Application of Psychology Concepts to the Teaching of Writing Across Disciplines: Reinforcement and Shaping
Faculty differ on the importance of specific aspects of writing. For instance, depending on the discipline, students are required to learn different citation styles. Psychology professors require APA, while English professors may require MLA. Despite discipline-specific differences, some psychology concepts from learning theory underlie the techniques used to teach effective writing. In this, the first of a series of two articles, the learning theory concepts of reinforcement and shaping will be presented and applied to three teaching approaches that can be used in any discipline. The second article in this series will review strategies to address surface feature elements in writing assignments.
Learning Theory Concepts: Reinforcement and Shaping
Two learning theory concepts are regularly used in teaching techniques: positive reinforcement and shaping. Positive reinforcement involves giving an individual something desirable, like attention or praise, to strengthen a behavior (Chance, 2003). For instance, faculty praise students for good academic performance, both as a reward and an encouragement, to continue with that behavior. Consistent use of positive reinforcement is particularly important at the start of classes, when faculty are trying to establish desired academic behaviors such as active class participation. However, as a class continues, it is often not feasible or even preferable to reward every instance of a desired behavior such as class participation. Behaviors that are rewarded every time they occur are more likely to discontinue after the first few instances where a reward has not been given. For instance, a student who has received a response from a faculty member for every posting will be more likely to cease to participate, if the faculty member stops answering even a few postings.
Intermittent reinforcement, the rewarding of behaviors on a less-than-continuous basis, makes behaviors more resistant to extinction (Chance, 2003). Thus, once good class participation has been established, responding to every other posting increases the likelihood that students will continue participating in the course, even if there is a break in faculty responses. It also encourages participation among students, instead of solely with the faculty member.
There are many behaviors that are too complex to learn in just one attempt. For instance, a student would not be expected to know how to write a perfect academic paper in his or her first college class. Shaping is the process of teaching a complex behavior by reinforcing successive closer approximations of the desired outcome (Chance, 2003). Thus, students learn how to write academic papers through a series of assignments, where specific feedback—both positive and negative—is given.
Three Approaches to Teaching Writing that Incorporate Learning Theory Concepts
The concepts of positive and intermittent reinforcement and shaping can be incorporated into approaches to teaching writing regardless of the discipline. This section describes three of these teaching approaches.
- Utilize a strength-based approach with feedback. Feedback to students should include both strengths and weaknesses. By highlighting strengths, even if it is for completing the paper on time, students receive positive reinforcement for their writing and are likely to be encouraged to keep up their efforts as well as address their weaknesses in future writing assignments.
- Implement multiple smaller writing assignments instead of one large paper. One large paper at the end of the term minimizes the number of opportunities students have to benefit from feedback. By utilizing multiple small papers througout the term, the faculty member has the opportunity to shape students' writing and thus see a greater likelihood of improvement in their writing by the end of the term.
- Use different approaches to writing assignments depending on the course level. Expectations about writing assignments differ by discipline. In psychology, it is expected that students are able to write research papers based on published journal articles. However, this may be an unreasonable expectation for introductory psychology students, since many may have never written a college paper and/or read a journal article. It makes sense to tailor writing assignments to the course level to better address the educational needs of the students. An introductory psychology course could, for example, have students critique the same journal article in order to familiarize them with its format and content. An assignment such as this would allow the faculty member to compare efforts across students and detect writing patterns in the assignments. These trends could then be presented to the students as detailed feedback with suggestions for improvement. In contrast, upper-level psychology courses may have students write research papers based on individually selected topics and journal articles because those students, at that point in their college studies, are expected to have mastered the details that go into such an assignment.
Writing assignments and expectations differ across disciplines. Despite discipline-specific differences, the learning theory concepts of positive and intermittent reinforcement and shaping can be incorporated into strategies for teaching effective writing.
Coming in the second article of this series
A second article in this series, to be published in a future edition of the DE Oracle, will review strategies to address surface feature elements in writing assignments that can be used in any discipline.
Note: This series of articles is based on a presentation given by Margo S. Coleman and David Ramsey at the Fifth Annual UMUC July Writing Conference.
Chance, P. (2003). Learning and behavior (5th ed.). Australia: Wadsworth Publishing.