It’s a Positive Negative!

I frequently encounter educators using the term “negative reinforcement” as a synonym for punishment. Because the word “negative” is used, people often think this term means it is something “bad”. This is far from the truth. Don’t let the “negative” part fool you. In negative reinforcement, an unpleasant stimulus is withdrawn from the equation, once the desired response is generated. Reinforcement is actually a good thing. Let me demonstrate with some examples in a school setting:

Example # 1A student is told that he will exempted from doing his homework if he helps out other students in a peer study group.

In this example, the undesirable stimulus of ‘doing homework’ is removed, when the child helps in peer study group. The helping of peers was the response that was expected of him.

Example # 2A class is told that they will be kept after school for extra time to work on a project unless they forgo fifteen minutes of their lunch break for a week.

This is another form of the negative reinforcement in the classroom. Here, the stimulus that is taken away is the inconvenience of spending time after school. The class sacrifices a part of their lunch break and the project gets completed on time.

Example # 3A teacher decides to assign students to a study hall period as a make-up work period for all students who do not complete their assignments. 

This is a commonly used negative reinforcement example at school. With the prospect of avoiding the unpleasant experience of study hall (or detention) being removed, the student will make sure that they complete their assignments on time. This is what the teacher required and wanted in the first place.

Example # 4A teacher tells students that for every specified number of problems completed correctly, the total number of problems is reduced.

This is another popular example of negative reinforcement however this one involves work reduction. By demonstrating mastery or fluency of the work, the teacher removes the total amount of work the student needs to complete. This provides motivation for students to work not just to complete tasks but to complete them with accuracy.

Example #5: Students ask the teacher repeatedly to play a movie on Friday. In order to end the continuous requests to watch a movie in class, the teacher provides the students with a movie.

Teachers’ behaviors also frequently operate under negative reinforcement. The stimulus being removed is listening to the frequent requests from children. When she provides the students with the movie, she no longer hears requests from the students.

In order for all of these examples to be considered as reinforcement, we will have to assume that contingency in fact led to an increase in the desired behavior. If the desired behavior did not increase, then by definition it is not reinforcement.


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