Synthesis of Topic

So here we are already, the end of the road. When I set about choosing a topic, I picked punishment and reinforcement as I felt that they were something that many people take for granted in the classroom setting. Quite often it seems that teachers offer punishments in particular, without a full understanding of the implications. I think that this is a very important area in education. The right type of reinforcement can be hugely beneficial, and whilst many forms of punishment have been shown to not be as effective at behaviour modification as reinforcement, they do appear to still have a place.

My last presentation looked into the good and bad sides of punishment:


Praise and rewards have been shown to be an effective way at shaping children’s behaviour and making them more engaged in their education (Madsen et al, 1968, Van der Mars, 1989). This is a very important positive aspect, as not only does it help the children get a better education, but if inappropriate behaviours are being reduced, then it is more conducive  to a positive working environment, meaning that it helps everyone. However it is very important that reinforcement is used correctly. Henderlong and Lepper (2002) show that in order to be effective, praise must be perceived as sincere, but not only this, it has to be for the right behaviour. This is perhaps the biggest caution when using reinforcement. Reinforcing behaviours that are attributable to internal, controllable causes, will promote competence and help the child. However if reinforcement is given for external causes, then some people argue that this will actually be maladaptive and stifle the individual (Cannella, 1986). Furthermore, if the wrong behaviour is reinforced, then the child may lose internal motivation. They will become more focused on receiving the reward, than positively engaging with the material, and this is obviously not the idea of reinforcement. So reinforcement and rewards are very useful tools that can be successfully applied in the classroom to benefit every pupils education, however care is needed to ensure that it is not misused, which can be maladaptive.

So now we get on to punishment. I think it is all too easy to see how effective reinforcement is and just assume that punishments are therefore just a knee-jerk reaction to something the teacher doesn’t like. Lewis (1999) however, points out that it does actually have its place; one of the teacher’s roles is to maintain classroom discipline and whilst reinforcement is used essentially used to avoid disruptive behaviour, punishment can be used to immediately combat disruptive behaviour. Moles (2006) mentioned that disruptive behaviour is ’contagious’, and affects the whole class, not just the individual. With children, disruptive behaviour is somewhat inevitable, and so punishment can be used to remove the disruptive behaviour before it becomes a threat to learning, thus maintaining classroom discipline. However, like reinforcement, it is pointed out that how it is used is also very important. There is a difference between a child that is acting disruptive because they want to act disruptive, and because they just can’t engage with the material. For children who can’t engage, it is perhaps not necessary to use punishment at all, however with the other child it may be necessary. Another important aspect to consider is who is giving the punishments. Some studies highlight the fact that teachers are just normal people, who hold the same biases and prejudices as everyone else (Hurrell, 1995, Lewis, 2001). Whilst they will try to be impartial, it is often found the things such as gender biases are seen when punishments are administered. It is also noted that some punishments, such as time outs, serve to reinforce bad behaviour, as they can remove children from work that they didn’t want to do. Overall punishments do have their place and can be used very effectively with reinforcement to maintain positive learning environments whilst increasing engagement with the material; however teachers need to be very careful about how they are using them.

So I think it is pretty obvious by now that reinforcement and punishment can be used very effectively, but how they are employed is crucial. But I think it can be all too easy to get caught up in the theory and not actually see how in a real world setting they can work to do good. A big area where these techniques are used is in special education classrooms. Broden et al (1970) found that when reinforcement in the form of teacher attention and token economies were used, not only did disruptive behaviour decrease, but study levels increased. These results are not just a fluke, and have been found by many studies (Frederikson and Frederikson, 1975, Pelham et al, 1986). So reinforcement can be used in this setting to not only make behaviour better, but it can genuinely improve children’s learning. I think this is a highly important aspect of reinforcement and entrenches its firm foundations in the classroom.


Madsen et al (1968)

Van der Mars (1989)

Henderlong and Lepper (2002)

Cannella (1986)

Lewis (1999)

Moles (2006)

Hurrell (1995)

Lewis (2001)

Broden et al (1970)

Frederikson and Frederikson (1975)

Pelham et al (1986)



  1. Hello,
    You have summed this topic up wonderfully and I completely agree that when it comes to rewards and praise there are strict rules to follow.
    However, I think it is essential to consider the effect rewards, such as praise, has on learning experiences. Eccles and Midgeley (1994) have argued that as praise is reduced in further education, students demonstrate less engagement and motivation in their studies. Furthermore they argue that university students would place more value on to work if it was praised. As a result it is important to acknowledged that without a positive consequences to work, self-regulated learning decreases and as does students conceptual understanding (Ainley, 1993). In terms of blogging, we revive comments and this social interaction can act as a form of praise that encourages students to provide more evidence to the discussion on their blog and thus improving their learning experience (Gow & Kember, 1990).

  2. Really interesting topic! I agree that both reinforcement and punishment have their place within the classroom. However, I think it is really important to highlight what the psychological definition of ‘punishment’ actually is. If a behaviour is being punished it simply means it is less likely to occur again in the future. This may conflict with the definition elicited from people outside of the psychological field. Using the definition of reduction we know punishment to mean, the problem may then lie with the type of antecedents used to cause such behavioural change, rather than the reduction of the problem behaviour itself. For example corporal punishment uses the antecedent of violence to reduce the frequency of the undesirable behaviour. It is not the reduction of the problem behaviour that is in question, but the methods used to achieve this change. Similarly, as you briefly touched upon, the effectiveness of punishment and reinforcement is dependent upon the function of the behaviour. A method of punishment will only be a punishment if in fact it does reduce the behaviour. In order to improve the effectiveness of behavioural management within the education system, ensuring teachers understand the definition of punishment, appropriate ways to reduce behaviour and methods of assessing its effectiveness through consequences, is vitally important.

