Applying Reinforcement Learning Theory in 21st Century Education

Kristin Trostel

Reinforcement learning theory can be traced back to the first part of the twentieth century to a man named B.F. Skinner. Skinner, known as “the father of operant conditioning” (Simply Psychology), brought to light a new term and idea in psychology: reinforcement. Skinner suggested that if a certain behavior is reinforced, it will most likely be repeated.

Skinner tested his theory of reinforcement using rats and food. He put a rat in a box with a lever, and when the rat pressed the lever, a pellet of food would drop out; thus, giving the hungry rat what it wanted. Eventually, the rat learned to press the lever whenever it was hungry. By doing this, the rat was positively reinforced with food.

What about a modern day example of reinforcement learning theory? As the mother of a two year old, I am constantly looking at the world through the lens of a young child. How do we teach our children to help out around the house? If we use Skinner’s theory, a chore chart with a defined reward should work perfectly. If a child completes a task—let’s say making her bed—and is reinforced with money or other reward, she is likely to make her bed again every day.

Reinforcement in Education
As someone who works in education, I have seen teachers apply reinforcement theory in many ways—using everything from small toys to special classroom privileges—to encourage students to persist in their academics. In my generation, studious folks like myself were motivated to do well in our classes by earning an “A” on our report card. And our parents reinforced our efforts when they posted that “A” up on our refrigerator where they could beam over it every time they reached for the orange juice. That still works for some students, but what about students who are not driven by “A’s”?

Today, working with 21st-century students who are immersed in technology, we have new opportunities for motivating students to learn and helping them to really enjoy it along the way. Rewards-based online learning platforms are great applications of reinforcement learning theory, encouraging even disengaged and struggling students to continue learning.

Fuel Education’s Stride is one such program that uses reinforcement theory to motivate students to practice foundational skills in math, reading, language arts, and science. The more students practice, the more Stride coins they earn. These coins are a hot commodity! Students can bank them or cash in their coins for their favorite video games, which serve as a brain break from the learning portion of the program. Many students yearn for that brief brain break in the time they spend learning new skills—and once they have it, they are reinforced to return to their practice again.

Motivating Students to Own their Learning
One of our goals in education is to get students excited about learning, and to own their learning. Instead of just telling students what to do and when, let’s motivate them! One simply needs to look at what matters to students—what is important to them. Games are a big hit with students, and they will work hard to earn the right to play them. We see kids on their phones for hours, playing simple but fun games such as Fruit Ninja or Candy Crush. Online learning programs like Stride leverage the fun of video games and mobile devices with the important learning that our students need to do.

Students love Stride’s games, and teachers love the real-time data the program collects for them on the back end. Teachers use this data to inform their teaching and help prepare for high stakes testing—making Stride a winning solution for everyone involved.

Watch this video to learn more about the Stride rewards-based learning program.

Kristin Trostel is Product Marketing Manager for Supplemental Solutions at Fuel Education, working closely with subject area experts, curriculum developers, and training professionals to deliver an outstanding experience for educators and students. She began her career in the classroom, and has over 7 years of teaching experience in Social Studies. She has taught in traditional classrooms, worked at an inner-city charter school, an alternative high school, and as a virtual instructor. She holds a B.S., Secondary Social Studies Education, and is pursuing a M.A., Distance Education & E-Learning.

Kristin says, "When I was a little girl, I loved to play school with my sister. She would sit on my bed while I taught her the most amazing lessons! Fast forward to today, and my passion for teaching and learning has only grown."

You can connect with Kristin on LinkedIn.

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