Instrumental Conditioning

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Instrumental conditioning is the behavior by which an individual modifies its surroundings. The specific illustrations of behaviors that create a consequence are known as a response. The classes of these responses which have a distinctive consequence are known as operant classes. Additionally, these responses function based upon the environment. For instance, a rat may have several responses to pushing the lever. By trial and error the rat will eventually figure out that by pressing the lever, it will get a reward of food. For example, it may use its paw, sit down, or other ways to get the lever pushed down. The responses could be either positive or negative or both. Robert Thorndike was the first to envision the concept of instrumental conditioning (Gould, 2008).

This paper will describe the learning situation of learning to ride a bicycle and provide clarification of how positive and negative reinforcement are similar and what distinguishes them. In addition, examples will be given of positive and negative reinforcement that can be used in this situation. Lastly, this paper will offer an explanation of the ways reward and punishment may be and evaluate which type of instrumental conditioning would be most effective.

Learning to Ride a Bicycle

The learning situation for this paper is when a child first learns to ride a bicycle. Often times, this learning situation can be complicated for most kids. From past experience, it takes several tries in order for the child to gain the concept of riding a bicycle. On the other hand, some children grasp the concept much quicker and understand how a bike functions. The process of learning to ride a bicycle contains many functions. For example, the child must learn to peddle, steer and balance the bicycle at the same time to be successful. Movement is an additional factor that must be considered as well. So, as the child is attempting to maintain balance they are also trying to steer and pedal which of course causes a forward movement. Whether a child learns quickly or slowly, the process of learning to ride a bicycle is one of trial and error similar to the aforementioned rat. The process of learning to ride a bicycle is ongoing to the point the child can simultaneously complete all of the actions required to keep the bicycle under control without crashing or falling off the bike.

All but one of my children learning to ride a bicycle extremely quickly, my youngest daughter fell off while attempting to learn and would not try again for another five years. I tried to comfort her and tell her everyone falls off and crash when they first learn, but no matter how much prodding or reward was offered, she flat out refused to get back on the bicycle. She was nine before she would even make another attempt and it took me tricking her for her to do it. I let her ride her brother’s bike and made a promise that I would never let go of the bicycle.

I guided her through the steps of getting her balance, pedaling, and steering the bicycle. I ran in circles for what seemed to be a long time, until I felt she was really balanced. I let go of the bicycle and she continued to ride for a few minutes. At the point she realized I no longer had a hold of her, she fell. She was skinned up and crying and I just knew this was it…she would never get back on a bike for the rest of her life. I wiped her tears and convinced her that she was doing it on her own and she could do it again. Although she was hesitant, she got back on and off she rode. She pedaled faster and faster until she was circling me and just as proud as she could be. She slammed on the brakes and demanded we go get her a bicycle of her own. We immediately got in the car and went to the store where she picked out her first bike.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is defined as: the occurrence of a response-to-reinforcer eventuality relating to the presentation of an instrumental behavior to a specific result of a positive reinforcer (Terry, 2009, p.93). As it pertains to the learning situation of riding a bicycle, I used positive reinforcement by telling my daughter that I would not let go of the bike and offering support and encouragement when she crashed. By giving her this positive reinforcement, it allowed her to remain confident that she could get back on and do it again.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement makes the behavior stronger because negative conditions are avoided or halted as they are a consequence of that behavior (Levine, 1999). In the case of my daughter learning to ride the bike, negative reinforcements were present as well. She quickly learned that if she continued to pedal and keep her balance, she could avoid crashing. Her behavior grew stronger every time she maintained her balance and made it further without crashing, until eventually her confidence was high enough that she was speeding around in circles and slamming on the brakes to stop quickly.

Reward and Punishment

To determine whether a situation requires reward or punishment is dependent on whether the situation is good or bad. For example, in learning to ride a bike, the good situation would be considered by the attempts to learn and ultimately finishing the chore of successfully riding a bicycle barring any outside assistance. With that said, I made the choice to reward my daughter with her own bike once she completed the learning process.

Conversely, the first time my daughter attempted to learn to ride a bike, she gave up and quit the moment she crashed. This would be considered bad and although the punishment of not learning was given by her, she was still punished. Yet, after the years of fear and punishment, she was determined the second go round to conquer her fear and learn to ride even though she crashed a second time and was hurt.

Most Effective Form of Instrumental Conditioning

I think that in this learning situation, the most effective type of instrumental conditioning is positive reinforcement. Over the years I periodically asked her if she would like to learn how to ride. She always looked so sad sitting on the porch watching her siblings ride but her answer was always no. I was patient and did not force the issue but went as far as offering rewards just so she would try again. One day when we were home alone I told her we could go and try to learn and no one would ever know if she failed at learning. She was hesitant but agreed only if she could ride her brother’s bike which was “never to be touched.” It may have been the thrill of her doing something her brother would be mad about, but either way she agreed. I was very patient and encouraging throughout the process and I believe it was this positive reinforcement that allowed her to become relaxed enough to forget she thought she would never be able to learn to ride.


In learning situations such as learning to ride a bicycle, positive and negative reinforcement is present along with reward and punishment. By trial and error with the correct combination of reinforcements and rewards, the attempt at learning will be successful. Offering my daughter positive words and encouragement instead of being critical and yelling about her failed attempts, helped her gain the confidence to keep trying until she could ride without assistance. Although the reward of a new bike was given after she accomplished the task of riding the bicycle on her own, this reward was not a factor in the learning process as it was not discussed or promised beforehand.

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