Schedules of Reinforcement in Psychology: Continuous & Partial

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  • 0:05 What Is Reinforcement?
  • 0:47 Schedules of Reinforcement
  • 1:21 Continuous Reinforcement
  • 2:47 Partial Reinforcement
  • 3:08 Choosing a Schedule
  • 8:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Bautista
Have you ever wondered how our behavior is conditioned? How does the timing of rewards affect our behavior and our learning? In this lesson, we'll take a close look at how reinforcement scheduling can influence how fast we learn a behavior and how well the behavior is maintained.

What Is Reinforcement?

Have you ever played a slot machine? Why do you keep putting money in over and over again? You aren't rewarded with each play. However, you are more likely to keep putting money in the machine if you win every now and then. Slot machine manufactures are well aware of the reinforcing power of a win, even if its small and ever so often. They use a type of reinforcement schedule in order to encourage gamblers to continue playing even if they are not reinforced with each pull of the machine.

Reinforcement Review

Reinforcement is defined as a consequence of that follows a response that increases (or attempts to increase) the likelihood of that response occurring in the future. In this lesson, we will focus on the schedules of reinforcement.

Schedules of Reinforcement

When and how a consequence is reinforced is critical to the learning process and the likelihood of increasing a response. A schedule of reinforcement acts as a rule, stating which instances of a behavior will be reinforced. Sometimes an instance will be reinforced every time they occur. In other cases, reinforcement might only happen sporadically or through scheduled occurrences. There are two types of reinforcement schedules: continuous and partial. Certain types of schedules may be more effective depending on the situation and the training purpose.

Continuous Reinforcement

In a continuous reinforcement schedule the desired behavior is reinforced each and every time it occurs. This continuous schedule is used during the first stages of learning in order to create a strong association between the behavior and the response. Overtime, if the association is strong, the reinforcement schedule is switched to a partial reinforcement schedule.

In the classroom, teachers will observe rapid improvements in students' behavior if they reinforce desired responses whenever they observe them. For example, if a teacher observes a student diligently working on an assignment while other students are moving noisily about, that teacher should reinforce the apt student with praise in order to encourage the positive behavior to continue. The teacher should, then, continue to reinforce this behavior every time it occurs in order to attach a strong relationship between the positive behavior and the reinforcement.

The advantage to continuous reinforcement is that the desired behavior is typically learned quickly. However, this type of reinforcement is difficult to maintain over a long period of time due to the effort of having to reinforce a behavior each time it is performed. Also, this type of reinforcement is quick to be extinguished. Extinction is the gradual disappearance of an acquired response - resulting from repeated lack of reinforcement for the response. Simply put, once the reinforcement stops, the behavior will, too.

Partial Reinforcement

In a partial reinforcement schedule the response is reinforced only part of the time. This may also be referred to as an intermittent reinforcement schedule. The advantage here with a partial reinforcement schedule is it's more resistant to extinction. The disadvantage is that learned behaviors take longer to be acquired.

4 Types of Partial Reinforcement

There are four types of partial reinforcement schedules: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval and variable interval schedules. Fixed ratio schedules occur when a response is reinforced only after a specific number of responses. For example, in the video game Donkey Kong you receive an extra life for every one hundred bananas collected. In the classroom, an example would be a student is rewarded for every five books they read.

The advantage in a fixed ratio schedule are the results are high and steady productivity, or in other words, a high rate of response. In the example just discussed the student will continue to read books as long as the reward continued. The disadvantage is that this schedule leads to burn out and potentially lower quality work. In our example, the student may read books too quickly in order to get more rewards and not comprehend what they are actually reading.

The second type of schedule we will discuss is variable ratio. This is the schedule where a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses. Do you remember the slot machine example? Gambling and lottery games are examples of a reward based on a variable ratio schedule. In the classroom, an example would be rewarding students for some homework assignments, but not all.

The advantage with this type of schedule is if done in a manner that the reinforcer is not predictable, this can lead to a maintenance or an increase of the pace of a behavior. If the student can't determine the schedule of which the homework would be rewarded, they're going to be more likely to continue to always bring in their homework. However, the disadvantage is this type of schedule could lead to detrimental behavior. In the case of gambling, the person continues to try for the reward even after losing most or all of their money in hopes of winning the big one.

Our next example is fixed intervals. A fixed interval is where the response is rewarded only after a specified amount of time has elapsed. A real world example of fixed interval schedules is a paycheck. Employees are reinforced weekly, biweekly or monthly depending on the pay schedule. In the classroom, this may be rewarding a student at the end of every class period or day for good behavior. It is important for the teacher to determine the right amount of work given the reward schedule.

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