Behavior Modification Methods

Education in the United States is a continuous source of controversy. How should the generations be taught? This is an extremely important and in depth issue that has many levels. Each level has its own disagreements. One particular level of education that has been researched is whether or not behavioral methods are effective enough to be used in the classroom to improve academic performance. As can be seen in the data included here, there are many forms of positive reinforcement contingencies that can be presented in the classroom.

These may include social rewards, like acceptance and encouragement from peers, tangible rewards, like the token economy, or internally motivating rewards, like having a sense of self-efficacy and feeling confident and proud of a particular accomplishment. The studies included here investigate cooperative learning strategies and how behavioral methods relate to academic performance that way, the use of rewards for good or improved performance, and then finally how the removal of a punishing aspect of the classroom environment, like a teacher’s criticism can possibly improve academic performance.

Cooperative learning is one process that includes behavioral methods. A reward structure is included in cooperative learning technology. Rewards can include grades, teacher approval, or physical rewards. In order for a reward structure to be effective, the rewards must be presented to the student quickly after the desired behavior has occurred. What makes this type of reward structure particular to cooperative learning styles is that rewards are given based on how well a group has learned something as a whole. Each person in the group gets rewarded if and only if each individual person has learned the material sufficiently.

A second facet of cooperative learning includes positive goal interdependence and positive reward interdependence (Mesch, Johnson, & Johnson, 1987). Positive goal interdependence is when students perceive that they can achieve their goals if and only if the other students with whom they are cooperatively linked achieve their goals. Whereas, positive reward interdependence exists when each member of a cooperative learning group receives the same reward for successfully completing a joint task (Mesch, Johnson, & Johnson, 1987).

Mesch, Johnson, and Johnson (1987) state that on the positive goal interdependence side of the controversy are Deutsch (1962) and Johnson and Johnson (1986), who state that in this situation students will all work to increase one another’s performance to result in increased achievement results. Conversely, in the same study Mesch, Johnson, and Johnson (1987) mention Hays (1976) and Slavin (1983), who state the in a positive reward interdependence setting, students will increase their individual performance only if there is a specific academic group contingency reinforcing them to do so.

Two interesting studies have been conducted in the cooperative learning area with behavioral methods included. Mesch, Johnson and Johnson (1987), have done studies analyzing the impact of positive goal interdependence and the combination of positive goal interdependence and reward interdependence on the academic achievement of regular students and four handicapped students who were being mainstreamed into the regular classroom. These four students were put into a class with the lowest level of reading.

They studied vocabulary words for 20 minutes every Thursday for 21 weeks, in preparation of a quiz on Friday. Every Tuesday, the children chose whether they wanted to study together or alone to complete a nonvocabulary instructional task. The specific reward contingency was bonus points toward their test grades. The positive goal interdependence condition consisted of this sequence except that every Thursday, the students studied in heterogeneous groups for 20 minutes.

This particular study indicated that positive goal interdependence alone increased achievement, but furthermore, the combination of positive goal and reward interdependence had a greater effect, especially for the four handicapped students. There was some speculation whether these results would corroborate other research that has been done in the cooperative learning area. Previous research has most commonly been short-term studies, lasting only a few days or weeks, while this study was long term, lasting over six months. As it turns out, its findings did support the results of the short-term studies.

Then again, the results are not very generalizeable, since the two 10th grade classes studied were not only advanced but they were social studies classes. The fact that the groups consisted of advanced students may have influenced the results, and if further research were done on more average students, the results would differ. Moreover, social studies is not as concrete a subject as math where you have to learn certain rules. More research with students in other subject areas could also produce interesting and possibly different results.

Lew, Mesch, Johnson and Johnson (1986) also performed a study dealing with isolated students and whether there was an impact of opportunity to interact with classmates, positive goal interdependence, an academic group contingency, and a collaborative-skills group contingency on the achievement of the students. It was concluded that neither the addition of positive goal interdependence nor the addition of an academic group contingency to the opportunity to interact with classmates significantly increased achievement.

But again, as with the previous study mentioned, the combination of academic and collaborative-skills group contingencies did (Lew, Mesch, Johnson, & Johnson, 1986). This implies that just the simple reward of two to four bonus points on a quiz grade contingent upon all members of a group succeeding had a significant effect on the academic performance of the students. Again, this study is hard to generalize, because it did only deal with isolated students, not to mention only four of them, two male and two female. They were identified as social isolates and academically and socially deficient.

They were members of a low level sixth grade reading class. The fact that baselines were acquired in both studies is extremely beneficial, because it is easier to see an improvement, and also straightforward whether or not there is a sustained improvement. Research in the behavioral area of education does not only include cooperative learning strategies. They also include such principles as the Premack Principle and token economies. Briggs, Tosi and Morley (1971) did a study on high-risk female college students. Studying was dependent on escape from the aversive character of the traditional conditions of study.

