Reading M2 – How well do you understand operant learning?


Reading M2– How well do you understand operant learning?

Pretty well, right? After a full graduate course in basic concepts and principles, not to mention other courses in ABA procedures and such, you’re certainly comfortable throwing around the technical terminology. And then there is all your practicum training and field experience, which helps turn your classroom accomplishments into the ability to put these principles to work in a meaningful way. Even once you get out of school and certified, this isn’t a topic you get rusty with. You use operant procedures every day, you see the contingencies in action, and you’re a true believer.

What is mastery?

Operant learning is the context for just about everything ABA practitioners do, so it’s hard not to be confident about our mastery of the basics, long established by our laboratory science. Today, the foundation for this mastery comes entirely from textbooks. For students in BACB approved course sequences, these texts serve a 45-hour syllabus on concepts and principles required by our certification body. There are no specifications for the textbooks for this course, however, and the available choices vary widely in scope and depth. Courses using Miltenberger (2012), or Martin & Pear (2016), or Alberto & Troutman (2013), or Cooper, Heron, & Heward (2020), or Catania (2013) surely leave students with varying degrees of understanding of operant processes, and this assessment doesn’t consider differences in the contributions of the instructors who select these texts.

Although other courses and field experiences certainly help fill in any gaps, they are building on foundations limited by as little as the content of a single textbook, instructor, and course. Do the results across students meet a mastery standard, whatever it might be? We have only the BCBA examination results to arbitrate our different answers. The data from programs trying to get their graduates past the exam (which covers many other topics, of course) show that many don’t make it, at least on the first try, and the exam’s test-retest reliability is appropriately strong.

But what else is there, you ask?

Back in the day, instruction in operant learning was pretty much only available in psychology departments, and it started at the undergraduate level because that was how you got into a graduate program. When you took an undergraduate psychology course in learning, it usually included a classroom component and a laboratory component. Each week, you would go to two or three lecture classes and two laboratory sessions. The classes were the usual 50 minutes or more, but the lab sessions typically lasted at least two hours or might even be held as a single four-hour weekly session.

The laboratory curriculum centered on a series of assignments involving a particular rat or pigeon assigned from the outset to each student or pair of students. The assignments focused on shaping a naïve animal to respond in specific ways, training discriminative responding, demonstrating basic schedule effects, and so forth. Written lab reports were often required. Those days are long gone, killed by the cost of maintaining animal colonies, especially as federal requirements for animal housing kicked in. Nowadays you can’t even find animal lab courses like this at the graduate level in psychology departments, and certainly nowhere else. Software programs were developed to offer a similar experience, but even the most sophisticated don’t quite have the same impact.

What’s special about working with animals?

What was it like to learn about operant processes from managing the behavior of a rat or pigeon under laboratory conditions? The available equipment at the time was electromechanical, and the behavioral output was documented by a cumulative recorder. The operant chamber severely limited environmental intrusions and the animal’s behavioral options. It was just you and the food-deprived animal and operant learning processes, and doing it right was the only way you could generate the required performance. No amount of talking to your animal would help, and your lab assistant had already heard all of the excuses for why you couldn’t get your animal to do what the assignment required.

What this kind of training gives students is a picture of operant learning at its purest. It’s one of those experiences that are hard for others to appreciate if they haven’t done it themselves. There are no words a textbook author can write that faithfully mimic the experience of teaching a rat to press a lever using a hand switch to deliver a food pellet. The impact of this kind of hands on experience is powerfully clarifying and long lasting.

The student’s focus is entirely on the animal’s behavior in that very small space, simple changes in one or two stimuli, and the reinforcement contingencies entirely under his or her control. It’s like studying behavior under a microscope. The limited events of interest almost seem to occur in slow motion. What emerges is a picture of subtle but important details, such as the impact of a single reinforcer delivery. Properly matched to the right response and you make progress. Delivered at the wrong time by a fraction of a second and you pay for it. Too many, and behavior goes further than you wanted. Too few, and you have to start over. History matters. Extinction works just like Skinner said it does. Patience is key. Really. Not pressing the thumb switch to deliver a reinforcer is often the best option. Behavior change takes time.

It is difficult to learn exactly the same things working with people in everyday settings, even semi-controlled environments. The contrasts are substantial. The organism’s repertoire is too complex, the environment is too messy, the sessions are too brief, and the reinforcers are too weak. And then there’s verbal behavior. When it comes to learning about basic operant processes, talking with your subject – that’s what we used to call them – is almost like cheating.

One of the most valuable outcomes of learning about operant behavior under laboratory conditions with a nonverbal organism is that the student’s mentalistic explanatory repertoire for behavior falls by the wayside. It becomes so obviously irrelevant compared to the relationships among physical variables being managed by the student. The pigeon doesn’t want to peck the key? The rat is waiting for the light to turn green? The animal isn’t hungry today? Such attributions come to seem naïve as the workings of operant behavior are gradually revealed.

But perhaps the most important thing students learn from this kind of experience is respect for the powerful relationships ceaselessly at work underlying whatever is going on with behavior. These relationships are not just terms and diagrams in a textbook. They are the foundation for almost everything we observe about behavior. Today’s focus on the details of complex ABA procedures can hide the reasons for their effects, and this animal lab experience helps students view these complexities in terms of the underlying basic operant processes.

A different era

Sadly, the era in which this kind of training could be offered has long passed. It is hard to imagine how today’s BACB approved course sequence master’s programs could provide an animal laboratory training course. Establishing and maintaining an animal colony for instructional purposes is not only expensive, today’s culture is unlikely to support this use of animals. Can you imagine an animal lab course like I’ve described being offered in a college of education?

Perhaps our best alternative is to rethink how we teach students about operant learning. Certainly, selecting a strong textbook is important. Some deal with basic processes too superficially to give graduate students the breadth and depth of understanding we might like all BCBA practitioners to have as a foundation for their careers. The BACB could encourage good selections by developing standards for textbooks used in courses that meet approved BCBA course sequence requirements, and it wouldn’t hurt to have standards for instructors as well. Tweaking the task standards to demand a more thorough understanding of operant learning would also push instructors and students in the right direction. However, it’s not realistic to expect concepts and principles courses to include a meaningful laboratory training component, even using young children as subjects. Too few programs have ongoing access to such a resource, and even when children are regularly available it would be difficult to justify assignments and circumstances that put student training needs ahead of the interests of the children.

There is a rejoinder, I suppose, to the argument that an animal lab training experience is necessary to properly prepare graduate level ABA practitioners for their careers. At some point in a field’s development, it may no longer be necessary for students to be exposed under simple circumstances to the raw phenomenon underlying established technology in order to produce effective practitioners, although laboratory training in the physical sciences seems to be a well-established part of their curricula. The question for behavior analysis may be the extent to which what can be learned under animal lab conditions is necessary or whether it can be learned just as well from textbooks and under practical circumstances. Perhaps I’m just old fashioned, but a career’s worth of teaching leads me to believe that we should still start students off by handing them a rat and telling them to get it to press a lever only when the green light is on.


Alberto, P. S. & Troutman, A. C. (2013). Applied behavior analysis for teachers, 9th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Catania, A. C. (2013). Learning, 5th edition. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied behavior analysis, 3rd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Martin, G. & Pear, J. (2016). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it, 10th edition. New York: Routledge

Miltenberger, R. G. (2012). Behavior modification, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.