2-2794863

David, L. (2015, June 19). Classical and operant conditioning (Skinner). [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/operant-conditioning-skinner.html

McFeeney, F. K. & Murphy, E. S. (2014). The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Operant and Classical Conditioning. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


Submitted by: Amareen Brar
Email: amareen.brar@ontariotechu.net
Bio: I have a background in Education administration. I am a Master of Arts (Education) student pursing my thesis and assisting with research regarding multiliteracy and curriculum development.


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E-Learning Essentials 2020 by Power Learning Solutions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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