For example, if the girls studied for a specific amount of time, they were able to leave, and engage in any activity that they wanted. This study instituted the Premack Principle stating that you reinforce a low probability behavior, like studying, with a high probability behavior, like spending time with friends. The Premack Principle is similar to the idea of a token economy where students are rewarded for desirable behavior with tangible tokens, which can later be turned and used like currency for some other prize.

Rickard, Clements and Willis (1970) did a study with a token economy. Briggs et al. found that the act of studying was reinforced by the satisfaction of finishing an assignment and the right to leave and engage in other more enjoyable activities. The results indicated that it is extremely practical and worthwhile to combine psychological conditioning techniques with a study technique to improve academic performance. It is hard to tell in this study whether the results are due exclusively to the experimental conditions. As Briggs et al. 971) point out; such a conclusion would be premature and unwarranted. This study only lasted for a very short duration, five weeks. To make these findings more valid and be able to apply them to a larger scale of population, more research needs to be conducted with an improved research design, with possibly a third group receiving only programmed instruction, a process using conditioned psychological techniques in order to learn material. Further research with better design could lead to more conclusive comparisons and results.

In addition, males could be used to see if results would be different, and the same study could be implemented among more average students, and not just high-risk ones. Rickard et al. included a token economy in their study where tokens could be exchanged for something such as a toy or something edible. The study consisted of four phases, a baseline, token reinforcement, noncontingent condition where students received a stated number of tokens based upon his average earnings in the previous weeks, and then token reinforcement again where token value was doubled.

Following the programmed instruction subject’s performance was evaluated and four of the five produced more correct items, while retesting of the subject area without a token reinforcement system four of the five gave fewer correct responses. Although significant results seem to have been found, the experimenters state themselves that the study is short, and that there was not enough time available to establish baseline conditions and to effectively introduce experimental interventions. The token economy did not evoke an impressive rate of high responding.

This experiment was poorly designed due to the fact of so many phases. Using more than five students, and studying females instead of just males to increase generalizability, and having more time to establish a baseline, apply a token economy then get a second baseline after intervention without the tokens would have been more beneficial. Simple reward and punishment strategies are the basis of behavioral methods. Rewards can be given in the form of grades. Many students find it rewarding to receive an A after studying hard and working hard on an assignment.

Leventhal and Whiteside (1973) conducted a study dealing with the allocation of grades. Their study investigated the effect of an allocator’s goals (the ends hoped to be achieved through distribution of reward) and the effect of the goal of being fair with the goal of eliciting the highest possible performance on an allocator’s response to information about a recipient’s aptitude. Subjects were given the task of allocating grades to hypothetical students. For example, with performance held constant, the subjects, or allocators were expected to give higher grades to maximum performers.

Results indicated that the subjects had an overall tendency to give higher reward to recipients with lower aptitude when their performance was held constant. This suggests that allocators give higher rewards to students who perform at their own maximum rather that students who may perform at a higher level, but fall below their own maximum. The fact that the subjects were students themselves lends itself to the reliability of the findings. They in theory responded in the way that they believe is fair and in a way in which they would want to be treated.

Results indicate that they think, as students, it is reinforcing to be rewarded for your maximum ability even though that may be below the average ability. In contrast, the fact that the subjects were volunteers may mean that these students are more determined, focused students and their responses could vary from responses that were obtained in a study where subjects were randomly assigned. Additionally, they were asked to allocate rewards to hypothetical students in hypothetical situations. It is always difficult to say whether a person’s will really match what they say they will do in a situation.

Along with reward structures comes punishment. Just the simple escape from receiving a punishment can be rewarding in itself. One classroom situation that can be punishing to a student is criticism from the teacher. Cooper (1976) conducted a study examining the idea that teachers criticize low expectation students in order to control their personal reinforcement schedules. It was found that this overwhelming occurrence of criticism was correlated with the fact that low expectation students became less motivated to perform well.

Cooper (1976) tested the hypothesis that “the removal of criticism increases the relative frequency of student-initiated academic interactions on the part of students” (p. 422). This hypothesis was supported with the idea of negative reinforcement. The removal of criticism, which is the punisher, resulted in the increased behavior of the student to initiate interactions with the teacher. This indicates that the use of behavioral methods can increase student performance in the classroom. Some limiting circumstances do exist in this study. No statements of causality can be made in this particular study.

All of the results are correlational and quasi-experimental. Likewise, the study was conducted on a small sample from a small number of classrooms observed for a short amount of time. Replication with varied research designs is a necessity (Cooper, 1976). One study did not find that reward structures had a significant impact on student performance in the classroom. Harris and Covington (1993) compared the self-worth-related consequences of success and failure for low and high performers under two reward structures and two reward standards.

Reward standards were put in place to minimize the threat to self-worth in the event of failure. The idea of performance directly related to outcome was compared with an improvement-based standard where success or failure was determined by the amount of improvement that was achieved. The results indicated that “regardless of reward contingencies, success or failure played a critical role in perceptions of individual differences” (p. 151). This particular study presented the critical role of success and failure rather than reward structure.

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