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B.F. SKINNER, works and life

Skinner on Programmed Instruction


A Hypertext History of Instructional Design


While Pressey had invented and demonstrated a testing machine as early as 1925, it was B.F. Skinner's elaboration of the theory of reinforcement and its application to learning that established the Programmed Instruction Movement.

Skinner's Frames of Instruction

A set of frames designed to teach a third-or fourth-grade pupil to spell the word manufacture. {Each of the frames would appear separately and require the correct answer before progressing to the next frame—jk}



Frame 1

MANUFACTURE means to make or build.
Chair factories manufacture chairs.

Copy the word here:

___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

Frame 2

Part of the word is like part of the word FACTORY.
Both parts come from an old word meaning make or build.

M A N U ___ ___ ___ ___ U R E

Frame 3

Part of the word is like part of the word MANUAL.
Both parts come from an old word for hand.
Many things are made by hand.

___ ___ ___ F A C T U R E

Frame 4

The same letter goes in both spaces.

M ___ N U F ___ C T U R E

Frame 5

The same letter goes in both spaces.

M A N ___ F A C T ___ R E

Frame 6

Chair factories
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ chairs.


B. F. Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner(1904-90) was a psychologist. Born in Susquhanna, Pa., he studied at Harvard, teaching there from 1931-6 and again from 1947-74. A leading behaviorist, he was a proponent of operant conditioning, and the inventor of the Skinner box for facilitating experimental observations.

Research for testing and instruction continued to be piecemeal until the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner's research was in stimulus-response and reinforcement. His research contributed to an understanding of the usefulness and application of teaching machines. He stated that, although positive reinforcement has been proven important in learning, schools use little reinforcement but instead use aversive control. Skinner (1954) also noted that the learning process should be divided into "a very large number of very small steps and reinforcement must be contingent upon the accomplishment of each step." Skinner also stated that by making the steps of learning small, the frequency of reinforcement can be increased and the frequency of being wrong is reduced.

In order to accomplish the goal of positive reinforcement delivered frequently to reward small steps in the learning process, Skinner suggested using mechanical devices. He noted that the teacher was not able to succeed in implementing increasing reinforcement because of the limitations of class size and styles of teaching and grading being used. Skinner (1954) stated:

If the teacher is to take advantage of recent advances in the study of learning, she must have the help of mechanical devices. The technical problem of providing the necessary instrumental aid is not particularly difficult. There are many ways in which the necessary contingencies may be arranged, either mechanically or electrically...The important features on the device are these: Reinforcement for the right answer is immediate. The mere manipulation of the device will probably be reinforcing enough to keep the average student at work for a suitable period each day, provided traces of earlier aversive control can be wiped out. A teacher may supervise an entire class at work on such devices at the same time, yet each child may progress at his own rate, completing as many problems as possible within the class period. If forced to be away from school, he may return where he left off. The gifted child will advance rapidly, but can be kept from getting too far ahead either by being excused from arithmetic for a time or by being given special sets of problems which take him into some of the interesting by-paths of mathematics. The device makes it possible to present carefully designed material in which one problem can depend upon the answer to the preceding and where, therefore the most progress to an eventually complex repertoire can be made. ( p. 95)

Skinner concluded with the theory that the proposed changes would free the teacher for more important functions and that mechanized instruction should be integrated into all schools, not as a replacement for, but as an adjunct to the teacher.

Skinner (1958) later developed a machine that was built on Pressey's model but differed in several ways. He stated that a teaching machine should have several important features. First, the student should compose his response rather than select it from a set of possible answers. Skinner supported this idea with the fact that responses should be recalled, not simply recognized, and that wrong selections may seem out of place and strengthen unwanted recall. Second, Skinner stated that a teaching machine should present information in a carefully designed sequence of steps.

Skinner also noted that the machine itself does not teach, but brings the student into contact with the person who composed the material it presented. The machine is a labor-saving device because it can bring one programmer into contact with an infinite number of students.


Skinner (1958) compared his teaching machine to a private tutor. The machine induces sustained activity while keeping the student active and busy and would not allow the student to proceed unless he understands the materials. The material is presented in sequence as the student is ready to receive it. The machine helps the student arrive at the correct answer both by a logical presentation of material and by "hinting, prompting, suggesting, and so on, derived from an analysis of verbal behavior" (1958, p. 971). Finally Skinner stated that the machine reinforces the student for every correct response with immediate feedback.


Another important part of Skinner's research included the program that the teaching machine contained. Skinner developed the concept of nearly errorless learning through two ideas - prompting and fading. Prompting was used to construct the correct or desired response; fading was the gradual withdrawing of stimulus supports. Both techniques were used to promote efficient learning.


Skinner's ideas launched the programmed instruction movement in the United States. Skinner's ideas attracted many followers who embraced the idea of programmed instruction as the first truly efficient method of learning.


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