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B.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and MotivationB.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and Motivation


B.F.(Burrhus Frederic) Skinner (1904-90)


American psychologist (pictured right).

Famous for his ideas about learning and motivation.


B.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and Motivation

Why is he called a “behaviourist”? 

 Because he studied people's behaviour like the psychologists:

  • John Watson  (pictured right below).

B.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and Motivation


His most famous book is…

Walden Two (1948)

This describes a communal, unmaterialistic and ecological utopia in which people are rewarded for moral and useful actions.


His tips for learning and motivation

 B.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and Motivation

1. Rewards motivate people

Skinner’s “operant conditioning” says that people are best motivated to do something through:

  • positive reinforcement - rewards for good behaviour like recognition, praise and fulfilment from interesting work.
  • negative reinforcement - removal of something unpleasant e.g. noise.

He experimented with rats in “Skinner boxes”, where they received food (positive reinforcement) for pressing a bar. 

“The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount”, Skinner said.


Punishment (the removal of rewards for doing something bad) isn't a good motivator.

Skinner believed that punishment was unsuitable for controlling children.

 B.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and Motivation

2. Don’t do everything at once

Learning must be gradual.


  • divide a subject into small steps 
  • present information in small pieces.
  • the difficulty of tasks should be gradually increased (starting with the easiest).

 B.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and Motivation

3. Questions and feedback

Answer questions and then get immediate feedback from the teacher about how:

  • well you’ve done.
  • you can improve.

This helps to overcome people’s fear of failure which is a major obstacle to learning.

To avoid the discouragement of too many wrong answers, the difficulty of questions must be related to people's:

  • ability.
  • level of learning.


4. Direction and pace

Learners should be:

  • given clear directions (as many times as possible)
  • allowed to learn at their own pace (so that brighter students are not held back).

 B.F.Skinner - Psychology, Learning and Motivation

5. Learning by doing

People learn by doing things for themselves.


6. Turn your genes into greatness

Your performance is determined by your:

  • inherited ability (nature).
  • the environment in which you learn (nurture) - external influences like family, education and income .

 Your destiny is controlled by others as well as yourself, so “autonomous man” doesn't exist.


Key quote on education and learning

Education is what survives when what has been learnt is forgotten.


Key quote on reading

We shouldn’t teach great books, we should teach a love of reading.


Key quote on science and technology

The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do.


Key quote on success

A failure is not always a mistake; it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.


Key quote on motivation

The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.

A person's behaviour is controlled by his genetic and environmental histories.

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