Sep 20 2010

Reflecting on behaviourism

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Good morning from Frankfurt, Germany!

It’s 6am locally and unfortunately, I can’t seem to sleep. So what better time to think about the behaviourist learning theory? I’ve been trying to find an example in my own teaching practice where I might try to change a behaviour and use some of the reinforcement described in the reading. I did come up with an example from my Accounting class.

When I teach students to move from manual accounting to computerized accounting I begin by insuring they have the correct data to enter. This way, I am measuring their ability to use the computerized system, rather than measuring whether they have journalized the entries correctly (which is an exercise at the knowledge processing level). I show the students how to use the system and tell them to enter transactions using the computer. The stimulus is that they all get 100% to start but each mistake will cost them 10 points. The goal is to teach them to be meticulous and avoid mistakes. Once they have completed their entries, they must compare them to the answer key and if they find mistakes, they must correct them using the appropriate technique. Once the whole process is complete, they put their grade on the printouts and submit them for me to record.

Students have the following responses to this activity:

  1. They do the work correctly and are happy to receive the full mark.
  2. They make a mistake and correct it and submit the corrected version showing their adjusted mark.
  3. They correct a mistake and try to hide it and try to claim full marks. Unfortunately, there is no way to hide the mistake as the journal records all transactions, even the corrections. So I have them adjust the mark and submit the work. They think it’s unfair, but they are more careful next time.
  4. They reprint another student’s work with their own name on it. If I have suspicions (and I am very suspicious), I ask to see the work on their computer to verify it. I also ask all students to put their own initials in the journal descriptions to try to minimize this behaviour.

There you have it! I guess I’ve been subscribing to this learning theory all along but hadn’t realized it. I must say that in order to come up with this system, it was a learning process of my own. Students come up with ways to plagiarize or avoid the unpleasant consequences all the time. Each time they do, that is my stimulus to adjust my behaviour.

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