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The phrase “positive reinforcement” is best known for its association with operational behaviorism. You all know the story of the rat in the cage who was trained to press a lever to get a food reward. Its behavior was shaped by being rewarded with food. At first, when the rat strayed close to the lever, it was rewarded, but later, only when it touched the lever. At the end, the rat only received food when it actually pressed the level. We can say that most self-paced digital learning operates on the same basic principle as this behaviourist example! Many of your will be familiar with all the badges and learning rewards to be found in learning apps and fitness watches.

E-learning learning aligns with the main principle of behaviorism: a process of habit formation, achieved through the repetition of specific actions rewarded by goal attainment, positive feedback, and recognition of achievement. E-learning systems often use data and analytics to track student progress and provide feedback, which engenders the desired learning outcomes. This article will look at what positive reinforcement is, and how it can be employed in a variety of ways to improve engagement in self-paced learning.

In operational behaviorism, positive reinforcement is a key principle used to shape and maintain desired behavior. It is based on the idea that when a behavior is followed by a positive consequence, it is more likely to be repeated in the future. Examples of positive reinforcement include:

  • Giving a child a treat for completing homework on time
  • Giving an employee a bonus for meeting their sales quota
  • Giving a student praise for getting a good grade on a test

Positive reinforcement is an important tool to reinforce new behaviors and maintain existing ones. By providing a reward for a desired behavior, the behavior is much more likely to be adopted and repeated in the future, helping the learner to build new skills, and improve existing ones.

In e-learning, positive reinforcement can be used to encourage students to engage with the material, complete assignments, and achieve their learning goals. There are many ways in which this can work.

Gamification: One way to use positive reinforcement in language training is to gamify the learning experience by incorporating elements of games and play into the curriculum. For example, students can earn points, badges, or other virtual rewards for completing certain tasks or achieving certain milestones. This can help to increase engagement and motivation and make the learning experience a lot more find.

Immediate feedback: Adults typically have a strong need for recognition and validation of their efforts. By providing rewards for completing certain tasks or achieving certain milestones, the teacher can help students to feel a sense of accomplishment and recognition. The main advantage of retaining learner data is that students get immediate feedback on their performance. For example, if a student correctly completes an exercise, they will receive a message saying “Excellent. You have done a great job!” or “Correct!”. This reward will help to reinforce the desired behavior by providing students with a sense of recognition of their achievement.

Tracking progress: By tracking students’ progress and providing them with regular progress reports, teachers can help students see their progress unfold. This can help students stay motivated over a longer period of time. This is a very important part of a corporate language training programme, as companies work with learner data and do their own analysis. Learner performance is mapped to functional ‘can do’ statements, which provide a detailed picture of the level of competence achieved. Depending on how much data is available to the company, successful learners are rewarded with further training and career opportunities.

Certificates: Providing certificates for completing a module, course, or passing a test can be a powerful motivational reward, this way the students get a sense of accomplishment and recognition of their efforts. It also has the added value that students can share such certificates on social media and add them to their CVs:

Fun activities: Rewarding students by unlocking fun activities, such as word puzzles, and games, can help motivate learners and make the learning experience more engaging and enjoyable. These activities can also be used to reinforce key language concepts or vocabulary.

New levels: A very positive form of reinforcement is the point when new levels are unlocked. This permission to go on, and explore exciting new content, is a powerful reward for good learner behavior. This is enhanced if the learning content has an exploratory element of excitement, and just as the gamers want to get to the next level, so do the language students.

Social learning: This is generally associated with social constructivist theories of learning. Encouraging students to interact with each other and share their progress can be a powerful motivator. For example, students can be encouraged to interact with other learning by creating blog posts. These interactions can be structured around tasks so that students post their contributions but must also comment on others. This also allows students to socially construct their learning, which can help with the completion of higher-level tasks.

In conclusion, positive reinforcement can be used in many ways to make e-learning more engaging and effective. By incorporating these techniques in language training, learning designers and content writers can create a more motivating and enjoyable learning experience that helps students to achieve their goals.

Image by RoboMichalec from Pixabay 


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