The Modern Teaching Machine and the Science of Behavior


Since the 1920’s, the science of human behavior has been vigorously studied to help advance the understanding of behavior change. B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist, designed the Teaching Machine— a physical, mechanical device that administered multiple choice questions, and only moved onto the next question when they student answered correctly.

This Teaching Machine was not only a catalyst for the technology of learning, it also set the stage for modern web-based training. Many of Skinner’s recommended best practices remain relevant for modern computerized and instructor-led training.

What the Teaching Machine Taught Us
Skinner’s techniques enforced active engagement in a learning environment. His techniques required each learner to fully understand each concept (and demonstrate their understanding) before moving onto the next lesson. In other words, the learner demonstrated that they were proficient in certain skills before accessing more complex forms of the skill. This practice provided an objective way to measure the success of training, and if the learner had truly mastered a desired skill. 

Modern Application

Today, we use Skinner’s Teaching Machine techniques in Learning & Development and corporate training world-wide, and in a variety of contemporary learning methods:

1. Modern Application

Today, we use Skinner’s Teaching Machine techniques in Learning & Development and corporate training world-wide, and in a variety of contemporary learning methods:

Role playing has become a common method in modern teaching. In this technique, learners are asked to respond to various, often hypothetical scenarios and to give an appropriate response.  throughout the lesson, then ask the learner to give an appropriate response. If the response is relevant to the coursework, objective and desire outcome, the learner can move onto the next lesson.  

2. Learner-Paced

Skinner proposed that we program training so that the learner progresses through the material at their own, individualized pace. Because each student is unique with different levels of pre-requisite knowledge, Skinner recommended we develop lessons to ensure the program moves at a pace appropriate for each individual learner without enforcing a minimum or maximum time or completing a given lesson. Learner-paced training leaves room for the student who needs 30 seconds to complete a lesson and the student who needs 30 minutes.

3. Feedback 

Because of Skinner, behaviorists today advocate for immediate and accurate feedback. In today’s technology-driven environment, eLearning and other web-based training methods are designed to easily incorporate immediate and accurate feedback. For example, trainers can program a short 5-second delay (also called a post-feedback delay) following a learner’s response. During this delay, the learner’s response and correct answer are available on the screen. The learner should not be able to progress through the material until the 5-second delay has elapsed.  

4. Meaningful and Overt Responses 

Overt response requirements are often incorporated into training to help drive understanding.  In eLearning and other forms of web-based training, trainers can gauge a student’s level of understanding by creating “branching” questions. These branching questions present a question, then populate additional subsequent questions based on the learner’s response to the initial question. If the learner makes a correct response to the first review question, the next question is presented to the learner. If the learner’s response to the initial question is incorrect, a new question using the same material is presented to the learner. This process continues until all learners have mastered the material.  

Ardent Learning takes a behavioral and scientific approach to learning based on Skinner’s research and Teaching Machine. When we combine the behavioral best practices mentioned in this article with the current state of technology, we have the ability to create powerful learning solutions.

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