Operant Conditioning


Instrumental Conditioning


Affecting voluntary behaviors by manipulating environmental stimuli

Principal Metaphors

Drawn from and/or aligned with principles from physics (Newtonian mechanics):
  • Knowledge is … repertoire of behaviors
  • Knowing is … behaving (triggered by stimuli)
  • Learner is … an organism
  • Learning is … changes in behavior (linking stimuli to responses) due to changes in the environment
  • Teaching is … conditioning (structures of reward and punishment that prompt changes in behavior)




Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning are two branches of Behaviorisms that are more properly understood as advice on teaching than as theories of learning. Both are concerned with manipulating and managing behaviors controlled by environmental stimuli, although focusing on different categories of behavior and employing different methods. Operant Conditioning is concerned with non-reflexive, voluntary behaviors that are under the learners’ control, and it deals with rewarding or punishing target behaviors to increase or decrease their manifestation. The following table provides a truncated list of strategies and intentions to control behavior.
Rewards Punishments
Trainer administers Trainer withholds Administer Remove/Deny
Subject increases identified behavior to increase access to reward Subject decreases identified behavior to regain access to reward Subject decreases identified behavior to stop punishment Subject increases identified behavior to avoid punishment
An important associated discourse, to accommodate Behaviorisms to the complexity of many human learnings, is:
  • Chaining – breaking down a skill or competency into elemental parts, and then using those elements to define a teaching/training sequencing. Chaining is usually associated with Behaviorisms, but it is also taken up by Instructivism and similar discourses.


See Behaviorisms for global commentaries, especially as this theory relates to human learning. Three major critiques of Operant Conditioning in particular bear emphasis: Firstly, in recent decades it has become evident that Intrinsic Motivation Discourses (i.e., structures and dynamics that are not external to target behaviors) can be much more powerful for changing and maintaining behaviors than Extrinsic Motivation Discourses. Second, behaviors that are shaped by Operant Conditioning regimes of reward and punishment can be volatile and prone to regression and other distortions – indicating that the underlying metaphor of cognition (i.e., a network of cause–effect links) is not adequate, especially for higher-order functions. Thirdly, effective application of Operant Conditioning training techniques generally requires highly controlled situations with minimum distractions and maximum consistency in the rewarding and punishing of target behaviors. Such conditions simply cannot be achieved in a classroom setting.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

B.F. Skinner; Edward Thorndike

Status as a Theory of Learning

Operant Conditioning is not a theory of learning, but advice for manipulating and managing behavior that arises from Behaviorisms.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Operant Conditioning is a more appropriately regarded as a theory of teaching than a theory of learning, and this fact was recognised in the mid-20th century when it rose to prominence in the field of education. With its focus on manipulating behavior, Operant Conditioning falls among mechanistic conceptions of teaching associated with Correspondence Discourses on learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The foci, processes, and interpretations of Operant Conditioning are clearly articulated and supported by a substantial body of uncontradicted evidence.


  • Chaining

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Operant Conditioning” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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