Avoiding disruptive behaviour before it occurs while teaching is far more effective than managing poor behaviour once it has occurred. Making effective use of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement will reduce the need for punishments and sanctions. (Skinner, 1974) developed the theory that behaviour is the result of consequences, both positive or negative.
A very simple method of positive reinforcement is to provide praise when the student does well at a particular task. Praise, depending upon how it is delivered, can motivate students but it can also de-motivate or cause them to avoid future praise. For example, if the praise is public, it is possible the student will be embarrassed and may wish to avoid any future praise due to this embarrassment; this may be in the form of not producing work that could receive praise. Providing praise in private can solve this issue; however, this can still de-motivate students as they may feel they no longer need to work as hard as they have achieved the goal of receiving praise. Praise should be handled carefully as, although the goal is to further motivate students, it may have a negative effect. This highlights that it may be the lecturer who wishes to give praise rather than the student receive it. When it comes to positive reinforcement, a personal favourite of mine is to allow students to leave early if all the work is finished. While this is likely to highly motivate students to complete the work as quickly as possible, many learners will cut corners and focus on completing the task quickly rather than absorbing the information, this is less of an issue with adult learners.
Another form of positive reinforcement is a reward system, reward systems come in many forms including students receiving stars or points for producing good work or behaving well. An example of a simple reward system that I have experience of is a class on a Friday afternoon in which many of the students either behaved badly or didn’t arrive at all. The implementation of a reward system whereby each student received a doughnut for arriving on time and having good behaviour provided excellent results with both attendance and behaviour. The reward system has many of the same negatives of praise with similar benefits, however, a reward system can also be utilised for negative reinforcement. With a consistent reward system, the student is aware a reward system is in place and is also aware they will not receive a reward for poor behaviour. This is negative reinforcement of operant conditioning by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (Skinner, 1974). An example of negative reinforcement is a “learner who pays attention in class to prevent them being moved to another seat”, (Machin, Hindmarch, Murray, & Richardson, 2016, p. 123) this can be a very effective method of controlling behaviour, however, I prefer to use positive reinforcement as I feel a positive learning environment will be beneficial for student learning.
An example of negative reinforcement that I use in every class is the use of ground rules, the ground rules list the behaviours that are considered unacceptable, this is also the ideal opportunity to explain the consequences of not following these rules. There is a very clear example of negative reinforcement used in all of my assessments, that if the assessment is not submitted on time it is limited to 40%. Students are made aware of this on the first day of the course, periodically throughout the course and it is stated on every assignment brief, the result is that very few students submit work late. The undesirable aspect of this negative reinforcement is that students can produce excellent work but then forget to submit it and they receive only 40%, which can be extremely de-motivational for students. Another undesirable aspect is that some students will submit unfinished work as they have been unable to complete the work on time; this work is often high quality which frustrates the student that they have been unable to finish.
Another method of encouraging behaviours that contribute to a purposeful learning environment is to have a structured routine. This routine provides consistency for students, allowing them to feel more comfortable in their environment as they know the schedule. This can be as simple as having an agenda that includes regular breaks at predefined times, showing the lecturer is in control of the class and schedule. This can have an unexpected benefit in the form of classic conditioning based on the work by Ivan Pavlov, having a break at a specific time can result in the involuntary action of students becoming hungry shortly before the break, reducing the number of students that become distracted due to hunger throughout the class.
A very simple method of encouraging good behaviour that works at all education levels is setting a good example. If lecturers do not behave professionally it is likely that students will not behave in a suitable way for learning. For example, lanyards are required for all staff and students within academic establishments, students would be unlikely to wear their lanyards if staff members do not wear theirs. It would also be very difficult for staff to enforce the rule if they are not wearing their lanyards.
Machin, L., Hindmarch, D., Murray, S., & Richardson, T. (2016). A Complete Guide to the Level 5 Diploma in Education & Training (Second Edition ed.). St Albans: Critical Publishing.
Skinner, B. (1974). About Behaviorism. San Fansico: Knopf.