The Confluence of Neuroscience, Learning Theory and Student Motivation

CorrectAll animals learn the same way, and that is by trying something and noticing the result. If the result is good, that animal is more likely to perform that behavior again. If it is bad, the animal is less likely to perform that behavior next time. Of course there is a bit more to it than that. In the early 1900’s scientists experimented to sort out exactly how animals learn and in the inevitably confusing precision of science jargon came up with the four quadrants of operant conditioning, which together comprise the heart of “Learning Theory.” Perhaps you have heard of this? Almost certainly you already know about the Positive Reinforcement quadrant.  (Here is an earlier essay involving PR, worth reading, especially if you love dogs.)

There are three other quadrants to Learning Theory: Positive Punishment, Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment. Well, it is now we see how science can make something that should be clear, quite opaque. (Job security for us science teachers is to translate science into English.) In this case the word “positive” does not mean good at all. It means “to apply”. Negative does not actually mean bad.  It means to “be withdrawn or taken away.” Reinforcement increases behavior and Punishment means behavior will decrease.  Two times two equals four quadrants.  I’ve tried to make it simple with the drawing.

Here is the translated version. An animal (humans are included as animals of course) does something. The environment, which may be other animals, living things, or non living things responds in one of four possible ways: good stuff happens (PR), bad stuff happens (PP), good stuff stops happening (NP) or bad stuff stops happening (NR).

Here are some examples. See if you can guess the quadrant. Quiz answers at the bottom of the page! Having fun yet? 😉

A) Young dog manages to reach the steak left on the kitchen counter and eats it.

B) “The beatings stop once morale improves.”

C) Mother removes her attention from tantrum throwing toddler.

D) Coyote touches electric fence while trying to reach the poultry

E) “What! You got a D on your report card! You are grounded!”

As you can see, Negative Reinforcement tends to feel a lot like Positive Punishment, doesn’t it? In fact sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between the two.  Just as an aside, traditional dog training includes quite a bit of the NR quadrant. This means the dog receives an unpleasant stimulus until he complies with the command.  The “Force Fetch“, sometimes called “breaking” the dog is a prime, if not also somewhat disturbing example.

Let’s play another game, this time a Sesame Street game of “one of these things is not like the other… one of these things just isn’t the same…!” (Do I date myself?) What do three of these quadrants have in common that is different from the fourth? If you guessed that Positive Reinforcement is not like the others, then you win! What do the other three have in common? They make us FEEL BAD! Positive Reinforcement is the only action that makes us FEEL GOOD.

4EggsThis is where Learning Theory meets Neuroscience, and student motivation.  As discussed  in previous posts, emotions are associated with actual biochemical changes in the brain. They are real and they are important. We feel good when neurotransmitters such as dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin are in our brains but we feel bad when stress hormones like corticosteroids are circulating in our bodies. Rewards (reinforcement) make us feel good. We are then motivated to repeat a behavior again. The significant thing here is that we are motivated in a positive way, that is we are seeking something good, rather than simply avoiding something bad!

Teachers talk a lot about wanting to instill in students a true “joy of learning.” Sometimes we call this “intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.” I believe it is very useful for us as educators to take a look at how much we use the 3 “sad quadrants” and how much we use the only “happy quadrant” in our teaching practice.

So here we come to the conclusion and the point of this essay. The most we teachers can hope for when using the three “sad quadrants” is Compliance from our students. We might be fooled into thinking we are successful as teachers because Compliance looks pretty good on its surface. It looks like students who do their homework, come to class on time with all their gear, and sit quietly in class making no trouble. They probably even do pretty well on their assessments. However if we look closer, they might look a lot like puppies who are trained with chain collars and leash yanks. They look well trained and well behaved but there is no sparkle in their eyes and no joy in the learning process. Are we satisfied with Compliance from our students?  How can we manage our classrooms and our curriculum so we can minimize our use of the three “sad quadrants” and maximize that one “happy quadrant”, and in doing so elevate the rewarding neurotransmitters in our students’ brains, ultimately encouraging intrinsically motivated and joyful learners?

Quiz Answers 🙂

A) PR, Positive Reinforcement. Good stuff happened when counter surfing. Steak found. Pup will try that again!

B) NR, Negative Reinforcement. Bad stuff stops, promoting a good attitude!

C) NP, Negative Punishment. Toddler’s tantrums decrease as a result of no attention given.

D) PP, Positive punishment. Bad stuff happened when hunting chickens. Nose zapped.

E) PP, positive punishment. Bad stuff happens when report card brought home.  Parents mad.


About Sue Houston

I've been teaching high school science for over 25 years. The more I learn, the more questions I have about how good education really works. This blog is an attempt to explore the fundamental question of "How do Kids Learn?" This blog will include posts related to technology in education, neuroscience, behavioral science and real life experiences in the classroom. Please, I invite you all to join the conversation in the comments sections. Perhaps together we can find more insights into how kids learn! If you are a student, educator, or past student (that covers everyone, right?) you have something to contribute! :)
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4 Responses to The Confluence of Neuroscience, Learning Theory and Student Motivation

  1. Douglas Houston says:

    Did any of you take the quiz and get it right?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. maisymak says:

    I took the quiz and I did get them right 🙂 There are so many parenting insights here…I’m so intrigued. I completely agree with you as both a teacher and a parent – to get past the Compliance and get to the real joy. Thanks for a fantastic post! I love this. It’s given me a lot to think about tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: What’s Wrong with Tests? | How Do Kids Learn ?

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