In my opinion, learning takes place in two different contexts. The first of these is task-conscious or acquisition learning, first documented by Rogers (2003). Acquisition learning is considered an ongoing process. It is concrete, immediate and confined to a specific activity, and is not concerned with general principles. Much of the learning involved in and around the workplace or the home environment is task-conscious, sometimes referred to as unconscious or implicit learning. In other words, the learner may not even be conscious of the fact that they are learning.
The second context references learning-conscious, or formalized, learning. This refers to learning that takes place in a formal training environment and arises from the process of facilitated learning. It is “educative learning” rather than the accumulation of experience. To this extent, there is a consciousness during training whereby employees are aware that the task they are engaged in entails attaining knowledge or new skills. Formalized training sessions make learning more of a conscious task (Rogers, 2003). Therefore, learning-conscious learning involves guided episodes.
When approached in this way it becomes clear that these contrasting ways of learning can occur simultaneously. Both are usually present in an employee’s living and working environment, and because of this it is important to manage and shape behaviors both inside the formal training session and throughout the workday. Effective training programs and an understanding of learning theory can help small business owners achieve this.
Several years ago, I developed a system of training for my national licensing company. The system, which I called ARRF©, is based on learning theory and provides an approach to management and relationship building that helps with employee development.
ARRF© stands for:
A = Active Involvement
Active involvement in the learning process is critical. When a trainee is actively participating rather than passively observing, greater learning takes place.
R = Repetition
Newly acquired skills need to be repeated frequently in a variety of contexts to ensure they are robust. This means the skills learned will be effective in all aspects of the work environment. Frequent repetition in various scenarios ensures the skill is truly owned: the employee cannot only generalize the behavior in new situations, but can also discriminate when it is appropriate to use the behavior.
R = Reward
Positive reinforcement in the form of rewards for accomplishing skills successfully is effective to ensure learning takes place. On-the-spot rewards can shape and direct employee behavior during training sessions, whereas promotions, incentives, workplace recognition and bonuses can be used as positive reinforcement for long-term behavior retention. As previously explained, positive reinforcement is the practice of rewarding desirable employee behavior in order to strengthen that behavior. For example, when you praise an employee for doing a good job, you increase the likelihood of him/her doing that job very well again. Positive reinforcement both shapes behavior and enhances your employee’s self-image. Recognizing and rewarding desirable behavior is the key to motivating employees to work more productively and using this method will reap many benefits:
- When used together with a training plan it helps clearly define and communicate expected behaviors and strengthens the connection between high performance and rewards.
- With correct use and timing it reinforces an employee’s behavior immediately. This helps when learning a new technique or behavior and promotes quick, thorough learning.
- Not only does it reinforce behavior but it also motivates students to continue doing good work. A lack of positive feedback or positive reinforcement can lead to student dissatisfaction.
- It increases workplace productivity by rewarding workers who help company leadership with supply and time management control.
- Reinforced employees feel more confident and become eager to learn new techniques, take advanced training, and accept more responsibility in the workplace.
- When used to reward employees who suggest improved work procedures it helps create a more innovative business environment.
- Employees who receive recognition for their achievements are more enthusiastic about their work, more cooperative, and more open to change.
- When you show appreciation and reward employees for good work, you increase their job commitment and workplace loyalty.
F = Finite Objectives
Clearly defined and attainable objectives make it clear to both trainer and employee what is to be taught and learned. With clear objectives, the student and instructor can easily recognize when a skill has been mastered. During the process, we train – test – train to ensure our objectives are met.
ARRF© evolved from an understanding of respondent and operant conditioning, and how we can utilize this scientific approach to train and manage employees in the workplace. Once in place, the components of management, training and relationship are then used to build solid employer-employee relationships and make sure the latter are consistently performing at a higher level.
The process entails managing the employees’ environment to ensure it is conducive to empowering a high standard of performance. Strategic training programs and an educational approach to management mean employees are receptive and able to learn, and are supported throughout the learning process. If they are managed productively, trained at each job skill, and have a trusting and productive relationship with their peers and superiors, they will show huge potential and talent during their tenure.
A very important component of ARRF© is rewarding the behaviors we want to encourage. In scientific terms, this is known as positive reinforcement, a topic I have touched on before but is important enough to warrant further explanation
The Operant Conditioning Quadrants
Positive reinforcement is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. As previously explained, operant conditioning is so called because the behavior operates on the environment.
The four quadrants of operant conditioning are:
- Negative reinforcement.
- Positive reinforcement.
- Negative punishment.
- Positive punishment.
The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning
The terms positive and negative do not describe the consequence of the behavior, but indicate whether a stimulus has been added (positive) or subtracted (negative) to increase or weaken the preceding behavior.
- Two of the quadrants of operant conditioning strengthen behaviors and are referred to as reinforcements.
- The other two quadrants weaken behavior and are referred to as punishments.
Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the strength of a behavior due to the consequences.
- With positive reinforcement, a behavior is followed by the appearance, or an increase in the intensity, of a desirable stimulus. The reason this stimulus is referred to as positive reinforcement is because it is something the subject seeks out, or will work to get (e.g. public recognition, a pay rise, verbal praise). As a result, it reinforces the behavior that precedes it.
- With negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by the ability to avoid or escape an aversive stimulus (e.g. being publicly reprimanded, loss of overtime). As such, negative reinforcement is sometimes referred to as escape-avoidance learning.
A reinforcing experience must have three characteristics to qualify as reinforcement:
- The behavior must have a consequence.
- The behavior must increase in strength.
- The increase in strength must be a result of the consequence (Chance, 2008).
As behavior is the function of its consequences, and whereas reinforcement strengthens the likelihood of a behavior, then punishment reduces the strength of a behavior. Punishers are aversive and something an employee will seek to avoid or escape.
- When an aversive event is added to a situation, then positive punishment has taken place.
- Negative punishment subtracts something from the situation, like privileges, and is sometimes called penalty training.
Again, as with reinforcers, a punishment experience must have three characteristics to qualify as punishment:
- The behavior must have a consequence.
- The behavior must decrease in strength.
- The reduction in strength must be a result of the consequence (Chance, 2008).
All this information begs the question: How does a basic knowledge of operant conditioning strengthen your skills as a trainer?
..... more to come in part two of this article