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Operant Conditioning

dog beggingYou most often train dogs with treats to reinforce their behavior. My husband has a habit of “dropping” bits of food for our dog Roxie when he’s eating. Then he acts disappointed when she begs. “John,” I say. “She was trained. You literally trained her.” She thinks if she gazes at John, looking adorable (and she can hardly help that), she’ll get a treat, and she’s usually right.

Last week, a student reminded me of this training. This young man missed a lot of classes at the beginning of the semester and turned in all of his papers late. He made only a comment or two in class, a seminar focused on discussion. There’s also a class website, where the students post comments and questions on our readings in order to prompt reactions in class. He contributed nothing to those. I computed a generous B for this guy, recognizing that his attendance had improved and that though his papers weren’t great, he had revised and improved them willingly.

On the last day of class, he asked me if he could bring up his B to an A by posting comments on the discussion board for all the readings we had done since January. Those things whose purpose, as I said, is to inspire class discussion. I responded, “No. That would be stupid and meaningless.” He grinned sheepishly, pushed it a little further, and then gave up.

I felt furious about this question, no doubt just a shot in the dark for the student. He must have figured it was worth a try, but to me it manifested a lack of respect for the class and our subject matter. As I continued to fume, my thoughts slowly moved away from this particular student to the underlying issue. Grades.

Our system is designed to create my student. Every little action and assignment in the classroom gets a response, a gold star, a treat. That’s how students are trained—to aim for those things. Forget the purpose of attendance, the writing assignments, and those online postings. They’re just different means to one end, the grade.

My student is Roxie. Like her, he behaves the way he’s been trained.

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