How to use Skinner’s Theory to Motivate Students to Learn


“Come in, Mrs. Peters.”

“I am sorry to bother you. I know it’s your break time, Doc, but I just had to remove myself from my class a moment.”

“Is everything all right? You appear bothered.”

“I am okay. My students, on the other hand, appear not to be. They are extremely unmotivated. I can hardly get them to write a paragraph or to read a paragraph or to sit-up to listen. . . It’s quite frustrating.“

“I understand. Student apathy can weigh heavily on educators. Yet, we should remember the many rules of motivation, and to apply the rules appropriately for each kid.”

(Sigh) “Yes, I suppose. . . I read the pamphlet you shared with me on Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, the theory that supports rewarding students to motivate them to complete their class assignments. I tried it, and still students do not respond.”

“Skinner’s Operant Conditioning (1950’s), although popularized decades ago, continues to have relevance. Its theory is a means to an end and supports human nature by mimicking the inclination to receive before to give; yet Operant Conditioning may have little to no influence on students if students’ apathy is of another source than unwillingness. . . In support of Skinner’s views, we, humans, indeed, adore receiving presents. Awards are presents; thus, Operant Conditioning reflects an abundance of substance in its theory (Pause). . . Have you tried using a questionnaire to determine causes of your students’ apathy?”


“Look for the causes. Ask pertinent questions to the issues you raise, and apply Operant Conditioning where you better understand that motivation should be applied. . . In most cases, students need encouragement to persevere, which could be the conditioning necessary for them to push themselves. Also, remember that a theory is just that: a theory, and many abound—intrinsic, extrinsic—and then the extent of these two— quality and quantity of motivation has to be considered.”

“I suppose it’s a good idea to explore theories of motivation. Operant Conditioning—I understand the sense of it, yet discovering other theories, too, might help me to expedite my resolve.”

“Absolutely. Children are unique. They need their own type of medicine for knowledge.”

“Are you a fan of Skinner’s Ideas?”

“Actually Skinner was my motivation to seek further into motivation. I am yet to discover a theory that makes more sense than his reward conditioning.”

“It’s always helpful to me to talk with you, Doc. Thank you for listening and supporting as you do . . . I must get back to class now. . . Sorry I took up your break time.”

“Sharing with you was no bother. . . It’s my reward to you—“ (Doc smiles as Mrs. Peters exits the door).

NOTE: Many theories explain types of motivation and suggest how to motivate, yet keep in mind that motivation is about action, and one of the best ways to propel people into action is to stir their interests by providing the stimulus that sway them.

To simply the idea of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning for motivating students to learn, consider the following:

(1) Similar to most animals, most humans can be conditioned to learn.

(2) More people than not appreciate gifts and prizes.

(3) Most rewards can be a small treat, such as “please” “thank you” “I am sorry,” “you can do it.” Smile.

(4) Ask students about their likes and dislikes.

(5) Provide lessons that will stimulate students into action.

B.K. Skinner “Operant Conditioning” (1953). “Motivating from the past,” a dialogue, developed by Dr. Cynrhia Mathews, to aid teachers and educators alike to motivate their students to learn.

Dr. Cynthia Mathews —



Published by cynthiamathews

I'm an innovative spirit, one who seeks new and practical ways to learn about life. I enjoy exploring innovative styles to motivate people to persevere in a challenging world. Having a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Curriculum & Instruction, I am inspired to maintain a life long learning experience that will allow me to share my knowledge with others. My expertise includes detecting apathy in individuals and prescribing ways to motivate them to be their best. To initiate this endeavor, I create and conduct personal and professional development programs. I write briefs and pamphlets and instructional guides to inspire, and I speak--upon request--to those who need a reminder of their inner excellence. My blog's main focus is to document my research on motivation and curriculum instruction and to share with subscribers the understanding, the ideas, and the strategies that result from my research. I am a native of Alabama, a teacher, and an author. I look forward to learning with you.

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