Edpsy 399 OL - Spring 2000

Tom Anderson, Instructor

Leonard Fretzin

Forum 1 - Lesson 2

Date: Sun Jan 28 2001

Subject: Lesson 1 q2 On Programmed Instruction


Convince yourself and me that you understand "programmed instruction" -- what it is? How does it work and why it is a topic under behaviorism? Have you ever worked through any programmed instruction as a student? Try to find some and do so. Have you ever authored any? Is programmed instruction as prevalent as it was 20 years ago? Where does it show up in the curriculum?


Programmed learning is a form of operant conditioning. According to B. F. Skinner, who invented this methodology, the purpose of programmed learning is to manage human learning under controlled conditions. Programmed learning is based on behaviorist theories of learning which aims to shape behavior into predetermined patterns by strengthening stimulus-response bonds. (Entwistle, N. 1994)

Originally a book or 'teaching machine' was used to present the material to be learned in a series of very small steps, called frames. Each frame contains some information and a statement with a blank that the student fills in. The student then uncovers the correct answer before going on to the next frame. If the student's answer was correct it is positively reinforced by this progress to the next frame; if not, the student immediately sees the correct answer. Each frame may either introduce a new idea or repeat material covered earlier. The lessons start from the student's initial knowledge and in small steps proceeds to a final learning goal. Because of active student participation, small steps, immediate feedback, and reinforcement, programmed learning can be very effective.

Currently, the principles of programmed learning are being applied in computer assisted instruction (CAI). The computer can be used to present learning material and help students learn through a variety of techniques such as quizzes, simulations, explorations, and tests. Computer assisted instruction is effective in part because of the availability of immediate feedback.

There are two basic types of programming are used: linear, or straight-line programming, and branching programming.

Linear programming immediately reinforces student responses that are correct. Each 'bit' of information is presented in a "frame," and a student who has made a correct response proceeds to the next frame. All students work through the same sequence.

In branching programming, the student who responds incorrectly will either be returned to the original frame, or routed through a subprogram designed to remedy the deficiency indicated by the wrong choice. This process is repeated at each step throughout the program, and a student may be exposed to differing amounts of material depending upon errors made.

Back in 1972 (sic) I took a psychology course on behaviorism that used a programmed learning text. I found that it was somewhat boring in its repetitiveness, but that it was also quite effective in teaching the basic principals of behaviorism. Unfortunately I did not keep this textbook, and have found it difficult to find these programmed instructional texts from that era. In fact, when I was in 'Science Partners' (see below) I had my U. of C graduate student partner search the libraries at the U of C for any existing programmed learning texts, without success.

Surprising enough, I have found it difficult to find programmed learning applications on the Internet that were open (that is, did not require payment and passwords).

The B. F. Skinner Foundation has a programmed learning exercise about programmed learning, but I have not had success in using it. http://www.bfskinner.org/

In 1996 I was in a program developed by the Chicago Public Schools in conjunction with the University of Chicago, called 'Science Partners'. I teach Chemistry at Kenwood Academy High School, which is located only blocks away from the University of Chicago.

Working with a graduate student from the University of Chicago we developed a programmed learning unit on "Acids, Bases, and Salts" using branching programming.

When I had my regular Chemistry students work the program , many became very excited, and my own observations led me to believe that this form of instruction was effective in improving the degree of learning accomplished by the students.

However, due to limited facilities, I have never been able to determine the efficacy of this approach in a scientific, controlled manner.

For any of you who would like to run through this program, it is at: http://home.att.net/~lfretzin/list.htm

"In a Skinnerian education system there would be no marks given. None would be necessary, as students would proceed through programs of instruction mastering each in turn…With a teaching machine, no tests are needed… When a student gets through the program of material there is no point in testing him. The mark, if one insists on mark, would tell how far the student has proceeded. It is to be assumed that records of students' progress would be in terms of programs completed. When a program is completed you know it all then. I have no doubt at all that programmed instruction based on operant principles will take over education." (B.F. Skinner. 1967)

Skinner's ideas remain cogent and interesting, but have never been realized. They certainly deserve consideration and national debate. When education methodology can be elevated to the status of scientific research, it seem foolish to ignore or denigrate any known method which will improve the achievement of students.





Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G. J. & Ronning, R. R. (1999). Cognitive Psychology and Instruction, 2nd Ed. Merrill, Englewood Clift, NJ

Entwistle, N., Styles in Learning and Teaching: An Integrated Outline of Educational Psychology for Students, Teachers and Lecturers. 1994, London: David Fulton Publishers, p. 226.

Hefzallah, I.M., Forerunners to Computers in Education, in The New Learning and Telecommunications Technologies: Their Potential Applications In Education, I.M. Hefzallah, Editor. 1990

The Skinner Institute Foundation http://www.bfskinner.org/

B.F. Skinner, Psychology Today, September, 1967.