  3. Interesting topic, in fact so interesting that I’ve devoted a couple of blogs to this topic. Similarly to you I came to the same conclusion that when used appropriately both reinforcement and punishment are effective in education. However after I’d written these blogs i came across some data that suggested otherwise, Kohn (1993) reports how the use of extrinsic motivators such as reinforcement and punishment can reduce intrinsic motivation in students in the long term. This is detrimental to students because students who are intrinsically motivated perform better than students who are extrinsically motivated (Wigfield, 2004). So although the use of reinforcement and punishment can have short term benefits, I believe the long term problems they can cause outweigh the short term gains

    • I think that you have raised an interesting point. The literature focused on the implications of external rewards seems, at best, very conflicted. Deci (1971), for example, found that external rewards do have a tendency to reduce intrinsic motivation. Basically, it seems from this that when you give a child a reward they become focused on the reward and are more concerned with getting it than actually positively engaging with the work. However this finding was contested by Cameron and Pierce (1994). They suggested that the results from a meta analysis show that motivation appears unaffected by rewards, which must have alleviated a lot of fear in champions of using reinforcement in the classroom. However Deci et al (1999) challenged this finding, basically confirming that their first finding was correct and external rewards do affect intrinsic motivation. Then Cameron et al (2001) and Deci et al (2001) both produced further papers entrenching their own views. So here we have an example of two lines of study that are in direct conflict, but both believe they are right. Surely they can’t both be right, either external rewards reduce intrinsic motivation or it doesn’t, but the confused nature of the literature makes it very hard to get any sense out of the topic. This makes it (I think) very interesting to discuss.

      Deci (1971)
      Cameron and Pierce (1994)
      Deci et al (1999)
      Cameron et al (2001)
      Deci et al (2001)

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  5. Hi, I really enjoyed reading your blog, and you have obviously thought very hard about your past few blogs, as this one is extremely good. From researching into reinforcement I found research by Broden et al (1970) into how using reinforcement can control a special education classroom through using token reinforcement with teacher attention. The periods in which the token and/ or teacher attention point system were put in place within experimental periods resulted in increased class study levels and lower disruptive behaviours, thus showing that even rewarding and goal setting can conquer undesired class behaviour and re-establish control. A very similar study by Clark et al (1968) used the same token system with females who had dropped out and hired to complete a workbook. Significiant gains were found for these girls in achievement test scores showing how reinforcement can again play a crucial role in learning at any level or ability.

    Broden, M., Hall, R. V., Dunlap, A., & Clark, R. (1970). Effects of teacher attention and a token reinforcement system in a junior high school special education class. Exceptional Children.
    Clark, M., Lachowicz, J., & Wolf, M. (1968). A pilot basic education program for school dropouts incorporating a token reinforcement system. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(2), 183-188.

  6. Obviously, there is a need to get rid of disruptive behaviour which is going to have an impact on the learning environment for other children in the classroom. Although, like you mentioned, punishment can be effective, I think it’s important that teachers do not abuse it. As Latham (1997) discovered, using coercive methods to control the class can result in students wanting to escape/avoid the setting, so drop out. Latham (1997) also claims that behaviour responds better to positive than negative consequences, so teachers should focus on rewarding good behaviour and ignoring bad behaviour, rather than ignoring good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour (as often does happen in schools). However, there are obvious situations in which bad behaviour cannot be ignored (for example it is extremely disruptive or potentially dangerous). In these circumstances, Latham (1997) recommends only removing a student if three conditions are met; (1) the students behaviour improves, (2) the need to remove the student decreases, (3) teacher becomes more able to manage the behaviour calmly. I think these guides are a good idea, as it reduces the likelihood of teachers removing a student from the classroom because (as you said) it’s just the first thing the teacher thinks of when a student is misbehaving (also it’s probably easier to remove them than to deal with the problem).
    So, on the whole, you’ve raised some interesting points about rewards and punishments, but I personally believe that rewarding students will result in better behavioural outcomes and punishment should only be used as a last resort in potentially dangerous situations, so that teacher’s are in a way forced to deal with the problem behaviour rather than just ignore it by removing the student.

  7. Excellent summary of the topic there 🙂

    Rewarding behaviour is effective but problematic as the reward becomes the driving force for the behaviour, with the changed behaviour becoming dependent on the reward. As Deci (1972) suggested, when a reward is offered for a behaviour change or increase in performance, the change becomes dependent on the reward. When the reward is removed, the behaviour or performance suffers. Also, as Loveland and Olley (1979) noted, reward effects the quantity and quality of work produced.

    Although it is clear that there are benefits to offering rewards and reinforcing behaviour, it needs to be done carefully and in moderation, otherwise what might seem beneficial to students might actually be doing them more harm than good.

    Loveland, K. K., & Olley, J. G. (1979). The effect of external reward on interest and quality of task performance in children of high and low intrinsic motivation.Child Development, 1207-1210.

    Deci, E. L. (1972). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic reinforcement, and inequity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22(1), 113-120.

  8. Reinforcment does require caution, as I think there is argument for both positive and negative to be used, and a mix of both is needed for a healthy learning. If someone doesn’t give in homework they will be negatively reinforced with a bad grade, but if they get a good grade they will be positively reinforced. Gunter and Countinho (1997) saw how importance teachers being aware of these differences is, and they should make sure they apply each one in the correct way, and not too much of one or the other.

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